One mailbox, at a time (the road to recovery).

Dave receives a "Daisy" award

Dave receives a "Daisy" award

Prior to getting the LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device), implanted in me, I was on the verge of dying. I am not over dramatizing this, one of the cardiologist actually told my family and me, that I should be dead.  My heart disease had reached a level which was very extreme. I can’t start to tell you the thoughts, that raced through my head.  I think my biggest concern was abandoning my friends and family, especially, my dear wife Milja.  I had dealt with my cardio myopathy, since 1996.  It wasn’t until the August 2009, that my condition worsened, to the point, that I could hardly get out of bed, I just didn’t have the strength or energy.  The lack of sleep was overwhelming, I hardly got 2-3 hours of uninterrupted sleep.  This has been occurring for about 8-10 months, I was so worn and tired.

After a number of check ups, the cardiologist wanted to do a heart catheterization to see what is going on.  The heart cath. revealed that my heart function was extremely debilitated and my pressure was dangerously low.  This started my stay in the hospital, while the medical team tried to find a solution to make me feel better.  The LVAD was the only option left, but the risks were high and learning to live with the LVAD was a going to be  a demanding feat.  After conferring with my wife and weighing the pros and cons, I decided that it was my responsibility to try, as hard as I ever had to try and  continue sharing my life with her and those who supported me.

The surgery went well, it took about 6-8 hours, and I was kept sedated for about 2 and half days.  When I woke up, I felt like I was asleep for ages.  In my head I was trying to understand what had transpired and was it a dream or reality.  The anesthesia really did a number on my memory.  I recalled seeing my wife and she started to explain what had happened and where I was.  She told me that the procedure went well and that I was in the cardio-vascular recovery unit.  I was in a huge room with all kinds of monitors and machines hooked up to me, there were all kinds of beeps, chimes and bells going on and off.  It took a little while to adapt to this new environment, but at times I would isolate the sounds and just start thinking about living my life with a machine that would be attached to me from now on.

The medical team would make their rounds and tell of how I need to start adapting to this device and eventually go to a rehabilitation center.  At this time, I couldn’t envision any of this, because I was so sore and my muscles were mush from lying in bed for almost 20 days.  Imagine when your leg  falls a sleep and you have no feeling for a couple of seconds, well intensify that by 1000. The first physical therapy session was to try and show me the proper way to get myself up to sitting position, without using my arms to prop myself up.  Since I had open heart surgery, my chest was still very weak and delicate, any pressure or strenuous movement would be very perilous.  I still remember the difficulty I encountered trying to get my muscles to work and apply the instructions the therapist was giving me.  I felt so helpless and started to despair thinking what did I get myself into?  That was probably one of the worst days of my life.

That night, my wife always stayed with me till the end of visiting hours, after she left, Dave, my night nurse came into my room and asked how I was doing?  I told him, “not so good”.  He inquired as to why, and I started to vent, what I couldn’t show to my wife and family.  Dave is a young man, whom if you ran into in a dark alley, you probably crap in your pants.  He is tall, bald, built, and has a goatee.  He is a cardiac nurse, who is dedicated to his profession and his patients.  I started to tell him, how helpless, I felt and how desperate I was in dealing with this whole experience.  This isn’t how I thought it would be.  The doctor’s kept harping me on my weight, eating habits and need to start a continuous excercise program.  If it wasn’t bad enough that I have to carry around this  controller and batteries, now I have to start a whole new life style.

I was waiting for Dave to give me the text book talk, about how things aren’t so bad and it could be worst; but what I got was something different.  He said to me, “you have been through so much and it is very difficult, but you strike me as the type of person who can do this”.  He knew about me being a cop and saw the love and support I had from my wife, he started telling me a little bit about himself.  He told me about how he had battled with his weight and one day he made the decision to just lose the weight.  He would start to walk from his mailbox  to the neighbor’s mailbox and the next day further, to the next.  Nice and easy, one day at a time.  He made little adjustments, bettered his eating habits and got involved in mixed martial arts. Within a short period of time, he started to run.  As time went on, he started running in a few local marathons and lost over 80lbs.  His contagious motivation also got his wife running, and it become something that they both shared.

Dave encouraged me to do the same, one mailbox, at a time.  He told me not to get discouraged and that there will be days, where it just won’t physically be possible, at all.  “You have been through a major surgery and it is gonna take a while before you start to see results”, he said.  Then he told me, “if you want, I’ll walk with you, you don’t have to do it alone”.  I was stunned to hear him say that.  Sheepishly, I smiled and said thanks, at this time he had to go check on another patient.  During this time, I laid there and thought, a total stranger is telling me that I can do this, when I was doubting myself.  I was angered with myself for having felt so hopeless and in a rout.  Instantly, I started to get pissed and fired up, I was able to turn that into a positive thought that I am going to do this and that I will overcome this set-back.  I felt so empowered that I used my call button to get Dave, but instead, I got another nurse who asked what I needed.  I told her to please tell Dave to come and see me.  She advised me that he was currently tending to another patient, but when he was done, she would deliver the message.  I had a tone of tenacity and firmness, and I later apologized, but later on, she told me that she noticed a psychological change in me.  I had the ardor to make this into a comeback.

When Dave returned, I informed him of my decision and he was so glad, he re-affirmed his commitment to me, and I made one to him.  I promised Dave, that I would do what was asked of me and then some, as a thanks to him.  We talked a little bit more, like two old buddies.  The bond that was formed was unbelievable.  Now that I think about it, it was like Dave was at the right place- at the right time.  People like Dave, bring out the best in others.  Everyday since then I have never stopped trying to regain my life.  I have lived with the LVAD for 1year and 3 weeks, before getting “the call”.  I was going to the gym 5-6 days a week, walking  between 1-3 miles a day and running around doing errands.  I felt the need to keep busy and continue moving.  I knew I had to get ready for this surgery and everyone told me how much harder this was going to be, because they had to remove the LVAD and defibrillator and still transplant the new heart.  Often, I told my wife, this was the equivalent of being given the opportunity to fight for the heavy weight title.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that I was going to give it my all.

Rocky had Adrian and Mick, I had my wife and Dave.  Dave was my Mick!  He gave me the biggest lesson in my life.  Never give up on yourself, especially, when others believe in you.  The day  the call came in, I was so ready!  Not meaning to sound conceited, I was calm, but prepared.  I felt that I had left it all on the line and that there wasn’t one other thing, that I could have done to make  the moment better.  I was so cocky that I promised my wife I would awaken in 4 hours post transplant and my recovery was gonna be spectacular.  I made sure Dave was notified, he needed to be a part of this day!

To my surprise, Dave was at the hospital, and just before being wheeled down to the operating room, Dave came and stopped the transport, took me aside and spoke to me.  This just invigorated me even more, everything was falling into place.  Dave told me that this heart was meant for me.  I smiled and told him, thanks, having Dave there only ascertained the fact that this was going to be a huge success.  I went into the OR, with cheer and optimism.  My surgeon greeted me and ask me if I was ready, I told him I was as ready as I ever would be; I jokingly asked him if he was ready.  He replied yes, and before long I was out like a light.

Prior to this, I envisioned the waking up and to remind myself not to panic, that when they removed the breathing tube from my mouth I was gonna be awake and no sedation was allowed.  I played out these scenes in my mind over and over again.  Well, I woke within 4 hours, the breathing tube was removed without any sedatives, and a couple of hours of being awake my surgeon asked if I felt like walking?  I told him yes, and he said I am serious,I replied, so am I.  With the help of the hydraulics, the bed went to a full upright position and I stood up with the the staff.  I took two steps forward and the surgeon asked me to get back in bed, I told him I was capable of more, but he said,”you have done enough for today, champ”.  I truly felt like a champ that day, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel that way.  I continue my exercise regiment and added cardio boxing and swimming.  This is only the beginning.

I visit  the hospital often, but my best part is seeing all the nurses who supported and cared for me, during the first 40 days and then 15 days hospitalization and 7 days,after transplant.  Especially Dave, his encouragement and reinforcement will always live in me.  Thanks Buddy, you are one of my greatest motivator!  Every time I see a mailbox, I will think of you.

10 Responses to One mailbox, at a time (the road to recovery).

  • Wonderful story German! Much more than wonderful because you made it true!

    • jason fitzgerald says:

      Love the story GSal. Truly amazing to see first hand how far you have come in such a short period of time. Keep up the hard work Big Dog.

      • Gsal says:

        Thanks Jay, you saw it all happen before your very eyes. Thanks for the support and prayers. I won’t let you down.

    • Gsal says:

      Thanks Bob, you were a very important part of this whole experience, your blog gave me so much inspiration!

  • Debbie Diaz says:

    It’s been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step….you’re living a life we all prayed so hard for you to be granted with. God is good. Our own personal trials and tribulations are dwarfed compared to what you’ve been through. I couldn’t be any prouder of your courage, strength and positivity! As for Milja…she truly is an amazing woman! I love you, both –xoxo–

  • Ed Sidwell says:

    Sal, you are a true inspiration to all of us. Continue to use this new “calling” to motiviate others that aren’t lucky enough to have a Dave and Milja like you were.

  • Paul W says:

    I admire your courage, perseverance, and love of life which you have successfully transmitted to others. I applaud you and the way you gave strength to others in your wonderful article. Continue in good health. Paul

  • Jessica Fitzgerald says:

    What an inspiration! Your courage and perseverance is a true testament to us all. Love you guys!

  • Stephanie Brown says:

    Hi German,

    I am more proud of you than words could ever say. I often think of the day cared for you before your VAD placement and how withdrawn you were. I thought, well, he being a man. No, but I learned very soon that you were afraid. In one short trip from your room to the OR, I learned about you life from the time you met you wife until that day. I realized then that you were a keeper. Your motivation and tenacity is the reason you have come so far. You have been a motivation to me since the first day I met you. Your “never say no attitude” has given you a new life. To your wonderful wife, I thank you so much for allowing me to be “a part of the family”. German always spoke about you being so strong and sacraficing so much while being at his side everyday during this journey. He did it for you. I love you guys so much. I tell your story all the time. Continue to do good things German. Never say never. I love you guys. Keep in touch.

    • Gsal says:

      Hi Stephanie,

      Thank you for your kind words and all the care and support you provided, for us. One of the most memorable moments that I have engraved in my memory is that trip from my room to the OR. It was the last thing I remembered, when I woke up and then when you came by to visit, it just re-enforced what I have always said, that the nurses at CMC are part of our family. I told you I would do this and more, to pay back all the blessings we have received. This is only the beginning of what is to come. Later on today, I will hopefully get a chance to interview Steven.

      Hope you are doing well. We think of you very often and miss you very much.

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German (Sal) & Milja Saldarriaga
Fort Mill, SC

I am available for lectures, consulting, life coaching, motivational speaking, interviews and appearances.

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My Life Experience

  • Retired New York City police officer
  • coping with heart disease since 1996
  • had defibrillator/pacemaker implanted in Oct 2003
  • had Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) implanted in September 2009
  • Received heart transplant September 2010.
Read more at About Page