Did you hear what happened to Nolet? He had a stroke this morning… the call came from my Ria, my sister-in-law in Louisiana, as we were finishing dinner at a restaurant last Wednesday night. As we rushed home so that I could call the family in Manila on Skype, I tried to make sense of the few details Ria could offer. My younger brother Nolet, an artist, had been painting the night before in the studio he maintains at my mother’s house. After catching a few hours’ sleep he called his wife early the next morning, asking to be picked up.
When Tosh arrived at Mama’s house, the housekeeper said Nolet seemed very very drunk. Tosh found him standing halfway down the stairs, no longer able to move. Knowing she could not manage his dead weight alone, Tosh called a neighbor to help bring Nolet downstairs and into her car. Nolet was slurring his words but managed to ask for something to drink and eat, but when he began gesturing for her to drive to their home, common sense kicked in.
“This is not fair to your children,” Tosh said. “I’m taking you to the hospital now.” Her quick thinking probably saved his life.
In a country where 911 is unavailable and cars seldom move aside for wailing ambulances, family and friends often determine whether someone lives or dies. When they reached Medical City, Tosh called her niece, who is a doctor; the niece called a neurosurgeon, who happened to be a long-time friend of my older brother Chito. By the time Chito’s wife Ria called us in San Diego a medical team comprised of college friends and our own relatives had gathered around Nolet.
Frantic for details, I called everyone whose cell phone numbers I had on Skype. My younger sister, the only other sibling living in Manila, stayed on the phone only long enough to say she could not talk. My mother was in Kalibo, a southern island, and could not fly home before Thursday.
What does one do when a family crisis occurs an ocean away? I turned to Facebook.
My high school classmates maintain a Facebook list serve, and given the 15 hour difference, I knew it would be mid-afternoon in Manila. I put out a message asking for help and within minutes several friends responded, offering the cell phone numbers of two classmates: one, a neurologist who knew my brother Chito from med school and an endocrinologist who’d been with Medical City for twenty years.
I called Carissa, the neurologist, first. Without having seen Nolet’s chart, she could offer little more than the assurance that Dr. Gap Legaspi was one of the best neurosurgeons in Manila. She explained that Gap was probably monitoring the blood clot that had formed in the left side of Nolet’s brain, to see if if operating was a viable option. “Viable” didn’t sound reassuring.
Tesa the endocrinologist, also knew Dr. Legaspi and offered to look at Nolet’s chart, for she happened to be in Medical City that day. I later learned that she did much more than that, introducing herself to my sister-in-law Tosh and staying on in the Intensive Care Unit to explain in plain language what the doctors were doing to save Nolet’s life.
This is where one must give thanks for the smallness of social circles in Manila. By late afternoon on Wednesday, Nolet was being monitored by a neurologist, a neurosurgeon and a cardiologist, all of whom had known my older brother Chito since their pre-med days at the University of the Philippines. My mother’s own brother, an oncologist, never left Nolet’s side and called in his own generation of colleagues for assistance when needed.
The doctors were about to take a break before Nolet’s next scheduled CT scan when they noticed that his vital signs were deteriorating; he had curled into a fetal position and his blood pressure soared over 200. A quick scan revealed that in two hours the blood clot had doubled in size to 60 cc. They needed to operate immediately.
By then it was 2 a.m. on our other side of the Pacific ocean and I missed the Skype call Tesa & Gap tried to make just before going in for brain surgery. Because a good third of our clan lives overseas, a cousin in Manila set up a Facebook message board where relatives and family friends could post updates and photos and send notes of support to Nolet and Tosh.
I suddenly felt guilty about celebrating the release of my first novel while Nolet was fighting to stay alive; but with April 30 barely three weeks away, there was just not enough time to fly home and be with family. My life took on a bizarre bi-polarity as I began living in two different time zones. From 6 a.m. to dusk I tended to The Mango Bride launch: having posters printed; posting early reviews on social media and emailing event planners in the five cities I’ll be visiting for the book tour; all this in between taking calls for my day job and entertaining a daughter on Spring Break.
In the evenings, I called Manila to chat with Tosh in the ICU. Our family had begun bringing dinner to the hospital, surrounding Tosh and the two kids with love, food and conversation to distract them for a few hours. Isolated from family in San Diego, my grief would strike unexpectedly: driving home after dropping Sofia off at a play date; or washing the breakfast dishes; or trying to breathe in yoga class. Eventually one learns to ride out the sobs, wipe away the tears and move on to the next chore.
Last Sunday night in Manila would have called for a family meal with three generations of Vegas. I compensated for missing it by inviting friends over and cooking a dinner of the food Nolet loves but is unable to eat just now: pork braised in shrimp paste; spinach stewed in coconut cream; a flan of egg yolks and condensed milk, lots of wine. It was the closest I could get to being back home.
My parents named my brother after the famous Spanish bullfighter Manolete. I take that as a portent that Nolet is going pull through. Any sign of recovery these days is cause for celebration. We cheered when he opened his eyes and rejoiced when they took him off sedation. Eight days after the stroke Gap the neurosurgeon decided Nolet was well enough to be moved from the Acute Stroke victims unit to a regular room.
Had he not suffered this stroke, Nolet would have been in Singapore right now attending the opening reception of Abstraction, Lost and Found, his fourth show at Taksu gallery.http://taksu.com/index.php/upcoming-exhibitions/219-exhibition-2013-sg-abstraction-lost-and-found
I take my cue from my younger brother and will continue working on my book launch events as well. Like his, this show will go on.