Giving Changes Lives

Faced with health issues, Bill and Bonnie Apfelbaum supported each other and the hospital that healed them.

BY SANDI DRAPER
PHOTOGRAPHED BY PHILLIP GRAYBILL

Bill Apfelbaum’s introduction to Providence Saint John’s Health Center was through the emergency room doors in 1998. It was there that he met cardiologist Paul D. Natterson, MD, who got Apfelbaum’s atrial fibrillation symptoms under control and over the years became a close family friend. Apfelbaum says he got first-class treatment from Dr. Natterson, who is the former president of Saint John’s medical staff.

A few years later Apfelbaum’s devotion to Saint John’s would be cemented when his wife, Bonnie, whom he refers to as “not just my better half but my better seven-eighths,” had life-saving bypass surgery at the health center. After that experience, Apfelbaum took his appreciation to the next level by becoming a Saint John’s Health Center Foundation trustee.

Bonnie Apfelbaum’s health crisis began when the couple decided to undergo full-body scans to look for signs of disease. Bill’s report was fine, but her scan showed several heart blockages. Although she made major diet and lifestyle changes, another scan two years later showed no improvement. It was time for drastic measures. After an angiogram determined she was not a candidate for stents, the couple turned to John M. Robertson, MD, Saint John’s director of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery.

On January 28, 2003 (a nerve-wracking date still engraved deeply on Apfelbaum’s psyche), Bonnie had open-heart bypass surgery. “Because I survived—and survived well—we made our first donation to Saint John’s,” she recalls.

To the Apfelbaums, health problems are simply the in-sickness-and-in-health part of marriage. The devoted couple met decades ago at a League of Women Voters meeting where she was in charge of timing the candidates. She caught Apfelbaum’s eye, and he remembers telling her “ring the bell, ring the bell” whenever a candidate got long-winded. Bill, a New York City native, and Bonnie, from Buffalo, agree it’s been a “fun ride ever since.” Although they divide their time between their Malibu home and another in Greenwich, Connecticut, Apfelbaum puts his heart into the foundation, serving on the cardiac committee, the Chautauqua (annual retreat) committee and the board affairs committee. “The first year you’re on the board, you tend to listen more than talk,” says Apfelbaum, who joined the foundation’s board of trustees in 2015. “Once you know where you can be helpful, it’s time to contribute more.”

Apfelbaum brings a decades-long career in media marketing and sales to the foundation. His sly sense of humor has enlivened many a meeting. He jokes about suggesting the slogan “I’m having my stroke at Saint John’s” to promote the health center’s affiliation with Pacific Neuroscience Institute. He quickly turns serious and points out that if patients arrive at Saint John’s within 45 minutes of the onset of symptoms, stroke-related damage often can be prevented or reversed.

Since the John Wayne Cancer Institute is also affiliated with the health center, Apfelbaum isn’t shy about describing the three entities as a world-class group. “It’s a family hospital—not institutional, not a factory,” he says. “All of our doctors have become our friends. The more time we spend, the more impressed we become with the caring and the people of Saint John’s. It feels so good.” His cheerleading for the health center includes luring several friends from back East to the high-quality care available at Saint John’s. And he sees a great future, which includes the development of a South Campus across the street from the Health Center. “I hope I live long enough to see the South Campus get started,” he adds.

When the couple returns to the West Coast in the fall, Bonnie Apfelbaum will begin volunteering at Saint John’s. “I want to work wherever I can be of best use to the hospital,” she says. “No patient should be alone; hospitals can be scary places without an advocate or a support network.” The Apfelbaums have three children and 10 grandchildren. Now retired, Apfelbaum has more time to devote to his golf game and is part owner and an active manager of the Saticoy Club in Ventura. Bonnie Apfelbaum taught elementary school and also worked in marketing and public relations for nonprofits. Asked if she is enjoying more golf in retirement, she quips that she can golf, but her most challenging role is being “in full-time charge of Bill.”

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.