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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

On Road Back and Breathing Easier

November 01, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

MALIBU — Every night, before his two young children went to bed, Pepperdine baseball Coach Frank Sanchez would race Tanner, 7, and Lacey, 3, up the stairs at their Santa Clarita Valley home. He'd tackle them, hug them, kiss them. They'd giggle.

Everything changed Aug. 17, the day Sanchez underwent his third brain operation to remove a benign tumor.

He cautioned his children that he wouldn't be running up stairs for a while.

"I tried to tell them, 'Your daddy is going to be sick,' and sick I was," Sanchez said.

The complications his doctors had warned about since his first brain surgery in 1985 started to materialize.

He awoke from a more than nine-hour operation at USC University Hospital with severe pain in his head, but his ordeal was just beginning. The nerves that control the left side of his face and vocal cords were shutting down.

Suddenly, he couldn't do the simplest of tasks. He couldn't swallow. He couldn't speak. He couldn't blink his left eye.

"It was pretty scary," he said.

He had prepared himself for the worst.

"Spiritually, I was at peace with myself," he said. "Of course, you don't want to die, but if that were the outcome, I knew I was going to be in heaven."

Death didn't come, but he was unable to speak with family or friends and couldn't eat unless food was pumped through a tube into his stomach.

"I was in no mood to do anything," he said.

Sanchez, 45, worried whether he'd be able to return to Pepperdine, a job he cherished and worked all his life to obtain. Those many years of training, from starting out as baseball coach at Hart High, then serving as pitching coach at USC for 10 years, were weighing on him.

But his family provided continuous support. His brother, Dan, slept in a chair next to the bed. His sister, Vicki, came from Minnesota to stay at the hospital. His wife, April, slept at the hospital when she wasn't taking care of the children. His parents were at his side.

"I couldn't have pulled through without them," Sanchez said.

He was released from the hospital on Sept. 8, but he still couldn't swallow and his speech was slurred despite surgery to repair his vocal cords. Then came a turning point in his recovery.

He heard about a clinic at Meridia Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. They use electrical stimulation of the neck and insert a 24-inch dilator through the esophagus to help patients regain their ability to swallow. Sanchez flew to the suburb of Cleveland earlier this month with his wife and spent more than two weeks at the hospital receiving speech and swallow therapy.

He returned home a week ago Tuesday. He could speak again. He could swallow again. He felt strong enough to gingerly race Tanner up the stairs again. Daddy was home for good.

"It made him happy," Sanchez said. "He gives me a head start now. He lets me win. In the past, if I ever won, he would cry. Now he has a little compassion for the old man."

The next day, Sanchez returned to Pepperdine's baseball field for winter practice. His left eye, cheek and lip were swollen, but he was back.

"It's what I want to do," he said. "It feels great. Going through brain surgery is a tough time in your life. You don't take anything for granted. Every day, you wake up to see how blue the sky is."

When people ask Sanchez how he feels, he doesn't say "good," he says "better." He still has to sleep sitting up to keep his lungs from becoming congested. His speech hasn't returned to normal. But there he was last week holding a paper bag that contained a cookie, graham crackers, chips and turkey. It was his lunch. "This is a miracle," he said, proudly pointing to the food he was about to eat.

There are moments from his hospital stay he'll never forget.

There was the time he went into Code Blue and stopped breathing. "I woke up and saw my wife and sister in the background, and they were crying," he said.

There was the time he had a craving to eat taquitos, and a group of Pepperdine coaches and friends brought him a photo of the rolled tacos.

There was the time doctors yelled at him to start breathing on his own. "They yanked this tube out and yelled, 'Breathe, Frank, breathe,' " he said. "All of us breathe unconsciously. We don't know how we do it. They're yelling at me and I'm trying as hard as I can and these guys are sharpening their knives [for a tracheotomy]. I took a breath and it started."

In early December, Sanchez will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging test to see how much of the tumor that keeps growing back was removed.

"There is not a day that goes by in my life that I don't think about a brain tumor," he said. "I'm on the freeway, I'm in church, I'm at school, I'm with my family--it creeps in there. All you can do is try to live life to its fullest, try to be happy and try to do things right."

On Monday, a small plane made an emergency landing on the Ventura Freeway, creating major gridlock during rush hour. There were angry, frustrated drivers lined up. One of those stuck in traffic was Sanchez. Except he hardly lost his cool. He was headed home to be with his family after directing his baseball players in practice.

"Who cares?" he said of the traffic jam. "In the scheme of things, it's not a big deal."

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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