Val Sotelo is a little more emotional these days, but given what she’s been through over the last year, it’s no wonder.
Sotelo was seated with her family in a packed Pepsi Center for the Denver Nuggets game on Sunday when the announcer asked fans to hear part of her story.
“Join us in welcoming tonight’s UCHealth Moments to Shine recipient, Val Sotelo. Val suffered a heart attack on her way to work in February of 2016. Just two months later, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Over the past year, she has battled back from both – all while continuing to work as a surgery scheduler in the Cardiology Department at UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs.’’
Photographs showing Sotelo’s journey over the last year appeared on a giant videoboard at center court, including a photo that showed her surrounded by flowers – 596 of them – on the day she rang the bell to celebrate her last day of chemotherapy.
Seated with her husband, Gus; daughter, Shawna; and son, Nate; Sotelo said she was overwhelmed by the moment.
“I just started sobbing,’’ she said. “Everybody was clapping for me. People I didn’t even know came up to me afterwards and they were saying, ‘Congratulations. God Bless.’ ”
On her way to work
A snowstorm on that day — Feb. 1, 2016 — walloped Colorado Springs, leaving more than 18 inches in parts of the city. Sotelo is usually one of the first people in her neighborhood to get out to shovel, but she felt a little fatigued that morning and stayed in bed an extra 15 minutes. That left her no time to shovel before she headed for work at Memorial Hospital Central.
She drove to the off-site parking lot where employees catch a shuttle to MHC, arriving about 7:45 a.m. She grabbed the last seat available on the bus. Two minutes into the short ride to the hospital, she felt nauseous and light-headed.
“I don’t feel good,’’ she said to another employee seated next to her. Then, a little farther down the road, Sotelo broke out in a massive sweat. “I’m going to pass out,’’ she told the woman seated next to her.
The shuttle stopped in its normal spot outside the entrance to the Emergency Department and a team came out to help her off the bus. Inside, clinicians hooked her up to a heart monitor. She had a normal heart rhythm.
Fifteen minutes later, however, Sotelo felt some pressure near her sternum, but it wasn’t bone-crushing. The heart monitor signaled some alarming news. A nurse called a “Cardiac Alert,’’ and a team of clinicians rushed to her side. Sotelo had no history of heart disease in her family, no diabetes or any of the risk factors. In 2000, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
“There’s no way I’m having a heart attack,’’ she thought. But doctors found a 97 percent blockage in her Left Anterior Descending artery. “Did I just have a heart attack? This is crazy.’’
Sotelo was rushed to the heart catheterization lab, where Dr. James Glass placed two stents in her artery. She then spent four days in the Intensive Care Unit.
“It was the big one – the widow maker,’’ Sotelo said. Patients with RA and lupus have a little richer blood, and that may have contributed to the blockage in her artery, a doctor told her.
After she left the hospital, Sotelo spent a week recuperating at home and then returned to work. A few weeks later, in April, Sotelo discovered a lump in her breast. The next day, she had a mammogram at the Mary Lou Beshears Breast Care Center – Printers Park. Results were suspicious, and a biopsy was scheduled the very next day. Results showed she had Stage 2 ductal carcinoma.
“Everything went so fast I didn’t have a chance to really think about it,’’ she said. “But then Dr. (Laura) Pomerenke confirmed that it was cancer. That was hard. When you hear that C word, your mind just goes. And I started asking myself, ‘Am I going to die?’ You almost break down.’’
Sotelo has been part of the cardiology team at Memorial since 1999. She was part of Pikes Peak Cardiology before the well-respected practice became part of UCHealth more than four years ago.
“We are a family here. It’s your second home and the support from my co-workers was amazing. Every day, there were hugs, flowers and cards. People asked me every day, ‘Are you OK?’ It was a whirlwind, and I don’t wish cancer on anybody, but I want to cherish that support I had.’’
After cancer was found in her breast, physicians found two large masses on her liver. She was taking Plavix, a blood thinner she was prescribed in the wake of the heart attack, so a biopsy could not be done. Doctors thought the masses were hemangiomas, large noncancerous growths that sometimes form at birth on skin or the liver.
Doctors prescribed a six-month chemotherapy regimen for Sotelo. Every three weeks, she’d spend the better part of a day getting a chemotherapy drip in Memorial’s Oncology Unit. She lost 13 pounds and her dark hair came out in clumps after only the first round. She didn’t experience the symptoms that accompany chemotherapy until the third or fourth day after a cocktail of four drugs was administered.
“It came on with a vengeance – it was horrible,’’ she said.
Sotelo began wearing a wig – something that took her awhile to get used to, but in a show of support, many of the cardiologists at Memorial took turns trying on her wig and having their pictures taken.
During the six months of chemotherapy, Sotelo’s daughter, Shawna, earned the moniker of Sgt. Shawna. Though Shawna works in the hospitality industry, she took on the role of head nurse, nurturer, and drill sergeant. She ordered her mother to eat, sleep and get in the car and go for a long drive when the walls of her home felt like the walls of a prison. She took her blood pressure, her pulse and her temperature.
“I can’t praise my daughter enough; she is a strong woman,’’ Sotelo said. On the day she finished chemotherapy, Sotelo celebrated by ringing a bell in the infusion unit at the hospital – a celebration that has become part of cancer treatment at UCHealth. That day, Sotelo’s sister, Tammy Duran, also a Memorial employee, asked co-workers to bring six flowers – one for each month of chemotherapy – for her sister. When Sotelo rang the bell, she was surrounded by a bounty of 596 flowers – and the photographs commemorating the day are some of her favorites.
A few weeks later, Sotelo had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and a double lift to re-establish an aesthetically proportionate bust. Thirty days of radiation therapy followed. A few weeks later, a scan of her body showed that she was cancer free and the large masses on her liver were gone.
“I just can’t say how thankful I am for the surgeons, the plastic surgeons – everyone. My family and the people here at work,’’ she said.
Sotelo said her experiences over the last year or so have strengthened her and made her more sympathetic and empathetic. She said it seems like she has been drawn into the lives of patients who have cancer. No matter where she goes, she hears a story or is introduced to someone who is battling one form of cancer or another.
“Here’s my name if you want to talk,’’ she tells people. “All that I can do is just be there for them.’’
A special night
When UCHealth asked Sotelo if she would like to be featured in Moments to Shine, a way to honor patients and give them a special experience outside the walls of the hospital or clinics, she jumped at the opportunity.
The Moments to Shine program aims to provide individuals – whether a patient, an employee or a community member – with a special experience in recognition of overcoming hardship, illness, or going above and beyond to help others. The program is relatively new and is made possible via partnerships with like-minded organizations.
When the announcer told fans of her story and pictures that chronicle her journey with cancer and a heart attack flashed on the overhead screen, it’s no wonder that the fans in the arena erupted in applause.