Efrain Villanueva remembers waking up in a hospital bed on a Sunday morning looking at the sun rise asking God for a second chance. He didn’t want to die, but the quality of his life had declined so much that he thought of that alternative.
Villanueva lived a healthy lifestyle, he played sports all his life and he didn’t have any physical problems. He grew up strong and in good physical shape. His normal life soon began to decline, shortly after he graduated high school. He began to have frequent dizzy spells that worried him. However, he was reluctant to visit a doctor because he was no longer on his parent’s insurance and didn’t have the money to pay out of pocket.
He had his first real scare in 1992 while playing basketball with his friends. He began to feel faint and dizzy.
“I felt my heart speed up,” Villanueva said. “I couldn’t see anything, I could feel my body swaying.”
These episodes began to happen more frequently and it finally pushed him to pay a visit to a doctor. Doctors ran an electrocardiogram, but they didn’t find anything wrong with him.
The second time around, he was in the emergency room. His heart monitor took off, the alarms began to buzz on the heart monitor device and doctors kept him for observation.
Villanueva was immediately sent to County at USC for an open heart surgery. A defibrillator was implanted into his chest that continuously monitored his heartbeat and delivered extra beats or electrical shocks to restore a normal heart rhythm when necessary. He describes the shock of the defibrillator as if someone was punching him in the chest.
He was placed on the heart transplant waiting list tried living a normal life again. He worked at the Cerritos library and got involved in a worker’s part time union that qualified him for insurance.
Early in 1998, his health began to decline.
“I became really sick that whole year. The quality of my life was going down real fast,” Villanueva said. “I couldn’t even eat without the device shocking me.”
The device began to fire more frequently. He was unable to have a normal day and visits to the hospital became habitual. The hospital beds became his resting place.
Villanueva’s defibrillator began to fire on Friday, Sept. 4 1998. He was taken to the hospital and doctors moved him up to status A on the waiting list. That weekend is when he realized that he had to wait for someone to die in order for him to live.
“I remember thinking, someone has to die to give me a chance to live, I still struggle with that, till this day,” Villanueva said.
That Sunday morning he heard a nurse say that they had a heart for him at UCLA. This was the moment that he had been waiting for. It was the light at the end of a tunnel for him.
Villanueva called his family to give them the good news. His brother George remembers receiving the call.
“My family became emotional,” George said. “I was grateful and scared at the same time but ultimately I felt blessed. It was an answered prayer.”
George spent a lot of time with Villanueva at the hospital. Villanueva’s condition is what motivated George to choose a career as a firefighter. He wanted to be in the line of work that helped save lives.
“I could see the look in my mom’s face,” Villanueva said. “The fear of her maybe not seeing me again. I just told her that I would see her later and then the doors closed.”
Villanueva prepared for surgery as family and friends filled the waiting room eager to see him after the surgery.
“Sept. 6, 1998 was the day that I got a second shot at life,” Villanueva proudly says.
Villanueva can now be found at the Fullerton College library circulation desk helping students and faculty.
“I work in a library and it’s funny because I think everyone is like a book. Everyone has a story to them. Some people don’t like to talk about their problems and others do, but i think we’re meant to talk about our problems,” Villanueva said. “We may have gone through something that can help someone else out and that is why I do what i do. I love working here at the Fullerton College.”