Three days after his 85-year-old wife, Helen, was admitted to the oncology unit of St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Robert Valenzuela felt pain beyond the heartache of realizing his wife of nearly 50 years was seriously ailing.
His heart, beating for 84 years and full of love for the woman he affectionately called his “blue-eyed guera [pronounced whedda],” felt like it was failing.
So Robert, too, was admitted on April 28 to St. Jude, but to the cardiac unit — which is in a separate building from that of cancer patients.
Worried about how Helen was doing after doctors performed surgery on her colon the same day he was admitted, Robert, whose condition stabilized, had a simple request for his nurse:
Can I see her?
At St. Jude Medical Center, which is part of Providence St. Joseph Health Southern California, doctors, nurses and other staff members practice what they call “sacred encounters” when it comes to patient care.
“It’s part of our culture, and represents the values of the spiritual centeredness we so widely try to achieve,” said Erik G. Wexler, chief executive of Providence St. Joseph Health Southern California, which includes 13 hospitals in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
“Sacred encounters” mean showing compassion and making a lasting impact. The system also practices “whole person care,” meaning not only the physical, but also the mental and emotional needs of each patient.
The Valenzuelas needed each other.
Helen’s prognosis wasn’t good.
On the afternoon of May 1, nurses got clearances from doctors and wheeled Robert into Helen’s room.
“As soon as she saw him,” said Tamara Nunley, R.N., “you could see her perk up.”
By that evening, nurses had moved the Valenzuelas into a larger room and placed their beds together.
For the next several days, with relatives keeping a constant vigil, Robert held the hand of his wife, who was hooked up to an IV and lethargic from pain medication.
He would caress her arm and repeatedly tell her, “Babe, babe, it’s OK.”
Robert, from Los Angeles, had four children from a previous marriage when he met Helen through friends in the early 1960s.
Helen, from Marion, Ill., had three children from a previous marriage.
They wed in 1969.
Robert was working as a custom furniture maker. Helen had risen through the ranks at NBC, once directly working for the legendary Chick Hearn, as a television scheduler before she decided to focus on motherhood.
In December 1972, Robert and Helen celebrated the birth of their only child together, son Derek.
“I hit the lottery,” Derek Valenzuela, now 45 and a professional baseball scout for the Chicago White Sox, said of being born into the family.
When Robert had to go on full medical disability in his early 50s after hurting himself at work, Helen went back to work, this time in the oil industry.
Helen, who has five siblings and in her home state in high school fronted the state band as the lead baton twirler, juggled a lot around the house.
She was a neat freak who loved to cook, and was ninja-like in her ability to sneak up on her children and keep them in check.
She loved to dance and keep up with the latest musical artists. Lately, she was big time into Bruno Mars.
Helen was proud and extremely independent, but had a soft, elegant side to her.
She carried herself with confidence and respect. And she loved Budweiser beer and bowling.
By November 2017, when her health began to decline, Helen — a non-smoker who had part of her lung removed due to cancer in 2002 — and Robert would spend their time with their children, 17 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, who would visit them often at their home in Buena Park.
They loved to travel, but those days had long passed.
On Saturday, May 5, with her husband beside her, Helen’s condition turned grave.
Robert knew she was dying.
“He didn’t want to leave,” Nunley said. “He just wanted to stay with her.”
On Sunday morning, May 6, at 9:04 a.m., Helen opened her eyes and turned to Robert and took her last breath.
Later, after Robert and other family members said their final goodbyes, hospital workers started wheeling Helen out of the room.
Robert watched Helen leave and, from his bed, told them:
“That’s the most amazing woman in the entire world.”
Lea Ament, a R.N. and executive director of oncology services at St. Jude Medical Center, says encounters with patients like the Valenzuelas remind nurses why they got into the profession.
“These are the stories and situations that make us want to come back to work,” she said. “They remind us what we love about the profession, and give us energy and make us want to come back to work and do what we do.”
Ament has worked at St. Jude for 21 years.
“You can have the greatest technology in the world,” she said, “but if you don’t have the human touch, if you don’t have people who care and people with compassion with patients, the other stuff doesn’t make a difference.”
Derek Valenzuela had a tough time coming up with words of gratitude for St. Jude staffers.
“The hospital — I don’t know what to say. Everyone was amazing,” he said.
Robert Valenzuela was discharged from St. Jude on May 10.
Two days later, he attended his wife’s memorial service at Green Hills Baptist Church in La Habra.
Soon, he will move into Derek’s house in Temecula.
Derek and his wife, Michelle, have three boys, ages 11, 16 and 17.
Derek delivered the eulogy at his mother’s funeral.
“She was our mother, the anchor and heartbeat to our family,” Derek said. “(She) would spread her love and dedication like a small hummingbird.”
At the funeral, a video of several photos of the Valenzuela clan was shown.
At the end of the video, Helen spoke in an audio clip. It was her leaving a recent voice message for one of her grandsons.
I just called to see how you guys are doing. Give us a call … I hope you’re having a good time, wherever you are.