Despite undergoing three heart surgeries (one of which was open heart) in less than two years, retail real estate broker and The Shopping Center Group partner Steve Gillman still hasn’t received a diagnosis for his mystery ailment. “The problem with me from a medical standpoint is there’s nothing they can do. I only know when something bad happens to me,” Gillman, 54, says.
It all started on October 19, 2011. After playing basketball near his home in Merrick, New York, Gillman felt a pain in his chest. He went to his regular doctor, who referred him to a cardiologist—who sent him to North Shore University Hospital for a five-hour open-heart surgery to correct a blockage in his left main artery.
After the surgery, Gillman was ready to get back to work. “I took phone calls in the hospital the day after getting out of the operating room,” he says. “You don’t want to brag that you’re sick, and you don’t want people to think that you’re so sick you can’t take care of your clients. I probably downplayed it a little.”
But after returning home, Gillman developed a toxic reaction to an anti-arrhythmic medication he was put on. He couldn’t breathe. “They figured out there was a more serious problem,” he says. The doctors gave Gillman different heart medication, and he returned to work part-time, even going to the New York International Council of Shopping Centers—a networking membership group for retail real estate professionals—six weeks after the open-heart surgery.
“Fortunately, with technology, the world has gotten a little easier to not have to be in the office all the time,” he says. “I can’t do everything remotely, but with iPads and cellphones, I think, for the most part, I did a decent job keeping my clients happy.”
In March 2012, Gillman developed an infection in his chest and had a second surgery. After a week in the hospital, his infection came back, and this past summer it returned again.
To make matters worse, during this time his mother was suffering from stage IV lung and ovarian cancer. Gillman decided not to tell her about his own illness. “She was getting sicker and sicker, and the last thing she needed was to worry that her son was sick. So we never did tell her,” he says. “It’s another one of those little quirks life throws you.” His mother died January 1.
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His illness also coincided with The Shopping Center Group’s merger with Northwest Atlantic. Gillman, who worked at Northwest Atlantic for 13 years before the merger, had to oversee many of the logistical transitions.
Gillman felt his most important role, however, was making sure his clients, which include Sonic, Smashburger, L.A. Fitness, and Costco, were taken care of. “Picking a new health plan or whatever can wait,” he says. “The pressure of getting back was more not to disappoint clients. The clients we deal with—they have important jobs and deadlines. It was probably more pressure I put on myself than they put on me.”
Gillman credits his wife, Terri, an accountant, for nursing him through this difficult period. “My wife took care of me for nine months,” he says. “She’d change my dressing, give me God knows how many meds, do some of her work remotely, and then I’d go and take a client out during the day.”
His colleagues also helped pick up the slack at the office. “One of the luxuries of being a partner is you don’t have a boss,” he says. ”People understand people get sick, but they worry about their own jobs. They could have thrown me overboard, but they were all pretty good about it.”
Now Gillman is back to work full-time, commuting every day from his home in Long Island to his office in White Plains. And, in the past three months, he hasn’t gotten any more infections. “The treatment seems to be working and doesn’t involve cutting me open, so I’m all in favor of that. After three major surgeries, and one minor surgery, they think they have finally gotten rid of this,” he says. “I like working. I enjoy going on tours with clients when they open stores. I don’t share in their profits, but I do share in the glory that they’re doing well. I don’t like sitting in traffic. You don’t get used to that after all these years.”