June 7, 2010

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Author’s Note: The following passage from Summer in the Waiting Room describes the events of June 7, 2010

On Monday morning, June 7th, my weekly routine got off to its usual start with countless issues racing through my mind, a churn in my stomach, and heaviness in my shoulders.  After taking Erica to school, I drove to the gym to meet Sandra and Jerry hoping a good workout would release the stress that seemed to be taking over my body.  When I got to the gym, Sandra was already there warming up on the treadmill.  I began a brisk walk, then a light jog, on the machine next to her as we talked about our respective schedules for the day.  Her day would be filled with the usual steady demands on her time as a school principal being pulled in numerous directions like a ball of Silly Putty – parents, teachers, students, and district administrators all seeking a few minutes with her.  My schedule was a typical day for a political chief of staff and school board president: staff meeting at 10:00 AM, meeting with the deputy county executive at 11:00 AM, work through lunch returning e-mails and phone calls, team meeting at 1:00 PM with George to prepare for the next day’s county board meeting, managing follow-up action items from the George meeting, and finally, presiding over the 6:00 PM graduation ceremonies at one of the district high schools I represented on the board.  

Once Sandra and I were done warming up and stretching, we joined Jerry for what was sure to be an hour of vigorous strength and aerobic training.  We started off with sets of squats, lunges, and burpees, an intense aerobic workout that includes squats, push-ups, and jumping all in one motion.  At this point, sweat usually starts pouring over me and the stress and tension in my body begins to subside.  My sweat glands responded as usual, but the tension, the heavy shoulders, the churn, and pressure on my throat and upper chest only intensified.  I thought that working harder and using the breathing techniques I learned in the anxiety classes, as I caught my breath between exercises, would relieve the pressure that was slowly building up in my body.  The tension in my shoulders, the upset stomach, the discomfort around my neck and throat, the difficulty catching my breath continued through sets of bench presses, legs presses, and dumbbell exercises.  

Sandra and Jerry kept asking if I was okay and I responded that it was stress and my anxiety acting up, and I just needed to work through it.  Finally, while doing a set of push-ups with a medicine ball on my back, Sandra, with a worried look on her face, demanded that I stop.  I stopped.  After a few minutes regaining my composure on a gym bench, I went into the locker room to shower and dress for the day.

As the hot water from the steamy shower rained over my head and body, my mind raced thinking about all of the challenges before me: the county and school board budgets, the fraying relationship with my oldest brother, the coming tsunami of political rhetoric from an opponent with an axe to grind during the upcoming fall election.  The hot water blanketed my body trying to soothe the pressure while the swirling thoughts in my mind fought back making my anxious body respond the same way it did after my mom and Patty died six year before.  After toweling off, I had to sit and catch my breath as I continued with the anxiety breathing exercises. Once I calmed down, I put on my trousers, buttoned my shirt, tied the necktie around the shirt’s collar, and sat in front of a row of metal lockers to tie my shoes.  Again, I stopped to relieve the anxiety by taking deep breaths through the nose and slowly exhaling through the mouth in a steady rhythm.  

I left the locker room and wound my way through the gym floor through the lobby and out to the parking lot as the anxious feelings intensified and my mind swirled with ever-changing thoughts about this issues I faced.  In my car, I sat trying to relax, trying to catch my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the long day ahead.  I don’t know how long I sat in the car, but I was startled by Sandra pulling into the parking space next to my car to ask if I was okay.  I mumbled that I was fine, started the car, and began driving to work.  Once I started driving, I began to feel better and remembered that I wanted to buy a tie to match the school colors of the graduation I was scheduled to preside over later in the evening.  

I stopped at a Kohl’s department store and briskly walked to the men’s department while reading and returning e-mails on my Blackberry.  The churn in my stomach intensified, my shoulders grew heavier, and I had to stop to catch my breath a few times before finding the necktie section.  I quickly picked out an orange and blue striped tie that matched the school colors and the navy blue suit I wore, dragged myself to the cashier, and labored my way to the car trying to fight back the anxiety I thought was taking over my mind.  Once at my car, I again sat for a while to compose myself not knowing that the blood gurgling through my veins was thickening, clotting, and preparing for battle.  

After doing more relaxation exercises and deep breathing techniques, I shifted the transmission into drive and rushed to the office realizing that I was already late for my scheduled 11:00 AM meeting with Sylvia Gallegos, the deputy county executive.  Sylvia and I had known each other for over 17 years.  She was chief of staff to the councilwoman I worked for during the beginning of my career in politics.  I called the office from the car to ask the staff to inform the Sylvia that I would be in the office by 11:30 AM.  It was at this meeting where I was to lay out George’s plan to allocate $2 million from the parks fund to build a soccer complex in his district for community use.  We knew there would be opposition to his proposal as the parks fund advocates wanted all of the money to be used for trails and large regional parks, uses that are rarely, if ever, used by the constituents in George’s historically underserved neighborhoods.  Sylvia, a smart and seasoned public administrator, could be an ally in reshaping the county’s practice of allocating parks resources to open spaces in affluent areas, so I needed to provide her with a compelling analysis of George’s proposal to secure her support.  

I hustled into the county administration building after parking my car and suddenly had to slow down, my mind believing that an anxiety attack was imminent while my body was feeling the effects of thickening blood pushing through arteries that had been narrowing for most of my life.  I walked into the office at noon.

Sylvia, wearing a perfectly tailored business suit as usual, sat waiting at the conference table in George’s office when I walked in.  I apologized to her for being an hour late.  She asked if I was okay, and I responded that I wasn’t feeling very well and immediately proceeded with the business at hand.  This was unusual because casual talk about our families and personal matters always prefaced any business we had to discuss.  I don’t remember anything about that meeting.  According to Sylvia, I appeared “distracted and unfocused.”  Noting that it was uncharacteristic of me to be unprepared for a meeting and unable to articulate, she repeated concerns about my well-being only to hear me respond that “I didn’t feel right.”  I stopped the meeting after about 10 minutes, led her out of George’s office, mumbled something to our office manager Marisa Ybarra, and stumbled into my office shutting the door behind me.

Marisa, my friend of 30 years, is married to Sam Ybarra, my old friend who asked me to help him coach at the parochial school more than 25 years before.  I helped Marisa get a job with the previous county supervisor and she stayed on with George after he was elected.  She later recounted that I had walked out of George’s office with Sylvia, mentioned to her that I had to tie my shoes, walked into my office, and closed the door – which is something I never do.  I tried to relax as the anxiety symptoms continued to persist.  Parks budget, after-school sports budget, my brother David, the sure to be stressful upcoming school board campaign, the A-G Initiative and the teachers’ union underhanded opposition tactics, all spinning in my mind, churning my stomach, putting pressure on my throat.  As one friend later put it, “you must have been like a volcano ready to explode.”  Sitting in my office chair, I bent over to tie my shoes even though the laces weren’t loose or untied.   I leaned back in the chair with my hands folded behind my head trying to find the right breathing and relaxation exercise to release the anxiety I thought was taking over me.  Meanwhile, the blood gushing through my body continued to clot.

I emerged from the office; told the team I was sick and going home, and meandered through the narrow walkway that led to the 10th floor lobby and elevators, walking the same route I took 360 days before on the way to my triumphant return to the James lick High School graduation ceremony as a school trustee.  This time the walk was different.  I didn’t race excitedly through the ground floor breezeway to the parking lot at the west end of the building as I did on June 10, 2009.  Rather, I slowly exited the elevator on the ground floor with my hands clasped behind my head trying to compose myself.  Twenty steps later, I had to stop to catch my breath.  I sat on a wooden bench under the gaze of a large Abraham Lincoln bronze bust in the east wing lobby of the county building, loosened my orange and blue necktie, and wiped sweat off my brow.  Off the bench, I ambled sluggishly through the breezeway with my heavy shoulders writhing with the discomfort weighing on my upper chest and throat.  There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the full throes of an anxiety and panic attack.

 I had to stop and sit once more, this time in front of the district attorney’s office, on what seemed like an epic journey, before finally making it out to my car.  I called George to tell him that I wasn’t feeling well and was on my way home.  He wanted to know how the meeting with Sylvia went and said to call him later when I felt a little better.  I called Sandra to tell her the same thing; then I concentrated all my attention on driving.  I rolled my shoulders, writhed in the seat, and tried to focus on relaxing.   The drive was surreal, I felt as though nothing was happening outside of the car, and when I was focused back on the road, it seemed like I was driving in slow motion as the other cars on the freeway raced by.  

Miraculously, I got home safely, stepped out of the car, and listlessly walked up the driveway and walkway that led to the porch. Marisa and Erica were at home because school was out for the summer, so I stopped at the front door to take a deep breath before I walked into the house. I didn’t want the girls to notice the strained look on my face and the uneasiness in my gait.  They were in the family room watching television as I walked away from their view to the bedroom.  I was sweating and the anxiety was building up inside of me like the volcano my friend metaphorically described. I took off my necktie and suit jacket, and threw myself onto the bed.

Marisa later said that she saw me walk into the house with the usual grimace I had on my face when I was stressed out.  She heard me walk down the hallway and slam the bedroom door shut, then silence, then a thud.  She rushed to the bedroom door and asked if everything was alright, I curtly answered, “yes.” Marisa figured that a work or political matter was on my mind because she lifted the phone to call a friend and heard my voice on the other line.  She later ironically remarked that I seemed so upset that I was probably figuratively “having a heart attack.”  In the bedroom, I wasn’t talking business. I was on the phone with the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan advice nurse.  

Positive that I was having a full-fledged panic attack, I explained to the nurse that I had an anxiety and panic episode nearly six years earlier. I was now experiencing the same symptoms, just a little more intense. The advice nurse asked standard questions about age, weight, medical history.  I mentioned that the cause to my anxiety was a result of my mom’s passing and my sister’s premature death at the hands of heart disease. I also confessed that my fear of having a heart attack led to minor symptoms of anxiety, but that I was able to manage though it.  This time, the symptoms didn’t want to go away despite my efforts to deal with them. She then asked pointed questions:  

Nurse: “Do you feel a heavy weight, like an elephant, on your chest?”

Me: “No.”

Nurse: “Do you feel tingling radiating down your left arm to your hand?”

Me: “No.”  

Nurse: “Do you feel short of breath?”

Me: “Sometimes, until the breathing exercises settle it down for a while.”

Nurse: “Do you feel light headed or dizzy?”

Me: “No.”  

Based on my answers, the nurse said that the symptoms I described sounded like a panic attack and recommended I take a warm shower and rest. Heart attack was the furthest thing from my mind.  I was so convinced of my self-diagnosis, I persuaded the nurse as well. If the symptoms persisted, she continued, I should call back immediately.  

I called Sandra to update her on my conversation with the advice nurse and got ready to get in the shower. Erica told me a couple of years later that she caught me walking between the bedroom and shower to ask if she could go the movies with some friends, and I answered “yeah, sure” in a “grumpy way.”  Like Marisa, she too thought I was just stressing over one of the many things on my mind. I started a steamy shower, sat down on the shower floor, and closed my eyes to clear my mind of the multitude of thoughts that raced through it.  Once out of the shower, I put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and walked out the sliding door from our bedroom to the patio, my favorite place to relax.  

The backyard and patio had become a sanctuary for me and Sandra.  About five years earlier, Sandra and I designed what we thought was the perfect backyard for our home, a Mexican motif with winding clay-colored sidewalks that lead from a tiled gazebo to a large arbor covered with climbing pink trumpet flowers. A green lawn separates the two structures and a variety of plants, bushes, and flowers grow behind a four-foot retaining wall topped with bullnose bricks.  Three tall pine trees dominate the far corner of the yard and majestically stand over the property.  My favorite part of the yard is a small patio behind the arbor covered by a natural canopy made of the pine tree branches and the intertwining of the neighbor’s willow tree and the climbing trumpets that cover the arbor.  

The only sounds that can be heard from this relaxing quiet spot are birds chirping, the wind going through the pine trees, a neighborhood dog occasionally barking, or a jet departing from San Jose International Airport leaving the valley for parts unknown. Sitting in the small patio behind the arbor helps me relax and keep the troubles of the real world from my thoughts.  This time I couldn’t relax, I kept thinking about how anxiety and panic were consuming me.

The symptoms weren’t getting any better or any worse. I closed my eyes to take in the soothing sounds of the swaying trees above, but the tightening in my chest, the ever growing heaviness on my shoulders, and the frequent need to catch my breath drowned out everything but the noise of my hectic life reverberating in my head. Sandra got home and urged me to call the Kaiser advice-line again to schedule an appointment. I got a different nurse on the line, and she asked the same questions. This time, I told the nurse that pain was shooting down my left arm. She suggested that I see a doctor immediately. I insisted that it was extreme anxiety, but I accepted her advice and agreed to take the earliest available appointment.  

I rationalized that a doctor would quickly diagnose an anxiety or panic attack, prescribe medication, and send me on my way so I could return to all of the critical matters that stood before me. It was close to six o’clock, almost twelve hours after my day started.  The nurse scheduled the appointment for 7:30. I called the school district office to explain that I was sick and wouldn’t be at the graduation ceremony. While I dressed, Sandra told the girls that they would have dinner with Tía Shelley and Tío Pancho so she could drive me to the clinic for the appointment. Marisa remembers that I “walked quickly to the car, sat down, and started squirming in my seat.” At this point, the girls weren’t alarmed about anything serious. At Pancho and Shelley’s house she remembers telling them jokingly that I had been so stressed that I was probably having a heart attack.

The ride to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center clinic was uneventful. Sandra drove as fast as she could while I continued to writhe, the discomfort on my shoulders and upper chest increased as every minute went by. She dropped me off at the entrance to the clinic and quickly drove away to find a parking space. I labored into the building, took the elevator to the second, floor, and made my way to the doctor’s office where I met Sandra and checked in at 7:26 PM. We sat in the waiting room for just a few minutes when the nurse called me in to see the doctor. A quick check of vital signs weren’t alarming: temperature – normal at 98.6 degrees, blood pressure – 128/61, weight – 208 lbs., heart rate – a little high at 116 beats per minute, but that could have been caused by the rush to the office.  

Slightly relieved, I was even more convinced that I was having an intense panic attack. The doctor reviewed the vital signs, asked me a few questions about how I felt, and immediately ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG) to determine if there were any irregularities in my heart function. The nurse attached electrodes to my chest, turned open the EKG machine, and watched the machine whiz and purr as the needle on the printout page rapidly moved in a zigzag motion drawing tiny peaks and valley on the computer paper. As soon as the machine stopped whirring, the nurse ripped the computer print-out from the machine and quickly disappeared into the hallway. The doctor came back seconds later to tell us the EKG reading was abnormal and I should proceed to the emergency room for more tests.

By the time the doctor finished her diagnosis, the nurse was in the hallway standing behind the wheelchair that was to take me to the hospital emergency room on the other side of the large complex.  With a fast gait, she pushed the wheelchair out of the clinic hallway, into the clinic lobby, and out to the main hallway that led to the hospital about a half city block away. The nurse moved swiftly as she fumbled with her cell phone. Sandra offered to push the wheelchair so the nurse could use her phone, when suddenly the gait turned into a trot, and ultimately a jog to the emergency room. Tall ceiling to floor windows formed a breezeway that connected the clinic to the hospital, and I could see out to the cafeteria and parking lot beyond that life was moving at its usual pace while my life appeared to be heading toward crisis.  

My mind swirled with random thoughts that ranged from doom to confusion to relief. Could I be having a heart attack? Why didn’t the doctor say that? Was she just taking precautions by sending me to the emergency room? Why was Sandra pushing the wheelchair at a jog and why was the nurse excitedly talking on the phone, and to whom? I couldn’t hear what she was saying due to the noise that was filling my head with questions.

We got to the elevator in the hospital and went the one floor down to the main lobby and the emergency room. When the elevator doors opened, we raced across the lobby floor straight into the emergency room where I arrived at 7:41 PM.  Three doctors wearing white smocks waited for us, and within seconds, I got my answer. One of the doctors said, in a calm and a matter-of-fact voice, “Mr. García, you’re having a heart attack.”  

I was stunned!  

It had finally all caught up to me: the genetic predisposition to heart disease, the high-fat diet as a kid, the lifetime of anxiety, the urgency to make up for my college failures, the tireless climb up the corporate ladder, the A-G Initiative, the County budget, the tension with my siblings, my fears about losing yet another election. Combined, they had conspired to create the perfect toxic cocktail that led to a medical disaster. All the while I thought my anxiety was haunting me and intensifying, my blood was thickening and clotting and trying to avoid narrow gaps in arteries lined with plaque caused by genetics and periods of unhealthy living.  

I sat in the wheelchair looking up at Sandra not knowing what to say. She looked back at me just as speechless. The EKG in the clinic showed that I had a “ST segment elevation myocardial infarction” (STEMI), the most severe form of heart attack. That means a major artery in the heart is completely blocked off by a blood clot. As a result, the heart muscle being supplied by the clogged artery starts to die. After what seemed like an eternity, I asked the doctors how they planned to proceed. The lead doctor, a cardiologist, explained that he would do a medical examination and perform an angiogram – a procedure that injected iodine die into the heart to determine where the blood clot was lodged. Once the doctor identified the location of the blockage, he would dislodge the clot and insert a stent (a net-like metal tube) in the affected artery to prevent it from collapsing. The entire process would take less than two hours.

The doctor’s regular practice is at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. He was in Santa Clara on special duty that night. He specializes in angioplasty surgery, the stent insertion procedure. On his website, he’s a self-described, “straight-talking physician that ’tells it like it is’ so that each patient is well informed of their options and the implications of their decision.” The course of action he described was clear and concise. Still not fully understanding the gravity of the situation, I asked him when he planned to do the procedure. I assumed he would medicate me, send me home, and ask me to return in a day or two for the operation. His answer was straightforward and simple, yet powerful.  “Right now,” he said.

Again, Sandra and I looked at each other in utter disbelief without a word coming out of either of our mouths. After a brief pause, she kissed me on the cheek, hugged me, and told me that everything was going to be okay. I told her that I would be just fine as the nurse whisked me away into one of the rooms that lined the emergency department. The emergency room team, working at a frantic yet organized pace, immediately disrobed me, changed me into a hospital gown, inserted an intravenous tube (IV) into one of my arms, connected me with electrodes to a bunch of machines, and injected me with several medications to stabilize my heart. It was 7:45 PM.

Between 7:41 PM and 7:45 PM on June 7, 2010, for the first time in my life, I felt the presence of God. The concept of God had always been elusive to me. Like many Mexican American kids, I was baptized in the Catholic Church, attended catechism to complete First Communion and Confirmation, and married Sandra in a traditional Catholic wedding before an ordained priest in the neighborhood church. My dad wasn’t a spiritual man, so our family’s exposure to religion and the Church was through my mom’s deep belief and faith in God. Growing up, we would accompany her to mass, mostly for the big days on the Catholic calendar like Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter.  Despite a lifetime of participating and believing in the pageantry and protocols of the Church, I never developed a relationship with God.  

I learned my dad’s lessons well and truly believed that my lot in life and my destiny were in my own hands. The Golden Rule, integrity, and hard work would pave the way. I was also a student of history, and I knew that the ages were cluttered with the political machinations of men causing havoc and misery through the auspices of the Church. If God was really in control, I questioned why He allowed such pain and destruction to occur in His name? During those four minutes, with my life in the balance, I had no control of the outcome or my destiny. As team of medical professionals methodically worked to keep me alive, I thought about how I would react faced with the prospect of imminent death. I was a mama’s boy raised in the cocoon of Viewmont Avenue and suffered from anxiety most of my life. I was sure that panic and fear of dying would overwhelm me. 

But, the reality was that I didn’t panic and, at that moment, I was comfortable with someone else in full control of my destiny. According to the admitting doctor’s written comments, I was “alert, generally well appearing, and in no acute distress.” Those four minutes were like a movie in slow motion. There were nurses, technicians, and doctors surrounding the bed, each doing a specific task to prepare a heart attack patient for surgery. I couldn’t hear a sound, but I knew that they were talking as I could see their mouths moving. Their movements looked like a beautiful and well-choreographed ballet.  

Although I didn’t fear death, I was concerned for Sandra. I kept trying to sit up to see her standing just outside of the room with worry enveloping her eyes and face. An emergency room technician gently pushed me back down so she and her colleagues could continue their work. In the organized chaos I heard a soothing voice say, “Sandra will be fine. You need to relax Eddie so we could help you.” Edward, my given name, is on all my medical records. Why did the ER tech call me by the name used only by friends? How did she know Sandra? The calming voice sounded familiar. I looked up and instantly recognized her face. Her name was Stacey Cook and her daughter played pee-wee baseball with Erica. I was the team’s coach.  

I really didn’t know Stacey other than being the mom of the team’s star player. She would sit quietly and calmly in a lawn chair watching her daughter play. During the season, I learned that she was a great softball player in her own right, yet she never criticized the coaches or the parent volunteers. Our only interaction was her positive comments after a game, “thanks Coach,” or “nice job today Coach.” With that same assuring voice, she helped me believe that Sandra was fine and everything would be okay. I truly believe that God sent a familiar voice and face to be with me in the emergency room at the most critical point in my life. Until that moment, I didn’t have a strong faith in God’s power to control destiny. However, in those four minutes my trust in Him based on faith was beginning to form.

All of a sudden, the slow-motion movie turned into a full-speed action flick.  While I was on a gurney, the medical team pushed me out of the emergency room and rushed through the wide hospital hallways to surgery. Doorways and the art on the walls appeared to be flying right past me in reverse as I could hear the squeaking of rubber-soled shoes against a polished floor coming from the hurried footsteps of those maneuvering the gurney. I remember very little after the race to the operating room. My last memory was of the doctor, wearing a white cap and a mask that covered his mouth and nose, standing over me explaining without emotion what he planned to do next. This was the first time during the entire day I felt extreme, unbearable pain. In a clear monotone voice, he advised that my heart was badly damaged and the prognosis for surviving the procedure was grim, 50/50 at best. When he was done with the explanation, he gave me a clipboard and pen to sign the consent form. I remember saying, “doctor, please put me to sleep, my chest hurts.”  Everything went dark.  It was 7:59 PM.

The first step in the procedure required a small incision in the right thigh near the groin. The surgeon inserted a narrow tube through an artery that led into the heart. He then maneuvered the tube through the artery under the guidance of a tiny scope that followed the path on a computer monitor. Once the tube was in the heart, die material was injected into the sheath so the doctor could determine exactly where the blockage or blockages were located. The image on the computer monitor left no doubt that the Left Anterior Descending Artery (LAD) in my heart was completely blocked. This is one of the most important arteries in the whole system, and once blocked causes irreparable damage to the heart. The way it works is that oxygenated blood leaves the lungs and enters the upper and lower left chambers of the heart. The LAD delivers blood to the muscle over the lower left chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood into the body.

When the LAD is 100% clogged, as mine was that night, the muscle under the LAD stops pumping the blood needed to oxygenate the rest of the body. Doctors have 15 to 20 minutes to dissolve the blockage before other critical organs like the lungs and brain begin to shut down due to lack of oxygen. As a result, the LAD is more commonly known as “the widow maker,” a fact that the doctor matter-of-factly shared with Sandra later that evening. The surgeon prepared to perform a procedure that he had successfully executed several times a day for many years. Sandra sat alone in the surgery waiting room stunned by the turn of events. In the small circular room adjacent to the operating room, she felt like an insignificant speck in a vast tube. As the wonderful life she meticulously planned suddenly and ruthlessly began unraveling, she turned to her unconditional faith in God.

While praying and trying to make sense of the surreal nightmare, Sandra started to call the support system that had carried her through every up and down of her life. At the advice of an emergency room nurse, Sandra’s first call was to her sister Shelley’s house to let Marisa and Erica know what had happened. The girls had just returned to Shelley’s house from swim practice. Tía Shelley made tacos, rice, and beans for dinner. They all came to the dinner table to eat, as Pancho, ever the sports fan, glanced at the TV from time to time to catch a glimpse of SportsCenter as their two young children (my nicknames for them are Shirley and Opie) excitedly sat in their seats because their older cousins were joining them for dinner.

Once they were all settled in and dinner was served, the racket of six voices talking at once filled the room. The girls love being with their tía and tío because Shelley and Pancho are young at heart, stay up to date with new music and fashion, and bring comedic relief to any situation. With her quick wit and his loud exuberance for everything, Shelley and Pancho made sure that there was never a dull moment with the two of them. Pancho’s sense of excitement ensured that even the smallest accomplishment, announcement, or mishap would bring on a dramatic response accentuated with a flourish of exclamations like “WOW,” “UNBELIEVEABLE,” and “THAT’S AWESOME!”  

That’s why I truly love and enjoy hanging out with him at ballgames, family parties, and watching sports on TV. One time he won a Tivo device at a San Jose State basketball game because he was the most animated and loudest fan in the arena. I had invited him to a dinner where Magic Johnson, his favorite basketball player, was the speaker. Boyish excitement covered his face as we stood in line at a VIP reception to take a photo with Magic. I thought he would explode with enthusiasm when he shook his idol’s hand and posed for the camera.

When Sandra dialed Shelley’s cell phone from the waiting room, she heard Pancho’s voice answer the phone. Knowing his penchant to react excitedly to any shocking news, Sandra calmly told Pancho not to say anything until she had a chance to tell the girls herself.  

“Eddie had a heart attack,” she said somberly, “and he’s in surgery now.”  

After a long pause, Pancho, with eyes wide, shouted into the phone, “COMADRE…YOU’RE LYING!”  

Today, that moment lives on in family lore as one of the funniest Pancho reactions of all time. Sitting at the dinner table that night, Shelley and the girls weren’t laughing. Shelley jumped up to grab the phone from Pancho. Once on the line, Sandra explained what had happened, asked Shelley to put Marisa on the phone, and to contact their sisters Valerie and Kim. Marisa listened intently as fear and panic washed over her. She ended the call and explained to Erica what was happening. Fighting back her anxiety demons, she could only think of the worst. Standing in their living room, Shelley and Pancho stood motionless shocked by the sudden news.  Marisa kept asking no one in particular, “Is my dad going to be okay?” Erica sat silently staring off into the distance. After a brief silence, Shelley called her sisters to share the news, and Marisa and Erica quickly dressed to go to the hospital to be with their mama. Shelley and girls ran out the door to the car for the 30 minute drive to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center while Pancho stayed back to get Arachuli and Opie ready to follow along.

Sitting alone in the circular waiting room, Sandra continued to pray. Her lifelong faith in God had always kept her optimistic and balanced. She now faced the most serious crisis of her life, and her faith was intact. She truly believed that all would be well. While Sandra sat alone, the Peralta clan stirred into action to be by her side. Valerie called her oldest daughter Amanda and, after initially commanding Shelley to “stop playing around,” rushed out of the house. Sandra’s parents were getting ready for bed, and immediately changed their plans as did Kim and Miguel. In the waiting room, Sandra continued calling family members: my sisters Barbara and Sisi, and my brother David.  

Finding Steve would be another story. He rarely told anyone where he lived, or more accurately, where he was staying.  Steve’s battle with alcohol and anger over the years made him a moving target.  Even though he hadn’t had a drink in years, his nomadic lifestyle was well entrenched. A cousin once jokingly said that “the only way to get a hold of Steve is by smoke signals, and marijuana smoke would get the message through faster.” With the exception of Steve, Sandra had contacted all of our immediate family members. While sitting in the loneliest of places, she was thinking about our life together, the present crisis, and what the future would hold.

Within 45 minutes of that first call to Shelley’s house, Sandra was surrounded by her mom and dad, and her sisters and their families. The Peralta’s were the first to arrive and found Sandra sitting quietly with a shocked look on her face. The three of them embraced and cried. Mrs. Peralta stood back and said, “Don’t worry mi hija, everything is going to be okay.” The scene repeated itself after each one of her sisters came into the waiting room. The most emotional hugs and hardest cries were with the girls. Marisa was almost in a state of panic asking question after question, and Erica holding her feelings within herself not saying a word.

Here was a family that celebrated together, mourned together, went camping together, argued made up and argued again on vacation together. We served as godparents to each other’s kids for baptism and First Communion. Every Peralta grandchild called at least one of us “nino” or “nina,” and together we were compadres. There were school talent shows, little league games, dance recitals, and swim meets. On any given Saturday night, we were together at the local Red Lobster, Sizzler, or neighborhood coffee shop for dinner. “Party of 21, please,” one of us would say to an incredulous look from a restaurant host or hostess. We joked with each other, teased each other, and laughed with each other. I’m sure there are those who wondered if the closeness of this family was just a show. At that moment, the family faced the ultimate test as one of us fought for his life on the operating table several rooms away. There they were in the cramped waiting room supporting Sandra and the girls.

Eddie was out of town on business, so it was “party of 19, please.”  

They sat together and prayed together as the minute and second hands of the plain-looking clock on the wall slowly ticked away and others started to arrive: George, Will and Juanita Medina, and their kids William and Andrea.  

In the operating room, after identifying the location of the blockage, the doctor immediately worked to dissolve the blood clot by inserting a medium weight wire, called an aspiration catheter, into the tube that led to my heart to puncture the clot. Once the lump of blood had broken up and moved along the bloodstream, he replaced the wire with a balloon-like device and inflated it. He did this at the point where the artery was blocked to temporarily keep the vessel open so he could insert. The coronary artery stent is a metal web framework shaped like a tube that is placed inside the artery to help keep it open permanently.  

Pulling the tube out of the left side of the heart, the doctor proceeded to repeat the process on the right side of the heart to determine if there were any blockages there as well. Finding no additional obstruction, the doctor removed the tube from my heart down to the groin, out of the incision he cut on the right inner thigh, and sealed of the tiny opening. The procedure was complete. All had gone well. It was 9:36 PM, a little more than two hours after Sandra and I showed up for my appointment at the doctor’s office.   

The doctor emerged from surgery and walked into the waiting room to tell Sandra that the procedure was a success and that there were no complications. In his no nonsense manner, he advised her that my heart was badly damaged and it would be a rough road ahead. The surgeon described to those gathered in the cramped waiting room how cardiologists measure heart function to determine how much damage resulted from a heart attack. They use a calculation called the “ejection fraction,” which is the percentage of oxygenated blood that is pumped from the lower left chamber of the heart into the bloodstream with each heartbeat. In a healthy heart, 55%-65% of blood in the lower left chamber is released into the body with every thrust. The doctor explained that the ejection fraction of my heart after completion of the procedure measured less than 30%. I would never be the same, he added. I would have to dramatically alter my lifestyle.  

The room remained silent. Shelley later said that she was “in shock,” and that she “couldn’t grasp what had happened.” Pancho started weeping and saying that “this can’t be real.” Our godson William Medina sat down, put his face in his hands, and began to sob. The doctor concluded by saying that I would be in the intensive care unit (ICU) in recovery for a couple of hours, then assigned to a room in the cardiac care unit (CCU) where the family could visit. There was a sense of relief combined with apprehension in the waiting room when everyone gathered in a circle to hold hands, pray, and thank God for a saving my life.  

Just before midnight, hospital personnel rolled the gurney that I was on from the ICU to the CCU. Although groggy, I remember seeing my family and friends lined along the wide hallway waiting to see me: Mr. and Mrs. Peralta, George, the Medinas, Miguel, and Pancho were the first to come into view. Things were moving again in slow motion and what I do remember seeing was blurry and out of focus. It appeared to me that everyone was concerned as they saw the gurney roll by. When I saw Sandra and the girls, I don’t remember the looks on their faces, rather I felt safe and comfortable and that everything was going to be fine. During that brief moment, Valerie and Miguel said that I stuck out my arm, pushed my hand against the wall to stop the gurney, and asked Marisa and Erica if they were okay. George remembered it a little differently. He said that when I saw the girls, I appeared as though I wanted to protect the girls, so I instantly put on my “game face,” weakly waved to the orderlies asking them to stop, and smiled at the girls as if to say, “I’m okay.”

Regardless of how those few seconds unfolded, one thing is clear. I was in a state of semi-consciousness, yet my immense love for Sandra and the girls, and my fatherly instincts kicked in to provide me with an unrelenting reason to fight for my life. Faced with the real prospect of death, the deepest parts of my soul knew, without being fully conscious, that my family gave me the strength to live.

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