NATALIE SABGA

Her Husband’s Legacy, The John E. Sabga Foundation

Written By Julia Brabant
November 2019

“Take the sourest lemon life has to offer and turn it into something that resembles lemonade.”

It’s a tear-jerking line from a top-ranked TV show, but it’s also the best way to describe how Trinidad & Tobago’s Natalie Sabga dealt with her husband John’s 2017 passing from pancreatic cancer. John’s brave battle against the disease brought him to Florida, Texas, Arizona, and, ultimately, home to Trinidad, and while it all happened fast – within about 10 months, in fact – Natalie saw to it that John’s legacy would leave a lasting impact well into the future.

After his diagnosis, John began undergoing treatment in Florida, not far from where his mother lived. A friend from Trinidad contacted the family, marking the first time John and Natalie heard the name Dr. Daniel Von Hoff. “You must go to this doctor,” he’d insisted, but John had several treatments in the works already and wanted to give things a try in Florida.

His treatments had mixed results, and his oncologist referred him to MD Anderson in Texas, where he attempted to join a clinical trial. To his disappointment, there were none available. John and Natalie, meanwhile, had been researching the Arizona oncologist the family friend told them about and decided to pay him a visit.

“The moment we walked into the clinic at HonorHealth Research Institute, we immediately knew we had finally come to the right place,” Natalie recalled, noting that another pancreatic cancer patient, Phil Zeblisky, was sitting in the waiting room. “We had been reading about Phil’s success with Dr. Von Hoff, and John’s eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store, introducing himself and asking him so many questions about pancreatic cancer. We were just in awe of Phil.”

Initially, Natalie and John saw Dr. Borazanci, who assured them that nothing happened at the facility without Dr. Von Hoff knowing about it. The doctor affectionately known as “Dr. B” said he believed John might be a candidate for the “Grand Slam,” a five-drug regimen, and he promised the pair they’d meet Dr. Von Hoff one day soon.

With renewed hope and energy, John started treatment, and within about three weeks, John and Natalie finally met the “famous doctor.” To their surprise, not only was this world-renowned physician incredibly humble, but he had also somehow amassed an entire staff that had the same drive, compassion and commitment he possessed.

At the time, though, John’s health was declining fast, and he ultimately decided he wasn’t going to continue treatment. He wanted to return to his beloved homeland. Cathy Mast, his physician’s assistant, placed a call to Dr. Von Hoff, who was supposed to be traveling to San Francisco with Dr. B for a conference. Delayed due to weather, Dr.Von Hoff forfeited the trip and promptly appeared at the hospital to see John.

The Sabgas realized this gesture was unprecedented, so it was a special moment for John and the family when he arrived. Natalie remembers how he praised John for his strength and courage, reassuring him he made the right decision. “You’ve taught me so much in the short time I’ve known you,” Natalie recalls him saying. “This is when you realize how much empathy this man has for people.”

John succumbed to pancreatic cancer Jan. 26, 2017. In the weeks to follow, Natalie returned to Arizona to close their apartment, and she stopped by HonorHealth to thank the staff members for their ongoing support. Dr. Von Hoff insisted on seeing her, and his words were some she wouldn’t soon forget.

“You did everything right,” he noted, telling her she was a brave woman to walk back in there so soon after John’s passing. “Never second-guess anything you did for your husband.”

Natalie knew right then that this was the man who had the best chance of anyone at finding a cure, and she told him she’d dedicate herself to helping him do it. After enlisting the advice of Cathy Mast, the idea for the John E. Sabga Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer came to be in a living room, born amongst family and friends. Natalie set a lofty goal to raise $1 million for Dr. Von Hoff, his research work at TGen and her own husband, who’d lost his own pancreatic cancer battle far too soon. The foundation officially launched November16, 2017.

In February, 2018, Dr. Von Hoff flew to Trinidad for the foundation’s inaugural gala. While immensely grateful for the funds raised by the John E. Sabga Foundation to further pancreatic cancer research in the United States, he wanted to do more to benefit the island directly. “He said, ‘I feel bad that you’re raising all this money and sending it away,” Natalie recalled, and it was this realization that paved the way for the John E. Sabga Clinical Trial, which, while in effect in Arizona, will be the first clinical trial ever done in Trinidad and Tobago.

Through the John E. Sabga Foundation, which has raised more than $600,000 for pancreatic cancer research, to date, and the John E. Sabga Clinical Trial, Natalie and her team hope to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer throughout the United States and Trinidad & Tobago, which has one of the highest rates of diabetes per capita in the world. Diabetes is a risk factor and potential warning sign of pancreatic cancer, so expanding education is especially critical in this region.

While many people in Natalie’s shoes might find it difficult to spend so much time focusing on a disease that claimed a loved one’s life, Natalie believes her dedication to the cause is her subconscious at work.

“I think I’m still trying to save my husband – I’m still trying to find that cure,” she said. “Now, I feel like I’m taking care of him through taking care of other people.”

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