Hardworking mom had never sought help, but medical crises drained her savings

Ximena Rodriguez’s daughter wasn’t feeling well. She had a fever and was complaining of a sharp pain in her stomach.

It’s appendicitis, the doctors told Rodriguez when she brought 9-year-old Isabella to the hospital in June. They’d take out her appendix, and she would be fine. Rodriguez could take her little girl home the next day.

But after Isabella got home, her fever spiked again — 104 degrees. Back at the hospital, doctors ran tests for days. They eventually found that one of Isabella’s kidneys was failing, and an infection was raging out of control in her urinary tract.

It took nearly two weeks to push back the infection with intravenous antibiotics. In October, Isabella fell ill again and needed 10 more days in the hospital. By the time she came home, she was feeling healthy and strong — but her mother had fallen desperately behind on their rent. 

Rodriguez is a self-employed bookkeeper. When she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid. For 23 days she hadn’t left Isabella’s side at the hospital, and for four weeks she’d had no income.

“I’m a very hard worker,” said Rodriguez, 49, crying softly in the living room of her San Ramon apartment while Isabella played with a friend in her bedroom. “But I fell behind, and I couldn’t catch up.”

For the first time in her life, she sought help. She reached out to Catholic Charities in Contra Costa County, and a caseworker connected her with The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing, which provides one-time funds to people in unexpected crises. The fund covered her November rent.

Born and raised in Bolivia, Rodriguez got a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Bolivian Catholic University and made a good living at a petroleum company for more than a decade. When she lost that job in the late 1990s, she came to California on the advice of a sister who was already here.

She’s been a single mother to Isabella plus a son, 20-year-old Nicolas, for almost all their lives. She’s had her own bookkeeping business for more than five years, working primarily with Spanish-speaking clients in the Bay Area and Central Valley.

She’s never needed financial assistance before — not from the fathers of her children, not from her family, not from the government. Asking for help after Isabella was sick was a hard thing to do.

“I’m so appreciative of how they did Season of Sharing for me,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know what I would have done without it.”

Rodriguez’s financial challenges started before her daughter became ill, when Rodriguez herself developed an inflammatory condition called myositis, which caused extreme fatigue and weakness. She was out of work for nearly six months in late 2015 and early 2016.

But Rodriguez still had a sizable savings from her job in Bolivia with the petroleum company. She didn’t like tapping into that money to help cover rent and other bills — but that’s what the savings was for, after all. She’d always told her clients that they should have at least enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.

By spring, 2016, Rodriguez was ready to go back to work. She was still ill, and the steroids she had to take to fight the inflammation had caused her to gain a lot of weight. But she needed to work. And for a while, life seemed to settle down again.

Her son went off to college at UCLA, and she was so proud of him and of herself for seeing him to this accomplishment. Isabella kept getting mysterious infections requiring regular trips to the doctor, but she was otherwise healthy and happy.

Then the appendicitis hit. And Rodriguez, after so long being sick herself, no longer had any savings to back her up.

“I was never rich, but I wasn’t poor. I had everything I needed. I could pay for this apartment, pay for the car, help my children, pay for my son in college,” Rodriguez said. “But all my savings, everything, it’s gone away. I never imagined that would happen.”

Her caseworker, Dora Segura, said Rodriguez immediately struck her as bright and hardworking. She had a successful business on top of raising two kids on her own, in a country where she spoke almost none of the language when she first settled down.

“She’s always done everything on her own. And she’s really proud to be on her own and to do what she can to provide for the family,” Segura said. “There are just times when people don’t have the cushion they need.”

Rodriguez has been steadily back at her job since Nov. 5. She isn’t working as much as she’d like, though, because she still needs to get IV infusions for the myositis once a month and Isabella has checkups every two weeks. All those appointments add up to hours she isn’t paid.

So she worries about how they’ll pay their next bills. But she’s made it this far on confidence, assertiveness and faith — she says she’ll just have to keep forging on. It’s what she has to do for her children and their future.

“She is one of the most perseverant people I know,” said her son, Nicolas. “Sometimes circumstances are pretty bad, and it seems like there’s no hope. But my mom, once she starts thinking about how to solve a problem, she’ll find any route and come to a solution, always.”

Last summer, when Isabella was so sick, Nicolas insisted he wanted to come home and help. He could stay with Isabella while Rodriguez worked. Or he could get a job and contribute to their finances. But Rodriguez wouldn’t hear it.

“I don’t want to block his education. I don’t want to be selfish,” she said. “I always tell my son, ‘You are my American dream.’ I want to take care of my daughter. And I want my son to finish college. Those are my goals.”

Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: eallday@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @erinallday

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