A box of overflowing medals sits in a closet in Bernadette Gomez’s Milpitas home.
It feels as if it weighs a ton, as it’s full of glimmering tokens from every run — every 5K, every 10K, and every half marathon — that Bernadette has ever taken part in.
It was back in 2012 when she became a die-hard runner.
After joining a moms’ running group, Bernadette found her entire life transformed. She started waking up early three mornings a week, before going to work, to sneak a run in for the day. Come Saturday, she’d go in for the big journeys, gathering with other women from the group to make morning runs to Fremont and back, or to run the Los Gatos Creek Trail. On the days she wasn’t running, you could find her at the gym. At the time, she was substitute teaching and working as a teacher’s aide at Randall Elementary School.
Her dream, something she was steadily building toward, was to one day run the New York City Marathon.
“I was in the best shape of my life,” said Bernadette, her tone of voice fluctuating from one of pride to one of longing, then back again.
In 2014, her two-year love affair with running came to an end. The date was October 28.
Bernadette suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, rendering her unable to walk or talk, or move and function in many other ways she was accustomed to.
“She has some unruptured aneurysms in her brain and one of them burst, because of high blood pressure,” said Armando Gomez, Bernadette’s husband of 22 years. “Her brain was swelling. The bleeding was going on for a couple of days. And there was nothing the doctors could do. They could only control her blood pressure, and we had to hope for the best. It wasn’t in an area they could operate in.”
After 2 very difficult weeks of waiting it out, not even knowing if she’d survive, the family got word from the doctors that Bernadette would be OK. It was a relief for Armando, their 2 sons, and their entire family, but that didn’t mean they were out of the woods quite yet.
Ahead of them, spread out wildly in all directions, was a long, uncertain road.
After several weeks spent looking at the walls of the ICU and Stroke Unit, Bernadette was moved to a rehab facility in Vallejo, where she spent 4 weeks doing exercises to heal and restore her body.
“[Going] from running to not walking was so depressing,” said Bernadette. “I had major brain fog. I couldn’t eat. I had to be on a soft diet. They even thickened my water so it didn’t go down the wrong pipe. This left arm was stuck to my side, and it hurt to walk or move my arm. I couldn’t stand up at all.”
But 2 weeks into rehab, she was able to take a couple steps, while holding onto parallel bars and wearing a gait belt. Still, it was immensely painful.
One day, Bernadette’s physical therapist noticed she was wearing a shirt from an upcoming race in March. As it turned out, the therapist’s sister had organized the race.
The therapist’s next words defied belief: “You’re going to be at that race in March,” she told her.
It was December. Bernadette could still barely walk. How would she ever make it to a 5K run that was only 3 months away?
After a month of rehab, Bernadette was able to go back home. She and her family had to work together to determine how best to facilitate her healing and recovery.
Armando Gomez, who had served as a Milpitas City Councilmember from 2002-2014, was seeing his latest term come to an end. Likewise, his job as San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s Budget Policy Director was closing out, too.
The timing seemed to be divine.
Armando put his career and public service work on hold, to commit full-time to his wife’s recovery.
They had 6 months’ worth of savings set aside. However, that allotment of funds would be stretched out to two years, as Armando remained by his wife’s side, focusing on nothing else but Bernadette’s recovery (along with taking over her parental and domestic responsibilities).
Each day brought about a tough regime: an hour at the gym, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy. They’d go for about 6 hours a day, broken up into segments, so that Bernadette could take breaks and get rest in between.
“Everybody was telling us that the first 6 months was the most important for the recovery,” said Armando. “So we figured we’d get the most done in that recovery window as we could. All the healing happens then, and so we were trying to maximize that time.”
Bernadette was taking 2 to 3 naps a day, per her body’s tangible requirements. If she focused on anything for too long, she got dizzy. Meanwhile, her balance was off. Sometimes her mom would come over and help out, pushing her from here to there in her new wheelchair.
Times were hard.
Armando took care of the cleaning and cooking, while making sure the kids had their needs met and helping his wife stay on track with her rehab schedule. He’d also help Bernadette with all the simple daily activities that she could no longer do on her own, like getting dressed or taking a shower.
Even the kids stepped up to help. Their younger son, Scotty, although only 13, had no qualms about administering blood-thinner shots into his mom’s arm. In fact, he volunteered for the job. Their older son, Vincent, 16, who had just gotten his driver’s license, would drive his mother where she needed to go.
And since Bernadette found the traditional menu of physical therapy exercises to be pretty boring, the Gomez family had no choice but to get creative…
“The PT exercises would just be things like, hold your cane up, move your arm from side to side…” said Bernadette.
“So we said, ‘Forget that,'” Armando interjected. “Let’s go to the gym instead. We’d do lat pulldowns. And we’d plan date nights where we’d do skee-ball and air hockey. We even bought a rope ladder for her, and put that in the back [so she could do skipping exercises]. And she did so much strength training at the gym.”
Little by little, Bernadette was bouncing back.
And as it turned out, that physical therapist had been right.
In March of 2015, mere months after her bleeding stroke, Bernadette was out in Santa Cruz, walking the She’s Beautiful 5K. It took her an hour and 45 minutes to walk 3 miles. But she did it.
Just weeks later came the 408K in San Jose. Since that race was 5 miles long, Bernadette decided she didn’t want to push it. So she did it in her wheelchair, with two or three of her friends taking turns at pushing.
Since Bernadette’s stroke, she’s participated in a total of seven 5K races. To this day, she still has her hopes set on running the New York City Marathon. For the time being, though, her attention is focused on learning how to walk properly again. Since it was her left side that was affected by the stroke, she still has stiffness there, so she gains momentum while walking by swinging her left side.
Just last year, Bernadette tried to do her first 10K since the stroke. However, at 5 miles in, with only 1 more mile to go, her oldest son, Vincent, along with her husband and others, started worrying about her. They told her to stop. Finally, the paramedics swooped in. The professionals made the choice official: She had to get out, and right away.
“I guess they could tell I was getting dehydrated and really struggling. It was hot,” said Bernadette. She also added, “But I just had one more mile left.”
Nowadays, Armando works in his own consulting business, which provides support to local government entities. Since he’s able to spend his daytime hours working from home, he’s still present to support Bernadette with whatever she may need.
At the end of this week, Bernadette will participate in the 2nd annual Downtown Drop Down, a fundraiser hosted by Adobe to support Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit working to eradicate homelessness.
During the event, Bernadette, guided by her bold spirit and fierce determination, will be rappelling the wall (descending by way of a rope) of Adobe Headquarters’ 16-story Downtown San Jose building.
For Bernadette Gomez, the choice is simple:
“If I can’t run yet,” she explains, “I’ll fly.”
Bernadette also has a blog where she shares stories of her experiences. You can find it at: http://mommaberna.com