I am … a Survivor.
Second Chance in Life (After A Stroke)
By Ericson Sanchez
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” That one sentence has practically become Fitzgerald’s legacy in a nutshell, but my own life has proved how definitively untrue it is. Even in catastrophic circumstances, there can be a second act waiting for you.
My first act closed on the night of January 27, 2014, when I suffered a severe stroke. My wife and I had just arrived in Kauai, where we were supposed to meet our wedding planner. It was her birthday.
I woke up abruptly at 3 AM; I’m still not sure why. But no matter why, I was staring helplessly at my wife, trying to make my mouth say “Help me.” Nothing came out, and I collapsed on the floor.
When I woke up, I was in the CCU/ICU department of Kaiser Permanente in Honolulu. My wife was there, looking at me with a face full of worry. It was a terrifying moment for me, as it certainly was for her. She asked, “Do you know who I am?” I did, but making my mouth shape the words to reassure her took a major effort: Not only did I have to speak past the confusion and fear in my brain, but the entire right side of my body wouldn’t move at all. I had IVs that went straight to my heart and I was desperately thirsty. Never has saying my own wife’s name been so hard or meant so much to us both.[a]
Over the next few hours, she and the doctors helped me understand what had happened, and family members began arriving from the mainland. After a few days I was able to talk to my twins, Harper and Caleb, via Facetime. Connecting with the people I loved eased my fear and made me more glad than ever to be alive, but all I wanted to do was go home.
That didn’t happen for two weeks. The staff fully supported my family and me (and I remain friends with some of them to this day), but I spent every second battling for them to discharge me and send me home.
They only sent me home after I’d tried and rejected several kinds of medication and managed to stay upright in a chair long enough to convince the doctors that I could handle 5 ½ hours on a plane. When I could do that, off I went — with a mobile catheter inserted and explicit instructions that I could only fly on a plane with enough space to accommodate my needs. That meant first class, perhaps the only perk to come out of the whole trip.
My arrival at San Francisco International Airport was extremely emotional. My entire family met me, and I finally got to see the twins in person. They hugged me and didn’t let go until the ambulance came to take me away to the Kaiser Permanente Rehabilitation Center in Vallejo.
I stayed in Vallejo for the next four weeks under the care of Dr. Raymond Samatovicz, a specialist in rehabilitation after neurological trauma. He and his staff are the reason I can walk now, and I still see him to this day. Those first four weeks were grueling, though. I underwent a seemingly endless series of tests, followed by severe and intense physical therapy that pushed me to my limits. The nights were worse. Every night I laid awake before falling asleep, consumed with questions about the future, like how I would provide for my family.
When I left the rehab center, I was still mostly getting around by wheelchair, so I went to live with my parents, who live in a one-story house. That lasted only a couple of weeks, then I went back to my own home to battle the stairs. I kept going back to the hospital four times a week for testing and therapy, and every day I promised myself, I will get out of this wheelchair.
Six months later, I delivered on that promise. But despite making progress in my therapy, the next year was exhausting. Having no job was demoralizing and frightening, especially as the clock ticked down on my disability. My wife was working tirelessly to make ends meet, and I felt helpless and terrified. That’s when I promised God that once I got stronger, I would do whatever it took to give back to stroke survivors and other disabled people. I wanted to use everything that I had learned in my own struggles, from the discipline I needed to walk again to the simple reassurance of having supportive people nearby who would listen to my fears and frustrations — and when needed, push me not to give up.
The Department of Rehab helped me make that a reality. While they were helping me get back to work, I enrolled in the Computer Technologies Program at Berkeley’s Ed Roberts Campus. It was a powerful experience for me that helped me learn passion for nonprofit work and best of all, helped me imagine tangible ways to give back to the disabled communities.
One day, the Director of CTP and I sat down after class to discuss my plans to build a nonprofit that could help stroke survivors. He introduced me to Robert Matthew, a researcher at UC Berkeley who specializes in Neurorehabilitation and assistive devices. We emailed for a few weeks, and finally we met up and he gave me a tour of one of the labs. With help from Robert and many others, I was able to take my nonprofit from a handful of ideas into reality. Today, I am the founder of Back to Basic Strength and Fitness (BBSF). BBSF exists to serve the needs of stroke survivors and other people who are in rehab. Through working with local businesses, we’re going to create exercise spaces with trained fitness instructors where they can build their strength, coordination, and confidence until they’re able to continue in a regular gym. As part of this work, I’ve been talking with researchers in the Hart Lab at UC Berkeley who are inventing assistive technology for stroke survivors; one of our goals is have this tech in every gym we partner with.
In bringing BBSF from a dream into reality, the one obstacle I faced was the same any organization faces, no matter how many people it stands to help: Money. With my lack of experience, it was going to be very hard to get donors to pledge financial support.
Then one night, while doing my research, I was struck with an idea for an app that would help me fund the organization on my own: The app is called “Switch.” It will serve as a platform for a student learning channel where doctors, physical therapists, and other care providers can hold discussions with stroke survivors via streaming media. By allowing people to “Switch the power of information into your hands,” I’ll be able to fund the organization and give support to people who truly need it. The development of Switch is another barrier that I need to overcome, but I’ve overcome so many barriers at this point that it’s almost become a habit. My life itself demonstrates that you can come through that fear and pain and build a future for yourself; even a life that feels as normal as the one you had before the stroke. Switch and BBSF are my way of laying foundations for other people to rebuild their own lives for that second act that so many say we’re not supposed to have.