With breadwinner ill, family gets help

On a warm day last June, Sergio Hernandez felt a slight pain in his belly – not quite a stomachache, and not quite a cramp.

The 42-year-old grocery worker ignored it.

But by the fourth day, the pain was so intense that there was no ignoring a trip to the emergency room.

“I wasn’t scared,” Hernandez said, seated on a plush brown sofa across from a twinkling Christmas tree in the living room of the family’s modest apartment in Sunnyvale.

But his wife, Dalila Santiago, felt nervous. “A little,” she admitted, hugging their 2-year-old daughter, Alondra.

There was reason for concern. Hernandez provides the sole support for his family of five. He and Santiago, both from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, speak no English. Santiago doesn’t drive. And in addition to Alondra, the family has two young boys: Jonathan, 7, and Giovanni, 10.

So if anything serious happened to Hernandez, the family would have little ability to support themselves.

The couple understood that well on June 18 when they walked into a hospital.

By then the throbbing was so severe that Hernandez was given pain medication even before a doctor examined him.

The medical examination showed Hernandez’s gall bladder was inflamed and would have to come out.

Surgery was scheduled for the next morning. The main concern for Hernandez wasn’t the operation or the 10-inch scar it would leave.

He wanted to know how long he’d be out of work. With no income, Hernandez worried how he would buy school supplies, pay utilities, keep up with the rent and feed his family.

The doctor signed off on a month’s worth of state disability payments and assured Hernandez that he’d be able to return to work in two weeks, he said.

 But time passed, and “I didn’t feel better,” Hernandez recalled. His boss at the grocery store gave him an extension.

Then the disability payments ran out. The family grew concerned but didn’t ask for more.

“I’m sure there was a communication problem there,” said social worker Jose Hernandez (no relation), who saw the family from time to time at Sunnyvale Community Services. “I’ve learned that if you can’t communicate concerns, the result can be a disaster.”

Sergio Hernandez described his recovery time as “very hard.”

His boss agreed to keep his grocery job waiting for him, asking only for proof from the doctor that he wasn’t ready to return.

Jose Hernandez also told the family about The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing program, which ending up paying the family’s rent for a month.

Santiago said they appreciated the help very much.

Her husband recuperated over four months and returned to work in October.

“I feel good,” he said with a smile.