All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for April 2003

Adversity brings Aptos couple, community closer

Sat, Apr. 19, 2003
By David L. Beck
Mercury News

It was the perfect melting pot story.

Lanky, brown-eyed Silicon Valley Pakistani Rafiq Fazal marries blue-eyed blond Beth Denoli.

He: networking. She: human resources. High-tech slump: an opportunity -- they move to Aptos with two daughters, buy a landmark convenience store and deli. Fusion burritos! Today Piggie Market, tomorrow maybe a restaurant. Life is good.

Well, stuff happens. Beth Fazal, 41, was diagnosed two years ago with multiple sclerosis. And in a pickup basketball game in January, on the hard-surface La Selva Beach court, Rafiq Fazal, 44, and the man he was guarding went up for a rebound back to back. Fazal flipped over the man and landed on his head.

"I've been playing recreational basketball for the last 20, 25 years," said Rafiq Fazal recently. "You sprain your ankle, you break your finger. But nothing like this."

He is talking from his motorized wheelchair, next to his bed in a four-person rehabilitation ward at Kaiser Permanente's hospital in Vallejo.

As he talks, his eyes and mouth move, and he gestures frequently with his right hand. His head is immobilized in a steel frame called a halo, following spinal cord surgery at his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. He has control down to his elbows. He can move his hands but not use them, at least not yet. At 44, he is a quadriplegic.

But he is also a man who is used to getting things done -- his way. "We call him 'The Driver,' " said Erin Adkins, a friend of Beth Fazal's from her days at Applied Materials.

Rafiq doesn't disagree. "I'm very direct," he said. "I drive people to do things the way it should be done."

The accident happened on the afternoon of Jan. 14. In the weeks that followed, long before Rafiq Fazal was able to resume trying to manage his life, good things began to happen. "The community's been amazing," Adkins said. For example:

  The owner of Redwood Village, a forested compound of former beach cottages where the store is located, replaced the roof, painted the outside a cheerful barn-red (a neighboring artist chose the color), installed some disabled-access ramps and has a new set of yellow-and-cream striped awnings on order. Owner Ron Whiting said the work would have been done anyway. "We just decided to do it now."

  The broker who handled the Fazals' purchase of Piggie Market has helped organize the community and urged people not to donate money but to shop. (Donations have come in anyway; about $5,000 so far.) "The goal here was to allow the family . . . to make the business viable," said the broker, Bob Norton. "Credit the community."

  Beth Fazal's sisters came from as far away as Colorado to help with the store, the house and daughters Sarah, 6, and Yasmeen, 4.

  Volunteers from Applied Materials painted the inside of the store one Friday night.

  Grey Wolf, a local computer retailer, is installing a video camera that will allow Rafiq Fazal to watch the store from home. The firm is contributing the labor and hardware and has found a donor to underwrite the software license.

"We're a very small community," said Karen Hibble, co-president of the Aptos Chamber of Commerce, "and Piggie's one of our oldest markets . . . our first seven-day-a-week market."

Why the move from high-tech to a deli? Beth was leery; Rafiq was not.

"I come from a merchant family," said Rafiq Fazal. "My parents and my siblings, they all own businesses." His father was a wholesale produce man in Karachi. His brother Malik is a liquor store owner in Sunnyvale. Another brother, Sultan, has a store in San Jose.

"I have a comfort level with it," he said. "I like food."

Actually, said his wife, he loves food. And although he's a Muslim, a member of the Ismaeli sect, he's a wine buff. The Koran forbids "intoxication," not moderation, Rafiq said.

He added higher-end Napa wines and good values in Australian and Chilean vintages. To the traditional chili verde burritos, he added some exotic variations: tandoori chicken burritos and curry chicken burritos, for example. "There are people that come from all over the place for the burritos," said Suzanne Etienne, whose art gallery is just behind Piggie Market.

The accident, barely three months after the Fazals took over, has made things far more difficult, of course, but that doesn't mean the plan -- first Piggie, then a chain, then a white-cloth, $100-a-couple restaurant -- has been derailed. It'll just take longer.

"When this first happened," said Beth Fazal, "I just wanted him to walk, OK? Now it's just, I want him to move a finger."

Once looking forward to being a stay-at-home mom and maybe do the books, she is learning how to run a store. Rafiq's new wheelchair is narrow enough to fit in the aisles. The dream is not dead. "Neither of us wants to be a victim," Beth said.

It won't be easy. There are, inevitably, insurance issues. Kaiser Permanente has no facilities or programs in Santa Cruz County, and Beth, who tires easily and takes daily injections to stave off the symptoms of MS, cannot be a full-time nurse.

Some things won't change, Rafiq said. A driver is a driver.

But some things will change, he vows. "Simple things. My daughter would tell me, 'Daddy, could you drop me at school?' And I was too preoccupied with myself, with my work. 'Daddy, would you take me to the beach?' Those kinds of things."

© Copyright 2003, Mercury News