By Rocio Vallejos-Hoyt
“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” -Mother Teresa
Hi there! I don’t know you, but if I were to meet you in person I know I would definitely share a smile with you. I don’t know what it is about a smile but it has the power to make a big difference on almost anybody that is on the other end receiving it. But, let’s face it, some days we don’t feel like smiling and it’s not because we are bad humans but because there could be many reasons unknown to others as to why we are unable to smile. Some of the reasons could be a loved one is literally fighting for their life, you have experienced a near-death incident, you or a loved one has had a traumatic event, has been diagnosed with a serious illness, sudden death of a loved one… etc.
Can I tell you something? You’re not the only one who can’t smile today… I have also had my days where I couldn’t smile even if I wanted to! In fact, I think I forgot how to smile because during those days my pain was too heavy to handle anything else. Let me share with you what happened to us after my beloved sweet sister suffered a massive brain injury and the fear of the unknown hit us pretty hard. It took a lot to find those smiles again but eventually it had a happy ending.
I do not want to tell my sister’s story because I understand it is hers and is part of her journey but if you would like to learn about it you can find it here too. Think about a sunny spring day in California – Saturday, May 20, 2017 to be more exact. My siblings, niece, and I are avid runners, hikers, and let’s say it, walkers too. During sunny days and on weekends you can find us on a hiking trail doing our thing. On this day my sisters had planned to hike up in Malibu but I was not able to go. I went on to do my own thing but little did I know that evening was going to change things and we as a family were going to be shaken up in the worst possible way. I remember I was out having dinner with my husband when I received a phone call from my sister. She called to tell me she was not feeling well and that she was on her way to the ER.
We are a pretty close family and when any of us has this type of situation we all stop everything and support each other in any way we can. I immediately left the restaurant got in my car and headed over to the hospital my sister said she was going to go to. I prayed on the way to the hospital and kept my optimism that everything was going to be good and it was probably nothing major. I kept telling myself “Do not panic, she is ok and everything will be better soon.”
The wait in the ER was agonizing but for the sake of my niece and other sister I tried my best to stay calm and positive. I remember speaking to my niece and she said “Mom had a CT scan done and we are waiting for the results.” As soon as I heard that, I said to myself “Oh no! This doesn’t sound good. This is scary, and God, I am not ready to hear bad news.” But if you’re someone who believes in God or a stronger force you understand that in situations like those you immediately hold on tight to those beliefs and somehow you find the reassurance you need to face anything. Soon enough we were called by the attending doctor that night, and she informed us that my sister has bleeding in her brain, a subarachnoid hemorrhage to be more specific. That is the medical term for her condition. I along with my sister and niece felt that silence that tells you things can and might get worse, you feel your body shaking, fear kicks in, tears roll down, heart beats faster and you feel like you’re not able to breathe. As soon as we were able to regain ourselves, we started asking questions but because the hospital she went to is a small one, the doctor told us they didn’t have the equipment nor the medical team to treat her condition. Her next words were, “There is an ambulance on the way and Wendy will be transferred to Keck Medical Center of University of Southern California (USC) – to the neuro-science unit. You will be able to get more information there.”
I remember looking at my sister and trying to hold tears back because, I do not want to scare her, even though she is asking us if she will be ok. Somehow we regain our strength and explained to her what was going to happen next and that we will all be there with her soon. Now, came the time to call the rest of our family, it is past 1:00am and I do not want to scare my parents but I know they need to know what is happening with their daughter. So there I was in the ER parking lot shaking, because I’m scared and trying to get myself together. So I made the call to my brother and in between tears I informed him of what had happened and that they needed to make their way to the hospital.
My sister arrived to Keck Medical Center of USC at around 2:00am, by then our entire family was there waiting to hear anything, anything that will reassure us that my sweet sister was going to get through this and that she was going to be able to still enjoy life and do all those things that she has planned for her future. The next 16 hours after she was transferred were crucial, uncertain, and painful. By 9:00am on Sunday the hospital had put an entire team together of about 7 to 9 doctors and nurses who were ready to perform an emergency brain surgery on my sister. At around 9:30am we finally met the doctor who was going to perform my sister’s brain surgery, Dr. William Mack. He came and met with my family and I and explained her diagnosis and the ruthlessness of it. Yes! She had suffered a severe ruptured brain aneurysm on her right side! And not only that, the CT scans she received at Keck Medical Center of USC revealed that she had a second one on her left side. I think our world turned black at that moment! I think that’s the day I felt the most scared I had been in my life. I just wanted my sister to be herself again, to smile and to be free of any fears! I wanted time to regress and for us to share laughs like we always have.
Fast forward, the following weeks after her diagnosis were slow, time seemed to be our enemy because as much as we wanted for time to pass by quick and my sister to be back with us we needed to let time run slowly, this meant that she was healing slowly. During those days we only had two wishes, to see my sister awake and to see her sweet smile once again. As time went by, she continued to heal and the time came for her to start her rehabilitation process. I vividly remember the first time her physical and occupational therapists came to see her in the intensive care unit (ICU) and they were determined to get her up from that ICU bed that had been the place where she spent the worse days of her life. The first time she got up, she turned her face to us, and softly she smiled! My heart grew a bit stronger that day. My other sister and I smiled right back at her and that tiny little smile on her sweet face gave me the certainty that she was back with us and that she was going to be ok because she is a strong soul. From that day we started smiling again and we celebrated each of her milestones during her recovery. Seeing her smile again was very healing for our broken hearts, even though she was confused about what had happened to her, her way of telling us she was going to fight through was by smiling at us every time we cheered on her baby steps towards being herself again.
Those painful times were rough and we forgot how to smile in life, but we never lost faith that our sweet sister was going to recover from this traumatic experience. What happened to my sister gave us the chance to meet wonderful people who reminded us the importance to smile at whatever life throws in front of you. Every single day for 30 days, which is how long my sister, stayed at the hospital, I can tell you that there was always someone who will smile at my family and me and will reassure us that we were going to be ok and that my sister was going to recover from this experience. I cannot tell how much those smiles meant to me and to my family. Those smiles from strangers filled our souls with hope and warmed our spirits.
I know what it is like to have very difficult times, where you know you do not have the energy to smile at anything because your pain is too much to allow it. If this is you at this moment, know that you are not alone, and things will be better soon. Know that no matter how painful the situation is, eventually your soul heals again and you somehow find a reason to smile one more time. Never underestimate the power of a smile whether it comes from a loved one, a stranger, a friend, a nurse, another human who understands you… know that it has healing powers and it makes a difference.
From my soul to yours I wish for you to always find a reason to smile at others because you never know the impact it will have on someone that may be in need of it.
Rocio works at Braille Institute, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles, CA. She provides case management, and conducts community outreach to seniors living with vision loss. When Rocio is not working with her clients, she enjoys working as a professional photographer as this allows her to meet others and learn about their life experiences. She considers herself a social butterfly, and loves to attend any social gatherings. Rocio practices yoga and has run a number half and full marathons.