Natalie Sabga chatted with customers at the end of the dining row of Panini Café. It’s a hub of social activity, where patrons very often know each other and engage in brief catch-up banter while waiting for their order. As she settled in to our conversation, she immediately offered WMN something from the bistro-style menu of the café that she has built from one to three locations in a few years.
Her first priority is work. She ensures that all the café’s patrons seem content and are being tended to. She then began to describe how the passing of her husband led to the John E Sabga Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer (JES).
“John was the most honest and straight-as-an-arrow person you could meet. He was also a very helpful and proud Trini, so when we discovered that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we immediately set about to do everything we possibly could to save him. My whole being was focused on saving John,” she said.
“Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer that we know because of late detection rates, so we flew to the US because we had that option with health insurance. We started with University of Miami’s Sylvester Center in Miami – one of the best in the world for treatment. He was feeling fabulous after two months but had to switch chemotherapy treatments, as after a few more weeks his cancer markers, which had been falling, were reappearing again,” she explained, with a mark of sadness as she relived the moment.
“We moved on to MD Anderson and there was little they said they could do despite being one of the best in the treatment of cancer, so we then flew to Dallas to get him onto a final spot for a clinical trial. But that spot was filled as we got there, so there was the moment of hope and then it was dashed again.”
Their final attempt for best-in-class treatment was to fly to Arizona with no appointment to see Dr Daniel Von Hoff. It was a challenge but they tried anyway, as for John, time was of the essence. After two treatments there, relentless hospital visits and a brave fight, they returned to TT, where John died in January 2017.
Sabga had spent such a long time with trying saving John as her primary focus, that she could not give up. She now focusses on helping families in similar situations.
“We had the resources to seek out the best treatments, so I started to think of those that don’t have access like we did. I started to also think about ways in which we could improve the odds for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The movement for breast cancer has dramatically improved education and detection rates in the past 20 years, so I thought we have to find a way to do the same for this deadly type of cancer.”
Established in the 2017, the John E Sabga Foundation set about to raise US$1 million towards research through a clinical trial with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGEN). So, far, it has raised over US$600,000 for the clinical trial that will involve patients from TT and will begin in January 2020.
The contributions, achieved largely through "begging" and fundraisers was so well received, that the trial is named JES1 Trinidad in honour of John’s life, the foundation’s work and the country from which they both came. According to the foundation’s website, the annual mortality rate in pancreatic cancer per 100,000 people in TT has increased 545 per cent since 1990.
She said few people outside of their circle know their story. “We had been living in the US for some time but decided to return to Trinidad. When we came back home, we had zero dollars in our pocket. John took a job at Pricesmart as a manager where he worked for us to get by. But even then I depended on the love and support of my parents to help us out. Those were difficult years,” she recalled. With her brother Peter’s, urging, they invested in Trotters, which stands today as a resounding success and for them, a wise investment. Out of that, Sabga said she had the opportunity to make use of a small space at the soon-to-be-opened Movietowne. She took it on and opened Panini Café.
“Sometime later I had the chance to open at Ellerslie Plaza and I took it – John was not amused by that. But I was persistent and I did it,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. So persistent is her personality, that she said one of John’s nicknames for her was "Nagalie." By the time she opened her West Mall location, he was convinced she was taking on too much – but she knew and understood the possibilities.
Sabga paused during the interview and called to a member of staff, instructing, "Table two needs service,” without seeming to even look at the table. Almost like a sixth sense.
“I don’t miss anything. I’m always seeing and hearing everything – it’s necessary in this business,” she explained. Many of her staff have been with the company for a number of years.
“The key to managing people is to empower them to improve themselves. I want to see staff members going on to open their own businesses. I want to see them happy,” she said, counter to standard business thinking.
“We’re a family – a dysfunctional one but a happy one,” she said, repeating it louder for her staff to hear – they chuckle and nod in agreement.
Managing three locations of her café chain and tending to her family would be enough for anyone, but not for Sabga.
“I’m obsessed with pancreatic cancer. I want to see us improve the mortality and detection rates so what happened to John and us doesn’t happen to others. It may not happen soon, but it will eventually. It was revealed that the cancer started over 23 years for John when they ran tests on his cancer. People need to educate themselves more and learn more if they are diagnosed. If you don’t have the funds, try to raise some from friends and family to get second and third opinions. If you are healthy, get regular check-ups and take better care of yourself. You have to advocate for your own health – it’s your personal responsibility,” she advised. She invited WMN for a visit to the National Radiotherapy Centre in St James the following day for Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day.
At the centre, an empathetic Sabga shifted seamlessly into her role as the JES Foundation head, and addressed the room as a few volunteers shared snack plates and hot drinks. After the event she makes her way out with her small team to return to Panini Café.
For further information on the work of the foundation visit https://www.facebook.com/jesfoundation/ or www.johnsabga.com
Pancreatic cancer warning signs and symptoms
• Abdominal and mid-back pain
• Unexplained weight loss
• Yellow skin or eyes
• Change in stool
• New-onset diabetes
• Digestive problems
• Loss of appetite
• Mood change