We originally ran this story in our Jan/Feb 2012 issue. A lot has changed since then but this story continues to be a shining example of what is possible when a community, like that of cigar smokers, bands together to make things happen. When Darrel Boyette shared this story with me, he was the general manager at Tinderbox of the Carolinas, today he owns D.A.M. Fine Cigars in Pooler, GA.
I sat there awestruck over dinner as Darrell told me the story with Debbie at his side. I had just landed in Charlotte and Darrell, who I didn’t really know me outside of being in the same place at the same time on several occasions, and who didn’t know I was coming to town until that night, invited me to dinner with his beautiful wife Debbie at The Capital Grille in downtown Charlotte. He didn’t tell me that it was their anniversary when he invited me; he figured I wouldn’t have joined them had I known it and he was right. But there I sat at their table on their anniversary, caught up in this incredible story. I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about it. I was exhausted from a long day of travel and a long night of after-dinner drinks and cigars, but I couldn’t get the story out of my head. The next morning I asked Darrell if we could publish his account and in half-disbelief he agreed. Thanks to Darrell and Debbie Boyette, thanks to Craig Cass, and thanks to all of the doctors who saved Debbie’s life. Thank you.
To anti-tobacco legislators: it’s more than just about losing jobs and losing tax revenue. When you legislate out cigar stores you lose these communities. These communities of people held together by nothing more than an affinity for a legal product, these communities of people from disparate corners of the socio-economic spectrum who band together to help out when things go wrong. In a world all too quick to point out that which makes us different, we are concerned only about the one thing that brings us together, and that’s enough for us.
By: Darrel Boyette
In a world where most of what we hear is about how tobacco can cause this and cigars can cause that, I can tell you with 100% certainty that if it weren’t for cigars, my wife would not be with me today. I know what you’re thinking: “A cigar cannot possibly save a life.” This is true; for all of a cigar’s wonderful properties, repairing a human heart is certainly not in its repertoire.
Over 10 years ago my wife Debbie and I moved from our hometown of Savannah, Georgia to Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a big deal for us as we both loved Charlotte and wanted to make a life there. Deb sent out resumes in her field of food service, we put our house up for sale, and I scoped out cigar shops in and around Charlotte hoping to turn my passion into a career. We thought we’d have some time to get situated but our house in Georgia sold in one week! Shortly thereafter we were living in a hotel in Charlotte while looking for a house and Debbie landed a job.
I had worked for 13 years at a major paper mill in Savannah and while the pay was good, I knew exactly what my day would be like from clock in to clock out. It was so monotonous! So I visited five different cigar stores with resume in hand. Little did I know that the same person owned four of the five cigar stores that I had targeted. After two weeks Craig Cass, owner of six Tinder Box cigars stores in the Carolinas, called and gave me a part-time position in one of his stores. Three months later he made me manager of a new small store and little by little he kept adding more stores for me to manage. After about two years of this he decided to make me the area manager and buyer for all of his stores, the position I currently hold. My dream of making a career out of my passion for cigars had become a reality.
As you already know, cigar stores are frequented by a collection of characters, and the Tinder Box that I am based out of is no different. Like most stores around the country we have our fair share of lawyers, truck drivers, bankers, etc… I think I forgot to mention doctors – we have those too. Specifically, we had Dr. Devinder Bhatia, a heart surgeon who was one of our regulars until he moved his practice to Houston, Texas in 2004.
Then on a perfectly normal day in 2005, my world turned upside down. I received a call from the YMCA saying that my wife had passed out during her workout and needed medical attention. I arrived to find paramedics rushing to prep her for an ambulance ride. It all changes fast, real fast. By midnight my Debbie was in ICU recovering from a bypass, an aortic artery graft, and a new mechanical heart valve! Because of a congenital heart defect, her aorta had started dissecting. This means that blood was running through a tear in the inner wall of her aorta and the blood flow was pushing apart, or dissecting the layers of the aortic wall. Yeah, heavy duty stuff. Less than half of patients with a ruptured aorta see the sunrise the next day, but my girl is a fighter. She pulled through. Dr. Cook and his team of doctors at Carolina Medical Center did an incredible job and amazingly we brought her home after a few more days of recovery. Maybe things could go back to normal after all.
After surgery, Craig (the boss) reminded me of our good friend and former regular Dr. Bhatia, and suggested that I call him if we had any questions during recovery. We talked numerous times about little things and such but everything was going well… until it wasn’t. Suddenly Deb started having more pain than usual and it wasn’t going away. Back in she went for more testing and it showed that the aorta was tearing again, this time further down from the graft. Well if you thought the chances were not good with the first surgery, imagine what they were with a second one!
While I was on the phone with Dr. Bhatia, he told me about a surgeon who was known for being THE BEST in this exact surgery. So when Deb’s doctor said that they needed to go back in, I asked if we could overnight the results to Houston for a second opinion. The doctor said no. “No?! What do you mean no?” I asked. He told me, “Either I’m opening her back up tonight or she’s on a medical jet to Houston tonight.” I meant no disrespect to the incredible doctors in Charlotte, who did save her life the first time, but if there was going to be a sequel, it would star the best of the best! “Honey, we’re going to see the world-renowned Dr. Hazim Safi, Chair of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston.”
We endured 10 frustrating days of more tests. At one point Debbie scolded Dr. Safi, accusing him of putting off her surgery because he was late for a tee time! He didn’t like that; he doesn’t play golf and yes, she’s a piece of work. When Dr. Safi finally opened her up, everything basically blew out. The aortic walls totally gave way to the pressure of the blood flow pushing them apart. It quickly escalated into the worst-case scenario.
Against all odds, she made it through again.
I will never forget the words Dr. Safi spoke when Debbie finally woke up two days after the surgery. This little ol’ doctor who had performed this surgery more times than you can imagine said to her in his accent, “Debra when I write my book you will certainly be in it; you were one of the most difficult surgeries I have ever performed. Several times during the surgery you looked death in the face and you flipped him off!” To this day I can’t retell that story without tearing up.
I tell people all the time: “I wish you could appreciate your spouse without going through what we went through.” It was a life-altering experience and without cigars and the relationships that I built while smoking them, the story would have had a very different ending. I can’t thank the people enough who connected the dots: Craig Cass for bringing me into the cigar industry which led me to meet Dr. Bhatia who connected us with Dr. Hazim Safi. Not only that, but Dr. Bhatia put me and my family up in his house in Houston for three weeks! Lastly I am eternally grateful to, in my humble opinion, the greatest vascular surgeon in the world, Dr. Safi, for pulling off a true miracle.
I know this may have been a long way to go to make a point but the point is, when you’re hanging out in your local cigar shop you never know how the connections you make while smoking your favorite cigars may someday change your life or the life of someone you love.