My Second Act



Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” That one sentence has practically become Fitzgerald’s legacy, 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, 2015, when I had a severe stroke. It was my wife, Jen Balico’s, 27th birthday, and we had just arrived in Kauai. We were supposed to meet our wedding planner and work out the details of our first church wedding. This one was technically our second wedding. The first took place in the San Francisco courthouse.

Something woke me up abruptly at 3 a.m. I was immediately afraid. I attempted to stand while trying to say, “Help me,” but no words came out. I can’t explain why I woke up with that fear, but it saved my life. I was staring helplessly at my wife when I collapsed to the floor. I was 30 years old.

The next time I woke up, I was in the CCU/ICU of Kaiser Permanente in Honolulu. Jen 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 “Jen” been so hard or meant so much.

Over the next few hours, she and the doctors helped me understand what had happened. Family members arrived from the mainland. After a few days, I was able to talk with our twins, Harper and Caleb, who were only 2, via FaceTime. Connecting with the people I loved eased my fear and made me happier 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 we remain friends to this day), but I spent every second battling for them to discharge me and send me home. They finally did, but only after they had found the right medication for me and I had managed to stay upright in a chair long enough to convince the doctors that I could handle 5½ hours on a plane. When I could do that, off I went. I had 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 Vallejo Rehabilitation Center.

I stayed there for 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. I still see him. That first month was grueling. I underwent a seemingly endless series of tests, followed by intense physical therapy that pushed me to my limits. But the nights were the worst. Every night I lay awake, consumed with questions about the future, like how would I provide for my family?

Eric Sanchez and his wife

 

 

When I left the rehab center, I was getting around mostly by wheelchair, so I went to stay 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 went to the hospital four times a week for testing and therapy. Every day, I promised myself that I would get out of that wheelchair. Six months later, I delivered on that promise.

Despite making progress in my therapy, the next year was exhausting. I had owned a martial arts school previously. Now, having no job was demoralizing and frightening, especially as the clock ticked down on my disability insurance. Jen was working tirelessly to make ends meet, but 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 I had learned in my own struggles — from the discipline 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 to not give up.

The California Department of Rehabilitation helped me make that promise 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 that helped ignite my passion for nonprofit work and, best of all, helped me imagine tangible ways to give back to disabled communities.

One day, the program director sat down with me to discuss my plans to create 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. After a few weeks of emails, we met, and he gave me a tour of one of the labs.

 

Survivor Eric Sanchez with wife Jen Balico and their kids, twins Harper and Caleb and their newest addition, Luca

With help from Robert and many others, I was able to develop my nonprofit from a handful of ideas into a reality. Today, Back to Basic Strength and Fitness (BBSF) serves the needs of stroke survivors and others in rehab. Right now, we are putting together plans and raising money for a documentary about the lives of stroke survivors. We’re also working on an app to give survivors information and keep them connected.

My life demonstrates that you can come through fear and pain and build a future for yourself, even a life that feels as normal as the one you had before the stroke. BBSF is my way of laying foundations for other people to rebuild their own lives for their second act.

This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed or linked to have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Stroke Association.

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Stroke Rehabilitation

Making the Best Decisions at Discharge After Stroke

The type of rehabilitation and support systems a survivor receives at discharge can strongly influence health outcomes and recovery. In this, the first part of a two-part series on stroke rehab, we offer guidance for the decision-making process required when it’s time to leave the hospital.

What to Expect from Outpatient Rehab

After stroke, about two-thirds of survivors receive some type of rehabilitation. Outpatient therapy may consist of Several types of therapy. Whether a patient is referred to inpatient or outpatient therapy depends on the level of medical care required.

What to Expect in Stroke Rehab

Following a stroke, about two-thirds of survivors receive some type rehabilitation. In this second of our two-part series, we want to alleviate some of the mystery, fear and anxiety around the inpatient rehab part of the stroke recovery journey.
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AHA-ASA Resources

The Support Network

When faced with challenges recovering from heart disease or stroke, it’s important to have emotional support. That is why we created a network to connect patients and loved ones with others during their journey.

Caregiver Guide to Stroke

The Caregiver Guide to Stroke is meant to help caregivers better navigate the recovery process and the financial and social implications of a stroke.

Stroke Support Group Finder

To find a group near you, simply enter your ZIP code and a mile radius. If your initial search does not pull up any groups, try

Tips for Daily Living Library

This volunteer-powered library gathers tips and ideas from stroke survivors, caregivers and healthcare professionals all over the country who’ve created or discovered adaptive and often innovative ways to get things done!

Stroke Family Warmline

The Warmline connects stroke survivors and their families with an ASA team member who can provide support, helpful information or just a listening ear.

Let's Talk About Stroke Patient Information Sheets

Let's Talk About Stroke is a series of downloadable patient information sheets, created by the American Stroke Association, that presents information in a question-and-answer format that's brief, easy to follow and easy to read.

Request Free Stroke Information Packets

Fill out this online form to request free information about a variety of post-stroke topics.
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Stroke & Parts of the Brain

When Stroke Affects the Cerebellum

The cerebellum contains 80 percent of our neurons. Its job seems to be to make things better. We talked with neuroscientist Jeremy Schmahmann about how stroke affects the “little brain.”

When Stroke Affects the Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe helps us make sense of sensory information, like where our bodies and body parts are in space, our sense of touch, and the part of our vision that deals with the location of objects.

When Stroke Affects the Frontal Lobe

Of the four lobes that make up the cerebral cortex, the frontal lobe is the largest. It plays a huge role in many of the functions that make us human — memory, language, movement, judgment, abstract thinking.

When Stroke Affects the Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe has several functions, mainly involved with memory, perception and language.

When Stroke Affects the Brain Stem

The brain stem serves as a bridge in the nervous system. It sits at the top of the spinal column in the center of the brain. When a stroke happens there, it can cause a few different deficits and, in the most severe cases, can lead to locked-in syndrome.

When Stroke Affects the Thalamus

The thalamus can be thought of as a "relay station," receiving signals from the brain’s outer regions (cerebral cortex), interpreting them, then sending them to other areas of the brain to complete their job.
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Departments

Stroke Notes

Stroke-related news you can use about new scientific findings, public policy, programs and resources.

Readers Room

Articles, poems and art submitted by stroke survivors and their loved ones.

Life Is Why

Everyone has a reason to live a longer, healthier life. These stroke survivors, caregivers and others share their 'whys'. We'd love for you to share yours, too!

Everyday Survival

Practical tips and advice for day-to day living after stroke.

Life At The Curb

A unique perspective on survival by comedian and stroke survivor John Kawie.

Simple Cooking

Cooking at home can be a daunting task, but a rewarding one for your diet and lifestyle (and your wallet). Making small changes in your diet is important to your heart health. Here are simple, healthy and affordable recipes and cooking tips.

Helping Others Understand

Stroke affects people differently and many of the effects of stroke can be complicated. Helping friends and family understand how a stroke is affecting a survivor can help everyone involved.

Support Showcase

Our new department highlighting the good work being done by stroke support groups from around the nation. If you are part of a successful support group we should consider featuring, let us know!