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?
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.
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