Stayin’ Alive

August 27, 2017 Observations 6 Comments

Bad news this week, for everyone but me, with your Sunday Morning Coffee. Andi Berger didn’t write this. I did.

I created a monster. I asked my wife to fill in for me for one week while I attempted to regain consciousness and in the process she became a phenom. ( August 20, 2017). Despite my gradual recovery, there’s still resentment in our house. I never want to hear from anyone again how she is the real writer in the family. Enough of that bullshit, please. And Andi said if I ever wanted her to fill in for me again I would need to first strike a deal with her two attorney pals, Beth Kushner and Mary O’Neil.

So I’m back. You may not be glad about it but I am. It was a scary week.  A tough go.

I have been exercising for 32 years, five or six mornings a week, no matter if I’m home or in a Westin across the country or around the world. It became a part of my life in 1985 when a colleague, Tim Lawler, introduced me to a fitness gym in Dubuque, Iowa called Cathedral Square. It got to a point where each morning when I finished my workout I saw everything so much clearer and fresher than if I didn’t exercise. If you know the feeling, you know what I’m talking about. So, with that background here’s some SMC thoughts from the past 10 days:

On Friday morning, August 11, I knew something was wrong at 5:30 am. Chest tightening and shortness of breath while on a ecliptic/treadmill combo machine called Arc. I finished my session but didn’t feel very good. At that moment I knew what it meant that “my body was trying to tell me something.” Fortunately I belong to a concierge medicine program where my personal doc, Mike Murray, is available to me 24/7 by office, phone or text. I called him. Our relationship for three years has been built around banter. He’s a good ol’ southern boy and I’m a cantankerous ex-New Yorker. Neither one of us make any apologies. But that morning there was no give and take. Doc Murray was concerned I had what he called a “power outage” and wanted me to take an echocardiogram and nuclear stress test as soon as possible, which was the following Monday morning. I’m not sure this happens with such relative ease in non-concierge, traditional medicine and that’s a shame.

On Tuesday, Dr. Murray got the report back and said the nuclear stress result looked like there was a “small blockage” in the lower part of my heart. Doc said it could be a ‘false positive’ but I knew it wasn’t. He scheduled me for a angiogram two days later. Cardiologist Juan Bernal did a heart cath early Friday morning, August 18 and found more blockage than anyone could have imagined. I was immediately turned over to a cardio thoracic surgeon, Dr. John Casterline, who for some (fortunate) reason had nothing on his schedule that morning and seemingly was trolling for patients. I was barely awake, twilight sedation as they call it in the trade. Dr. Casterline told me my cardio blockage was 100%, 80%, 80%, 80% and 80% which meant about two to three months. He said my heart was healthy from exercise and diet but my arteries were filled with calcium which was genetic. My dad had the same procedure 13 years ago. Ironically Dr. Casterline, Andi the writer and I all lived in Wichita, Kansas at the same time in the early to mid-90s. We gabbed briefly about some of Wichita’s restaurants and all of us liked the Scotch & Sirloin Steakhouse but a 32 ounce KC strip was not on my mind at the moment. He said “let’s go”.  I don’t remember if I even ordered an appetizer before surgery.

I was released to home this past Wednesday. I now take more pills every morning than my Rite Aid stocks in its pharmacy.

Deuce making sure I get the rest at home mandated by docs.

I’m okay. I’m comfortable. I’m thankful to Dr’s Murray, Bernal and Casterline. And their staff. And Grandview Hospital, where Andi was double-challenged for five days with me on the 10th floor cardio intensive care unit and her Mom, who checked in the same hospital the Tuesday prior, on the eighth floor. She had Ibis and Deuce at home but was looking to see if she could find a spot to keep them on the ninth floor. She was busy. She was harried. She didn’t have much time to write her new blog. Don’t bring up her writing to me.

I’d been in the hospital, overnight, once in my life before last week. It was the fall of 1959 on Long Island as an seven-year old for hernia surgery. Ike was President, Nixon VP and JFK a Senator from Massachusetts. It was also about a year before Yankees fans ever heard of Bill Mazeroski. I remember it like yesterday. I doubt the hospital on Hempstead Turnpike is still there. But somehow, I am.

Back then the old tale was that hernias were caused by lifting heavy objects. I’d never lifted anything heavier than a #2 pencil. Still haven’t.

And, (drum roll for my cheap plug), did I ever mention that Hall of Famer Mazeroski wrote the foreword to my first book– The Most Wonderful Week of the Year? It was published in January, 2014 and became a best seller among my relatives. There’s still probably a parched copy or two on Amazon for thirty-nine cents, half of which goes right into my retirement fund. Thank you.

The outpouring of support I got in phone calls, texts, social media messages and visits while at Grandview was absolultey overwhelming. If anyone ever says that stuff doesn’t mean much, call ‘bullshit.’ It’s touching. It’s important. It’s incredibly meaningful. It’s my first girlfriend in 1965, Randi Fosburg Levine, who is still a friend today despite dumping me in ’66 right in the middle of a broadcast of ‘Shindig’. It’s friends from every walk of life: high school, the old neighborhood, college, professional, four/five/six degrees of separation and summer camp that also goes back to the mid-60s. It’s my new found world of old-hack baseball friends. It’s ex-major league ballplayers I’ve befriended and college basketball coaches and athletic officials I’ve come to know through my UAB connection. It’s my summer camp pal Barry Otelsberg telling me “this world isn’t ready to be without Roy Berger.” It makes a difference, a big one!

UAB head basketball coach Rob Ehsan stopped by to spread some cheer and make sure I’d be back in my Bartow Arena seat in November.

It’s advice from people in “the club” as it’s known. I’ve found out that heart disease and open heart surgery survivors have their own “club.” It’s Bert Meisler, a mid-career mentor who went through this in 1989, who told me “the toughest part will be mentally over the next two to three months when you realize how close you came and how vulnerable you really are.” Bert said to be prepared for the blues. Funny, but over the past couple of days I felt like BB King and Muddy Waters were sitting next to me.

Valued words of advice from Pirates broadcaster Kent Tekulve who underwent a heart transplant three years ago.

It’s Kent Tekulve, former big league pitcher for the Pirates, Phillies and Reds, who went through the granddaddy of bypasses:  a heart transplant, three years ago. Teke, who still holds the major league record for the most innings pitched in relief and was a 1979 World Champion with Pittsburgh, now works as a broadcaster for the Bucs and is one of the featured chapters in “Big League Dream”.

He told me last week, “Don’t try to rush the recovery process. This is one time when you don’t need to make any decisions. Listen to your doctors and just let life and recovery happen.”

It’s a longtime Medjet colleague stopping by the hospital to visit last week, a nice surprise. After about 15 minutes of gab he said “Well, I see they didn’t have time to also do a personality bypass.” It’s best he remains nameless.

Thomas Brooks.

Not all of us get to witness this, but it you’re lucky sometimes you get to see your life cycle unfold right in front of you. Last Monday night, being served solid food for the fist time when my tray of grilled chicken arrived to my hospital bed, my 34-year youngest son Scott came right over and without hesitation started cutting my chicken into small, edible pieces like a chef.  I was only praying he didn’t have a jar of strained peas in his pocket. What goes around…it truly was touching.

Sneezing, coughing and laughing all hurt.

I’ve always had the greatest respect for the nursing profession. It is now over-the-top after five nights in the hospital. These guys and gals are amazing.

I’m sure, considering Andi didn’t write this, not many made it this far but I’ll close with a Facebook from last Sunday by Allison Black Cornelius, the extremely talented CEO of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, on which I am honored to have a Board seat.

Allison Black Cornelius, CEO of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society.

Allison is one tough piece of tuna. She’s the type of professional you’d want running your business, no matter what it may be. By every measure we should butt heads on everything, but we don’t. Our cause and mission is one in the same and we are lucky to have her in Birmingham. So last Sunday she wrote something that I had never experienced before– a living eulogy. Here’s an excerpt:

I learned today that one of my board members of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society had emergency bypass surgery Friday. He has not been feeling well and went for tests. His doctors found a heart that was mostly blocked. He likely saved his own life. His name is Roy Berger.

Our board is a dedicated, engaged, invested, fun, humorous, fearless, attending, accountable, “paying attention to outcomes” kinda board. They lose sleep over what happens to the animals in our shelter and to the animals that aren’t.

They give more hours to our mission than are reasonable to expect from busy leaders. They challenge me constantly and push-back on my impulses and crazy ideas when I need it.

They enable me as the CEO to fail, and fail often in the journey to end human and animal abuse, abandonment, and neglect.

The board regularly interacts with and knows the GBHS staff – an activity I have always encouraged and do not fear. The board is my life-blood and their wisdom and sacrifice inspires the staff I work for and me every day.

Roy Berger is one of these servant leaders – he’s one of my best.

And I just learned he had emergency megadruple bypass surgery Friday. But that’s typical Roy – he is great but he is also, well how shall I say it? Difficult.

To put it bluntly, Roy has balls. Humorously, he is one of the few males at our shelter that we let keep them. And I am grateful for it, God knows you have to have them in order to work with, tolerate and stay with me.

Roy once told me I was an acquired taste. He is right, I can’t argue. I have three ex-husbands and a cemetery full of failed relationships. I’ve been told I intimidate people and that in my focus on achieving outcomes for the staff and animals of GBHS I may drive the staff and volunteers too hard sometimes. I may fail to praise or slow down to appreciate life. I’ve been told I can be too direct and too blunt. Roy has some similar characteristics.

Roy Berger chastises, coaches, advises, and asks hard questions – right to the point. The staff and I can finish a grueling special event exhausted from 90-hour weeks of planning and he will call me within days to tell me what I got right that night, and more importantly what I got wrong. Forget we raised a record amount, that’s in the past. Time to plan for another record amount next year starting right now. He is the Nick Saban of board members. And danged if he ain’t right. Every, single, flippin’ time.

Roy and his wife Andi give time. They give and get money. Frankly, a lot of it. They attend EVERY event and they bring supportive friends who give time and money — Roy surrounds himself with genuine, charitable, highly successful people and friends and is fairly intolerant of bums who want a free ticket to a gala, drink a charity’s liquor, dance to the music and give nothing. He “don’t hang” with those.

Roy treats me like a daughter. Roy and Andi would be there in the middle of the night if I called and Roy holds me accountable to my goals as the CEO of this charity all the while helping me get there. Roy and Andi love the staff I work for, our animals and more importantly me.

Roy hates I MEAN HATES praise – hug or touch him and feel him stiffen and then with slow hesitation, accept the gratitude (just like our animals and me). Give him a compliment and watch him brilliantly deflect, just like his beloved baseball heroes. I figure that is why I saw no typical Facebook post asking for prayers Friday, detailing every pain and procedure (you know the ones I am talking about) or drawing attention to what he went through this weekend. This was serious and he knew it.

Roy runs a successful company, Medjet. I have their travel assistance membership. If you don’t, you should.

Roy loves baseball. He is a brilliant writer and has two best-selling books, the most recent being ‘Big League Dream.’

I have it, if you don’t you should. Roy will appreciate these shameless promos.

His wife is amazing, beautiful, kind – the ying to his yang and she regularly comes up with ideas to raise money and materials for our staff and animals. She talked Roy into entering their dog, Ibis (who he admittedly first rejected and now adores) into the Do-Dah-Day King contest to raise money for animal advocacy. Your dog has to raise the most money to be crowned king.

He attacked this fundraiser like Yankee’s pitcher Kevin Brown breaking his hand while punching a clubhouse wall or like David Ortiz when he destroyed the bullpen phone at Camden Yards with a bat. (Roy will LOVE these analogies, trust me). Ibis won – duh. All the while breaking every record ever held for this event.

Roy is a member of our family and I am so thankful for the cardiologist, the hospital, and his wife for saving his life.

My staff and I adore Roy and Andi. And when I tell them that he didn’t tell us what happened Friday, well they will want to kill him. But he can identify with that so it will do no good to fuss at him.

In closing, rest assured. Our emporers, the GBHS board, are clothed. Roy Berger is a big part of that.

Thank you Allison and the hundreds and hundreds of others that have expressed a mi sheberach and reached out and prayed for me. I’m thankful beyond words to still be around to make sure y’all keep your eye on the ball!



  • Jeff lobel says:

    Roy, wishing you the best. So glad to hear about your recovery and your gratitude and spirit. I had my 1st cardiologist visit last month and now I refraining from animal based products. Life is precious and so glad you shared this story. All the best, Jeff
    PS- go Yankees!

  • Stu Allen says:

    Glad to see you are doing well. An emotional and physical tune up but you will humming perfectly again very soon.
    I had my wake up call the exact same time as you…It was great seeing you last month and ironic that we were all worried about Joe’s health. Little did we know…..Glad you are on the mend. Still a lot of blog entries for you to write.
    See you soon my friend.

  • Randy Birch says:

    A wonderfully written, story, Roy, and glad you’re feeling better!

  • Howard Riech says:

    I just shuffled off to Buffalo from my summer home in Erie, PA. I am sure everyone who read Andi’s post stopped what they were doing to reflect upon life. So glad you are doing ok. We all need to to continue on and keep us in stitches every Sun morning..So your 60,000 mile tune up has you ready for the next 40,000 miles. You are loved a lot
    Howard R

  • Jennifer Green says:

    This has to be the best blog yet… especially the part about the ‘personality bypass’ 😉 You’re more than blessed, don’t ever forget that. Rest, rest and rest some more. Your life is important. We only get one shot. The stuff at the office can wait.

  • Demarish Ruffin-Smith says:

    Hope you’re recovering nicely. I’ll make sure no one else uses your reformer machine. Wait…you kicked me out of the 5:30am class. Oh well????????‍♀️…

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