Today I’m just 11 short days from my next birthday, but this time feels different. This was not a typical year for me, or anyone really. It all started in strange ways. Back in January, 16 million acres in Australia were burning, a devastating event that took place during the hottest and driest year on record in Australia. At the same time, I heard about a new virus in Wuhan, China, but nothing to worry about it. Years earlier, I heard similar news about SARS and never really made it big to America. A few days later, one of the most iconic and charismatic basketball players died in a helicopter crash, and suddenly everything started to feel a little bit surreal.
From January to March, I was having the time of my life. I was working for a great company, and I couldn’t ask for a better boss. My annual review was excellent, and I was feeling extremely engaged and connected at work.
Things started to change quickly in March. The estrange virus that was affecting China was spreading quickly to Europe, especially Italy and Spain. From there, it didn’t take long to hit hard America, and for the first time ever, things started to look bleak for the hospitality industry, and industry where I was working for the last eight years, and I thought it was recession proofed. We started to hear that hotels in Europe and China were suffering, and as the first cases were emerging in our country, occupancy rates were dropping in Seattle, New York, and other cities.
While these events were taking place, one regular morning, I was biking in our neighborhood, and I felt some pain in my chest and felt completely out of breath. I thought it was a bad cold that I got a few weeks earlier, so I stopped and tried the next day. The following day I quickly realized that something was off. I didn’t have cold symptoms anymore, but the chest pain was still there. I felt out of breath and couldn’t reach even seven mph when 12-15 mph was my normal. I decided to visit my primary Dr., who thought it was my heart. I was convinced it was not because I was “young,” and I’ve been exercising regularly for 10 years. He recommended an electrocardiogram that didn’t show anything, so other exams were performed that included a stress test, a nuclear stress test, and a sonogram. To make the long story short, a few weeks later, I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. It seems that in my case, this is generic. My grandfather died of a heart attack, and my uncle had the same problem I had when he was 49. This is known as familial hypercholesterolemia, which makes artery disease progress earlier and more rapidly than people without FH. Without treatment, the life expectancy of people with familial hypercholesterolemia can be reduced by approximately 15-30 years. My uncle died 27 years later from the day he was diagnosed. This situation really made me think about how I’m spending every minute of my life and how to approach life moving forward, so I can be there for my kids as long as I can.
It really never crossed my mind that I would require heart surgery in my late 40’s, but here I was; my world was falling apart. Not only was my health deteriorating, but my job security was at risk at the same time. No industry got hit harder than the hospitality and retail industry, including hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. Since the pandemic started, many globally known brands had gone under, such as Cirque du Soleil or JC Penny.
On March 12 I underwent heart surgery, and while recovering from it, on April 4th I was put on furlough by Hilton, a position that became a permanent layoff on June 26th. That suddenly put me in a really bad place; although I had good health insurance with Hilton, just my exams were $12,132, and my surgery was $93.061, so I maxed out my deductible of $12,700. So, in addition to paying this deductible, I was forced to pay $1,600 a month for my own insurance (COBRA) since I suddenly became unemployed. This was a depressing time because I could not look for a new job; with my condition, I was within the population with a high risk of dying for Covid-19. I didn’t want to be in an office with anybody or even interview in person. I was constantly crying, and I remembered that all I wanted was to be a kid again and lay down next to my mom, where I always felt safe. I was craving this feeling of security that I experienced when I was a small kid. My world was literally crumbling.
With no job, hospital bills, and an entire family to support, the first thing I did was to look for help. This is not easy to do, it required courage and humility, but it was the only thing that I thought it would give me the peace of mind I needed for my recovery. I created a GoFundMe campaign and set a goal of $9,000. I thought that amount would be enough to get me through three months so I would be able to focus on my recovery and look again for a job when I was ready.
The response was incredible; between family and friends, I collected $8,770 USD, just 2.6% short of my goal. That was enough to help me pay my medical bills and get me through the most challenging months of my life. Many friends were incredibly generous, and I would always be grateful for them; even my high school classmates, people who haven’t seen in decades, contributed 16% of the total I collected. I received help from people I never expected, and it was great to feel that good things still happen in this world.
During my recovery, I had the chance to spend more time with my family, especially with my mom, who told me unheard stories about our family and her. If I had a difficult time in this pandemic, she had a much worse experience when she was a young girl. Her mom died from typhoid fever, ironically another epidemic that hit Colombia back in the day. At six years old, she found herself without parents because her father never married her mom and lived with another woman already with three kids on his own. Consequently, my mom was raised by her grandmother and her two uncles Jorge and Luis, moving house frequently from one side of the city to another. Growing up, she had to pay for everything she wanted, including her clothes and education. She had to work continuously and only graduated from University when I was already 6. Those stories gave me the strength I needed to fight this battle, and little by little, I emerged out of this hole.
If something valuable I learned on this pandemic is that what you need is more important than what you make. That’s the true definition of wealth, and this year, that had become my main goal. This year I had already dropped 41 pounds by changing my eating habits drastically. I cut sugar, salt, bread, chocolate, rice, red meats, jelly, ice cream, and many other things that I realized were killing me. From time to time, I get one of those, but it is an exception, not the norm anymore. If I get rice, it may be only once a month, same with ice cream, bread, and other things. After my surgery, I learned how to cook, and I’m using my kitchen regularly to make my meals. I love it, and I feel I understand a lot more about nutrition and healthy eating habits.
Today I feel like a new person. I feel that I’m more in control of my life, and I value a lot more every minute of it. No longer I spend time with people I don’t want to be with or accepting jobs just for the sake of it. I already plan to achieve financial independence within a year, and I’m working relentlessly towards it. I’ll share more about how I’m doing it in a future post; for the time being, I’m glad life gave me a second chance, I’m happy for the time I have been able to spend with my family, and I’m delighted for the new things I have been able to learn. Thanks to all of you that, from one way or another, were there for me. If there is something I have clear now, is that the world constantly changes, and that’s permanent; nothing stays the same. We should embrace change with excitement and hope. I haven’t been more positive in my life like today, and despite the adversity, I’m convinced I’ll be on the other side of the river very soon.
Until next, Libardo.