Year after year, Patti Medina answered the phone at the Oakland unemployment office. She filled out forms for strangers laid off from work.
Helping strangers was her job. She never figured she’d be the next person needing a stranger’s help.
Until she was.
In April, Medina’s 10-year-old daughter, A.F., came back from a school camping trip complaining of being tired. She was short of breath. She needed to lie down, and she wouldn’t get up. Something was wrong.
The thing that was wrong was her heart. Girls who are 10, who love dancing and gymnastics and dogs, aren’t supposed to get something called myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by infection. But A.F. did. It’s a long word that Medina said she can’t spell and never expected to experience.
Medina, a single mother and a native of El Salvador, took A.F. to the local clinic. The clinic rushed A.F. to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, where doctors placed her in intensive care. There she stayed for six weeks and, for all that time, Medina did not leave her side.
“It was traumatic,” she said. “It was nerve-racking. I stayed right there. What else could I do?”
At the unemployment office, Medina’s duties occasionally require her to place a caller on hold, for a few minutes. But now Medina found her entire life being placed on hold, for months.
She took a short leave from work, then extended it and extended it some more. After A.F. was released from the hospital and allowed to return to their home in the Allendale section of Oakland, she needed her mother’s around-the-clock supervision. The job at the unemployment office would have to wait.
When the disability benefits stopped but the rent and the grocery bills didn’t, Medina found herself going deeper and deeper in the hole. She borrowed money from friends, until the friends could help no more. She charged groceries and other essentials to her credit card, until the card was maxed out.
The landlord said he was sorry about the myocarditis but he wanted the rent. He also wanted the 10 percent rent increase that kicked in the same month that A.F. got sick. He said he had bills to pay, too.
“It was quite interesting,” Medina said, “that all the time I was helping people on the phone, I never imagined I’d be the one needing help. I never thought I’d be saying to myself, ‘How can this be happening to me?’”
Medina decided to declare bankruptcy. That’s something else she never expected to experience. She and her daughter were at serious risk of finding themselves on the street.
And that’s when a caseworker told her about the Season of Sharing.
Helping strangers is what The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing does, too, providing one-time funds to people facing unexpected crises.
Within days of hearing her story, the fund paid Medina’s rent bills for October and November.
Not long ago, A.F. got well enough to go back to school and Medina arranged to go back to her job and start working shorter days so she could pick up A.F. after school and care for her in the afternoons.
Slowly, things are getting better. Medina plans to share her and A.F.’s lodgings with her sister-in-law, to help cover the rent. And going back to work is helping her dig herself out of the kind of debt that comes with maxed-out credit cards.
“The Season of Sharing helped me to breathe a little easier,” she said. “It gave us both a break. I’m extremely grateful. I don’t know what we would have done without it.”
Next month, Medina said she plans to ask her boss at the unemployment office for a transfer. She wants to help people applying for disability benefits instead of unemployment benefits. She wants to help people like her.
“Unemployment is bad enough, but disability is worse,” she said. “That’s about losing your health. There’s nothing worse than that.”
Receiving help from strangers, she said, is going to make her a better unemployment office representative. Now she knows what it’s like to wait on hold, to not have your questions answered, to not talk to the people you need to talk to.
“There’s so much runaround,” she said. “There’s so much stress. The next time I have to put someone on hold, when I get back on the line, I’m going to have the answers to their problem.”
Just perhaps, she said, there may be something positive to come from her daughter’s illness.
“Bad things are inevitable in life,” she said. “But maybe we can learn from them. Maybe I can be more sensitive and caring. I’m going to try.”
Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org