A Hout Bay resident has turned a life-threatening experience into a positive one – and what’s more is that he’s embarking on fundraising for a worthy cause today.
Greg Bertish, 45, had open heart surgery at the age of 30 after contracting a bacterial infection.
Greg is a businessman and in- volved with various philanthropic projects and initiatives.
He established local non-profit organisation Shark Spotters in 2004 to help protect sharks and humans.
He’s been active in various water sports since he was a child, was a South African lifesaving champion, is an avid paddle boarder, kayak boarder and big wave surfer for over 20 years. “My dad surfed, and he used to take us to do crazy things and we had this natural inclination to surf bigger and bigger waves”.
In 2000 Greg went travelling in Indonesia and Madagascar and fell ill. He said when he arrived back home, no one knew what was making him ill. “Basically for eight months I walked around having check-ups. What they eventually found was a tropical bacteria.”
Greg, 30 at the time, went from being super fit, to not being able to walk up stairs, all within a matter of days.
Tests revealed that his heart was swollen to 30 percent bigger than normal, and his aortic valve was destroyed and almost non-existent. Endocarditis is caused by a bacteria that attacks the heart valves. He was rushed in for emergency open heart surgery.
Recovery was tough for Greg. “It took a year to rehabilitate, to get my strength back, to get my weight back. I lost my speech and my cognitive thought a bit. I lost my taste and smell for a while. It took me about a year to get back into doing what I did before,” he said.
Five years later, he was reinfected. “Lying dormant in my body, the bacteria (still unnamed, undiagnosed and unculturable) came back in 2006. By that time I was misdiagnosed again, and no one knew what it was.
“I was in and out of hospital for many weeks and months. I had another heart operation and they did another valve replacement surgery,” he said.
After his second surgery, Greg was infected a third time. “Within two or three months of that happening, it came back again. I was in the hospital for eight months,” he said. Eventually the combination of various antibiotics the doctors created got rid of the bacteria.
After his first surgery, Greg started his own website called All Heart (www.all-heart.org) to document his experience in hospital and for others who are going through similar situations. “I put the website together that helped people going in and facing operations. “It helps them with what to expect, how to be positive, what’s going to happen to you when you get out, how to deal with it mentally and physically, and it also helps their loved ones,” he said.
He’s also been involved with the Red Cross Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Hospital Trust since 2013.
He came up with The Little Optimist initiative- sailing an 8ft dinghy, referred to as an Optimist – to raise money for the Red Cross Children’s Hospital’s new intensive care unit.
As part of the initiative he’s going to sail from Hangklip to Langebaan Lagoon in the Optimist today, Friday April 8.
He’s sailing 200km for the 200 days he spent in hospital.
Greg said he and his brothers Conn and Chris Bertish were taught how to sail on an Optimist by their father Keith who loved the ocean. He died from a heart attack, aged 59 when Greg was 25 years old.
The Little Optimist is also a children’s book he has written.
The objective of the book and the sail is to instill belief in children who are facing similar or worse life-threatening conditions – like Greg did – and who often lose hope for their future.”Because they’ve been a sick kid and they’re still sick, they almost give up.
“Because little kids with problems like that are generally seen not to go on. I try and show them that that’s not the case,” he said.
Greg said because it’s a children’s sailing boat, he is doing the sail to show that there was a real little optimist that actually did this. “It’s a little guy who’s not the biggest, not the fastest, that kids and other boats look at and say it’s just a child’s boat that could never sail in the open sea”.
The book will be self-published and for every book sold, another one is printed and donated to disadvantaged children through the Children’s Hospital Trust.
Greg plans to launch the book before Christmas this year.
If you would like to donate to the Red Cross Children’s Hospitals’ new ICU, log on to http://the littleoptimist.org/ and click on the “donate now” tab or visit http://www.truebluetravel.co.za /outer-atolls-maldives-greg-bertish/