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Family Finds That Sometimes `Doing All the Right Things' Just Isn't Enough (Part I)

The Smiths, longtime Tri-Valley residents, try to hold onto their dignity as they try to put their lives back together amidst illness, foreclosure and unemployment.

Meet the Smiths, longtime Tri-Valley residents who seemingly did everything right to achieve success, only to see it completely unravel, year by year, as they struggle with serious health and financial woes. This is Part One of their story and one in a national Patch series called Dispatches, a look at the changing American Dream.

LIVERMORE — Nancy and Troy Smith sit side-by side on a couch in the living room of their apartment, legs touching absent-mindedly, talking quietly about their lives 27 years ago, when she was the Pleasanton manager and he was a long-haired rocker who loved sunsets and believed in miracles.

The memories come in bursts. They tell a Patch writer about going to rock concerts, the marriage proposal on the beach, their vacation to the World's Fair in Canada. And now their only daughter is 21 and a mother herself living in Massachusetts. It went by so fast. 

Something bad happens and you think, 'God, I just can't take one more thing.' This could be the one thing that breaks it.

Then something halts the conversation.

Nancy Smith's seizure that recent day came on slowly, first just a dizzy spell. She couldn't find the words to say what she wanted to say, and within seconds, her limbs are flexing involuntarily, her body and face contorted. That's how it goes, says husband Troy Smith, a Pleasanton park maintenance worker. He has seen it a million times. He grabbed his wife's hand, rubbed her thumb with his, then waited wordlessly and with wet eyes for Nancy to be still.

When it's over, she apologizes to the writer who is there to tell their story, a story of what illness, a foreclosure and unemployment have done to this family of three and their dreams.

She hates that her husband, the love of her life, has become her caretaker. Hates that she can't drive, can't work, can't remember conversations from 20 minutes ago.

Because she can't work, they lost their home of 22 years. Their income cut in half, they had to declare bankruptcy. The Smiths, both 47, now live in an apartment on Water Lily Commons in Livermore, just paces away from their old neighborhood. Sometimes it's hard to be so close, but they couldn't leave, either.

The illness rips at the Smith family from the inside, testing their bonds and their love for each other, testing their ability to make it in this world.

"You raise your kid and that kid leaves the nest and you think, 'It's just going to be us again,'" said Troy.

"But then all these things happen, and you can't do any of those things you wanted to do. Everything just … changed.

"Something bad happens and you think, 'God, I just can't take one more thing.' This could be the one thing that breaks it."

Troy and Nancy Smith represent one of the many families in California to lose their home in the mid- to late 2000s. They slog daily through the Social Security and disability payment mess, through bankruptcy and the fallout from foreclosure. Add to that the social stigmas in this era of Occupy and the gap between rich-versus-poor — they are all too aware that they're part of the struggling 99 percent, and are yearning for a dignity and respect that they used to take for granted.

They say maybe they won't ever get back to where they were before. But maybe they can find a middle ground.

Troy and Nancy decided to share their story as part of a national Patch series about the changing face of the American dream. They said sometimes they feel alone, but they know that others may be going through the same things, and they hope they can relate.

Nancy's illness

Nancy's first dizzy spell was 22 years ago, when she was pregnant. She was in the shower, started to see white and didn't know where she was for a few seconds.

Nancy, who is adopted, called her mom afterward but she had never been pregnant and couldn't help. She asked about her biological parents' medical history, but her mom had no detailed information. The spells happened a few more times, and then after daughter Chelsea was born, they went away.

Then when she was 32, working as an office manager for a food broker in Pleasant Hill, she started having hallucinations at work. Again she didn't know where she was, and this time, she also didn't know who she was.

She went to a doctor and was diagnosed with a "seizure condition."

The doctors did an MRI and saw no abnormalities; they put her on medication and then kept upping it to get it right.

Then, she started seeing doctors at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, the top university in the country for epilepsy research and treatment.

It was there that a student doctor nonchalantly noted her epilepsy, then said, "You don't drive, right?" Nancy was stunned. She told him no one had said that to her before. That day, he reported her to the DMV.

"I didn't remember the drive home," she said. "The doctors had told me I had epilepsy, and all I could think about was 'I can't drive.' I didn't do one thing wrong. I worked hard, I did everything right and this happened. It was a huge blow to just have it dropped on me like that."

She underwent more testing. At work, she would break into cold sweats and couldn't concentrate. The dance with medication continued over the years — increased dosages, fiddling around with different types to see what worked best. 

When Nancy was 37, UCSF decided she qualified for brain surgery — a left temporal lobectomy. But it took awhile to get her in, as well as time for Troy's insurance to give the OK. He'd been with the city of Pleasanton for 16 years at that point and had great insurance, but it still took time. After a year, in August of 2002, doctors opened up Nancy's head.

They removed three pieces of her brain  — all the size of an egg, she says. Normal brain tissue is supposed to be soft, but some pieces were hard — gristly, like steak.

Nancy has suffered head trauma in her life, but no one knows if this is what caused her condition, or if it would have happened anyway. There were four major incidents that could have yielded scar tissue. First, she was thrown off a horse as a teen. Then, when she was 20, she was camping with her family and dove into a river, hitting her head underwater. She was embarrassed and never told anyone.

Also in her 20s, she was hit in the head with a baseball during a co-ed game; that one landed her in an ambulance. Then 15 years ago, someone crashed into her green Saturn full-speed on a freeway off-ramp near Pleasant Hill. Her head hit the window.

"The docs think the head trauma may have caused this, but they don't know."

Surgery and its aftermath

After the surgery, Nancy woke up with a giant bandage on her head, unable to speak. Troy remembers being petrified.

"I went home and prayed and lit a candle and went to sleep. Then the phone rings at 2:30 in the morning — it was her. I just hear this, 'How are you?' and I swear, at that moment, the candle went out. It was the most amazing feeling — I was crying and saying, 'Thank you, thank you.'"

He got up, threw some clothes in the washer and decided he wouldn't go back to sleep that night. He wanted to be at the hospital first thing in the morning.

Troy took care of his wife over the next three months. She went from barely able to eat cereal to a functioning adult. She went back to work, but only part-time, and was not, in her words, her old self.

Her short-term memory was shot, for starters. She stuttered. She couldn't plan ahead, and being a very organized person before, this frustrated her.

At this point, she was working for a company managing software product lines. Her boss told her she was doing a fantastic job, but Nancy didn't believe it.

A year later, she was still struggling. While reading a book, she couldn't remember what was on the previous page. Pre-surgery, she had devoured Harry Potter books, in all their 600-page glory.

"I felt disabled," she said. "I was told, 'This is how you'll be.'"

She went seven-plus years without a seizure, but definitely suffered.

"Then I said, 'No friggin' way,' and I did everything I could to reactivate my brain."

She read "The Da Vinci Code" by highlighting prominent parts of the book with markers and re-reading them to jog her memory. She looked up pictures of all the famous paintings mentioned in the book. She used colored sticky-notes to represent certain themes. It took her a long time to finish the book, but she did it.

Then, she started doing the same thing at work — managing her product lines through color codes. But in 2007, she was laid off, and that's when the real trouble began.

She had 15 years of experience but no college degree. By this time, the country was beginning to fall into a recession. The housing bubble had burst; in 2008 alone, when the Smiths started struggling with their house payments, 25 percent of mortgages nationwide were delinquent.

Foreclosures that year had nearly doubled over the previous year, and then went up another 21 percent in 2009, according to data-tracking firm Realty Trac. Stockton, a mere 40 miles away from Livermore, had (and still has) the distinction of being the city with the nation's highest foreclosure rate.

In 2009, Nancy worked as a part-time checker at Safeway to try to make ends meet. That same year, she landed a job — against all odds — doing the same type of thing she'd done before, with a company in Hayward. She had gotten her driver's license back years before, so the commute wasn't an issue. They were still underwater on bills, but it seemed things were finally looking up for the little family that could.

Then the seizures returned.. And this time, they couldn't stop the bank from taking their house.

"It never occurred to me to cut and run"

Nancy hasn't been able to work since. She went back to UCSF for tests, and Troy took more time off work to be with her. He says his bosses in Pleasanton have been understanding, but you can only take so much time off before it affects your paycheck.

Now, doctors are saying Nancy's condition is different, that her seizures are "non-epileptic." In February 2010, she gave up her driver's license again. She relies on Troy to get around, but she hates inconveniencing him. They are both stressed, and Nancy gets depressed.

She cries sometimes, asking Troy, "Why are you still here?"

Troy, who is a big, tough-looking guy but cries easily, said he never thought about leaving.

"It never occurred to me to cut and run," he said. "You don't do that when times are tough. You stay, and you bail the water out of the boat. I wouldn't have chosen this, but you make the best of the situation.

It never occurred to me," he said again. "I love her."


Read Part Two of Troy and Nancy Smith's story by clicking . 

You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” at The Huffington Post.

Dudette January 05, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Valuegal, thank you for your wonderful positive thoughts. I hope there is a treatment found for these types as well. Testing is going on throughout the country, so I hope there's something soon :-)
Anon January 05, 2012 at 09:10 PM
Thank you for sharing this truly inspiring story and thank you to Nancy and Troy for opening up your lives to us. Not only is your story a love story, it is inspirational with your courage and struggle to continue being as normal as possible. My son (who is just 3 months shy of 10) suffered two traumatic brain injuries within a year of each other nearly 2 1/2 years ago. He basically had to relearn so much all over again and I saw how frustrating it was for him. He also had seizures (in the form of violent blind rages) and had (still has) no memory of anything that occured before, during or shortly after each one. You are an inspiration to me and give me hope. Thank you again for sharing your story.
Tanya Rose January 05, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Thank you everyone for sharing your own personal stories! Part 2 of this story runs tomorrow.
Alicia Marshall January 05, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Nancy is a remarkable person. We worked together many years ago in Pleasanton, and reconnected a few years ago online. I had no idea they had to leave their house. That happy house where I held a smiling baby Chelsea (I still have the picture), and learned to make Nancy's famous Potato Casserole. I don't want to minimize anything, but NO ONE can take away their wonderful memories. I know better times are ahead for Nancy and Troy because of all the qualities made so evident in this piece. Strength. Loyalty. Love.
Mary Pawlowski January 06, 2012 at 12:35 AM
What a sad story. My daughter and I both had milder forms of epilepsy in youth that we both, fortunately, outgrew. I wish this family the best. Coincidentally, my husband and I just watched a movie, "First Do No Harm", that is about a child whose severe epilepsy was cured by switching to a ketogenic diet. It might be worth looking into...
Dudette January 06, 2012 at 01:43 AM
Cameron, thank you so much for your wonderful words. And thank you for the link! I look forward to checking it out.
Dudette January 06, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Wow, you've really touched my heart. See, it's hard for me to understand in any way what it's like to be in Troy's or your shoes. To be standing next to us when it happens, we just can't fathom what you're going through. I've never thought of myself as an inspiration, more of a burden. It means a lot to hear it from someone in your situation. I would love to chat sometime. My e-mail address is nccsmith@comcast.net.
Dudette January 06, 2012 at 01:57 AM
I've never cried so much when reading a comment like this. You continue to touch my heart. And I want a copy of that picture!! Oh, and if you still make the potato dish, and like spicey things, add a little Cholula hot sauce to it before you cook it. It has to be Cholula! <3
Dudette January 06, 2012 at 02:02 AM
Hi Mary. I'm glad you and your daughter were able to outgrow epilepsy. That is more and more common, though elderly people can be susceptible to them. Interesting how it's in the very beginning and the very end of a brains development and use. As for the ketogenic diet, yes, it has been a great success for those who can connect to it. It really just for kids, I haven't seen any studies where it works for adults too, but I'll check it out. Thank you for your post. It really does mean a lot to me :-)
Tanya Rose January 06, 2012 at 02:02 AM
Everyone on this board is making me cry! What a bunch of sweet people you all are.
Tanya Rose January 06, 2012 at 02:06 AM
You're always such a wealth of info, Cameron! is there anything you don't know? :) Thanks for the link!
Therese Bush January 06, 2012 at 02:14 AM
Thank you Tanya for this article. I have known the Smiths for over 20 years, they are truly deserving of all things good. It is my hope that this story will get into the hands of someone willing to help them.
Tanya Rose January 06, 2012 at 02:30 AM
I hope so! I really, really hope so! We've been talking about having Troy and Nancy blog for Patch - which would be an awesome way for all of us to keep touch and for them to let us know how they're doing!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 03:36 AM
Thank you very much, I have seen the power of prayer and would gladly accept the gift of prayer!!!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 03:45 AM
Honestly I shed a few tears while reading this too. We have lived this for awhile and honestly I try and make it through day by day! I thank each and every one of you for your wonderful comments! We feel the Love and Support and really do appreciate it! We would have never made it to this point without the support of our family and friends!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 03:53 AM
Thank you Laureen, it took many conversations with Tanya before we decided to let her tell our story! Now I understand why our paths have crossed, she was the one who could tell our story in a way that we felt would represent us. She is awesome!!! We never wanted a pity party but deep down hoped that someone out there may have an answer we haven't read about yet. Our other hope was if we could help just one person realize they aren't alone it would really be worth it. It really is about helping one another!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 03:58 AM
WOW - Yikes that is so sad! We were actually offered an opportunity to refinance but it was BS. It still wouldn't have gotten our payment close enough to what we could now afford. The other slap in the face we only had 10 days to make it happen and had to come up with over $12,0000. If we had $12,000 we would have never gotten behind!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 04:01 AM
Thank you Micaella, I'm sorry you know firsthand what this is about. I'm so sorry you did this as a single mom! Thank you for sharing as well.
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 04:04 AM
Thank you Denise, we really appreciate it too. Miss you girlie, hope everything is going well!!!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 04:06 AM
Thank you very much Cameron, I wish this was more out there. There is so much we've learned through the decades, but we are still not finding enough about NES.
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 04:13 AM
Thank you Alicia and thank you for reminding me about Nancy's Famous Potato Casserole. Might put a request in for that again. Although we had to shove so many things in a storage unit and I know her cook books are there too. Even more motivation to finally get the stuff we really need!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 04:18 AM
Thank you for sharing yours and leaving a comment!!! It is really an heartwarming feeling to come home and read all these awesome comments! Thank you!!!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 04:20 AM
Thank you Mary, we always appreciate any and all information! Some more info to help, someday we will find a plan that works!
Troy W. Smith January 06, 2012 at 04:23 AM
Thank you Therese and we are so lucky to have you in our lives. You are one of the ones who have been there many times for us, we are so grateful for your Love!
Dudette January 06, 2012 at 05:02 AM
Therese, you have always been a resource for smiles... BIG smiles! And I thank you for sticking with us through all of this. You've been an amazing support and we love you and your family.
Valuegal January 06, 2012 at 06:54 AM
I think that is a really good idea. I hope many good things come to them from this article. People in this community pull together.
Kari Hulac (Editor) January 06, 2012 at 04:39 PM
Here's a link to today's story. http://patch.com/A-pRmb. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. Patch is very blessed to have a compassionate writer like Tanya!
Troy W. Smith January 07, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Kari I want you to understand it is because Tanya is so real that we were able to open up to her. She is not only compassionate but there is no BS, that is a quality that not many writers possess. We are so lucky to have her perspective and her writing talent. I fell so blessed to have our story represented so well. Thank you!!! Thank you to the wonderful community for the positive comments and thank you for sharing your personal experiences too!!!
Casey October 23, 2012 at 07:27 AM
Articles about Troy & Nancy Smith were printed some time ago, and I was deeply touched by their story. I emailed Kristofer Noceda with information about the Ketogenic diet, developed by doctors at Johns Hopkins. I wanted to get the information to the Smiths, but I never received a reply and didn't know how to get ahold of them. Is there a way to forward this information to the Smiths so they can check into it for Nancy? I've read about some excellent results in decreasing, even stopping seizures by sticking to this diet.
Troy W. Smith November 18, 2012 at 04:00 AM
Hello Denise, sorry it's taken a while to get back to you. That information was shared with us at UCSF. It did not help back then so we never looked at it now as she suffers from more than epileptic seizures now, without going into to many details creating a stress free environment would be more beneficial to Nancy. Apartment life has been very hard to adjust to and as soon as we know what is wrong with Nancy we can start to look for a new place to live. Nancy spent 17 days in the hospital in May during two visits and has been in and out of doctors, specialist and labs since. She saw another specialist on Friday, every doctor has been very puzzled by what they are seeing. She is very rare in what is happening to her. This will be the last try by a specialist, next stop will be Stanford. Please keep her in prayer and send as much light and love as possible. I’m very lucky to work where I do, I had several bosses suggest to me to fill out a catastrophic leave request. That was very hard to do, I have trouble asking for help. Even though I have FMLA that does not guarantee I get paid, I have exhausted all vacation and sick time I have and have had to take some no pay days. I have gone into the hole as much as possible, so even something like this helps more than you’ll know. Please don’t hear this as complaints but as me telling you we are still there for each other and we haven’t given up. It has to get better,right??? Thank you again for caring!!! <3

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