Optimism fills sails of heart op veteran

Aron Hyman | 04 April, 2016 00:19

UPBEAT: Bertish in his dinghy The Little Optimist

After two open-heart operations Greg Bertish was told he would never surf or do extreme sports again.

Bertish’s Optimist is a craft normally used to teach children to sail and it’s on behalf of children that he is making the voyage, hoping to raise R200000 towards a new paediatric intensive care unit at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Rondebosch.

The hospital is R10-million short of the R100-million its new ICU will cost and Bertish, 45, a father of two from Hout Bay, is determined that his trip – a year in the planning – will help to get it across the line at the same time as inspiring the children who will get lifesaving treatment there.

“This whole story is not about getting there fast, it’s not about breaking any records, it’s about a little optimist, like a little kid in hospital, someone who’s been marginalised, who’s been told they can’t reach their dream. You know, he’s too small to play rugby or whatever,” said Bertish.

“This little boat has been told he is not a real yacht, he shouldn’t go in the open ocean, adults can’t sail him.

“I’m just trying to prove that the reality of that can be changed,” he said.

At age31 and 37 Bertish underwent open-heart surgery to repair a faulty aortic heart valve that was attacked by undiagnosed tropical bacteria.

It took a year of rehabilitation for him to recover from both surgeries, only to have the infection return again for a third time, resulting in him having to spend 12 weeks in hospital on intravenous treatment.

The ordeal changed his life. He still rides big waves and has been national stand-up paddleboarding and lifesaving champion. But he wants to inspire people.

The 200km distance and R200000 he plans to raise are symbolic of the 200 days he spent in hospital between 2001 and 2007.

“It’s about trying and believing in yourself enough to know you can succeed or recover from anything,” he said.

Bertish, president of Clifton Surf Lifesaving Club, has written a book, The Little Optimist, available in Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans, which will be distributed to hospitals for young patients to take home.

“These kids get to the end of their recovery, suddenly they have a month to go and they’re feeling fine, hospital’s great because they have three meals a day and loving nurses.

“Then they suddenly realise they’ve got to go home and home is not a better place. Psychosomatically they regress in their recovery,” said Bertish.

As far as his voyage is concerned, the biggest challenge will come when rounding Cape Point, where the wind gusts up to 100km/h.

Ground crew and the National Sea Rescue Institute will keep a close eye on Bertish and with the use of a VHF radio, two cellphones and the NSRI’s new Safe Trx cellphone app, the trip should take no more than seven days, he said.