Published Nov. 23, 2009
“It could have been a really ugly situation, and it’s turned into a really beautiful situation.”
The Kidney Koncert: A Benefit for Eddie Sager
5-10 p.m. Sun., Nov. 29, The Children’s Garden, 1670 10th Way, Sarasota, 330-1711, $25
Six months ago Eddie Sager got home from his job taking care of plants at The Children’s Garden, then headed out to his night job as a bartender at Cork out on St. Armands. During the drive he started feeling a sharp pain in his right kidney. He tried to ignore it, and focused on setting up the bar for service, but the pain became so great he could no longer stand up.
A co-worker rushed him to the hospital, where he received a battery of tests. After a painful six-hour visit, the diagnoses came back: Sager had a hernia, kidney stones in his left kidney and a tumor in his right kidney.
And no health insurance.
Sager moved to Sarasota in 1994 and met Joan Marie Condon his first day in town. The connection paid off: He bartended at Condon’s much-missed Rosemary District bar, The Alley Cat, for nearly a decade, and when she sold the bar to open The Children’s Garden, she offered him a job as gardener. While he loves his Children’s Garden gig and his shifts at Cork, neither offers health insurance. “I’ve had it most of my life, but I hadn’t had it for the last several years,” the 57-year-old says. “At the time I was very healthy. I was carefree and felt like I didn’t need it. But I’m getting older and I was in the process of working on it. Probably two months and I would have had something. Now I couldn’t get it. They wouldn’t cover cancer.”
After the cost for that first round of tests surfaced, Sager was staring at $25,000 in medical bills. “I’d say 10 to 15 bills. Every few days a new one would come in and I was like, ‘Where did this come from?’ It took two months after that first hospital visit to get all my bills and then the final one, after I thought I was done, was the bill for $13,000.”
Chris Fasching, a friend of Sager’s from back when he owned a Virginia record shop, wanted to help, and took his bills with her back to Sager’s hometown of Harrisonburg, Va. “People said, ‘What can I do?’ and she said, ‘Pick a bill.’ She passed them out among friends and the whole $25,000 was paid for. It was amazing.” Even more amazing was that Sager’s level of support from friends was matched by a complete stranger. The urologist that diagnosed his kidney cancer took a liking to good ol’ Eddie, and felt the need to perform his two kidney surgeries free of charge. “I was totally shocked, honestly,” he says. “I never knew the guy before. He just liked me. He said, ‘Eddie, it’s a pleasure working with you. You’re a BMW with parts that need work done. Your kidneys were inherited and you can’t do anything about that.’”
Sager’s kidney problems were indeed inherited. His father passed away from kidney cancer at the age of 63 and those memories weighed heavily throughout Sager’s ordeal. But the love of his friends trumped all fears. “I went to see the specialist and he said it was 99.9 percent cancer. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Then the images of my father — watching him die and the pain he went through — and this could be me. All of a sudden the phone rings and it’s a really good friend from North Carolina. He said, ‘Eddie, you were on my mind and I just had to call you.’ It was the most beautiful thing. I just relaxed and said, ‘OK, everything is going to be fine.’ And then two days later two other friends called up and told me the same thing.”
After three “Eddie Benefits” in Virginia and some donations and loans from generous friends, Sager is pretty much paid up. But he has to receive follow-up CAT scans and X-rays every three months for at least the next year; each round will cost roughly $10,000. And he has yet to have an operation for his hernia. He’s been out of work for three months, but has finally started back at Cork working a few nights a week.
But in yet another show of kindness, Sager’s friends at Cork and The Children’s Garden have planned a benefit for Sager this Sunday called The Kidney Koncert. A number of local musicians (including, full disclosure, me) and restaurants are contributing to the effort. “It’s been amazing to see how people come together at a time when everybody’s hurting, and they still will come out and give their last penny. If I have anything left from the benefit money coming up I want to start a kidney fund. It could have been a really ugly situation, and it’s turned into a really beautiful situation.”
Photo by Tim Sukits