Dee Patel was one of the busiest and most successful retailers in the industry, but then a critical heart problem forced him to re-evaluate his life. David Rees reports.
At first, he thought it was a cough. But with three busy Budgens stores, four pharmacies and a chain of Costa coffee franchises about to open, Dee Patel didn’t have time to stop and worry about things like that. But the cough got worse, and soon he could barely breathe at all. It was a virus, a tiny thing, far too small to see. But big enough to change his life completely.
He finally went to see the doctor, and within 24 hours he was on his way to hospital to be hooked up to a life support machine. The initial tiny infection had led to sarcoidosis, a common condition that as many as 80% of people carry in their lungs. But very rarely it can occur in other organs, in Dee’s case his heart. And it was killing him.
In August, after seeing cardiac experts at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, he was told that his heart was dying. By mid-September, he was given just weeks to live, and went on the urgent transplant list on October 1. But Dee has a rare blood type, and suitable donors have to have not just the same blood type, but be of similar size and age as well. But, miraculously, a donor was found just eight days later.
Until he became ill, Dee’s background in retail was one of constant growth. He grew up in the family business, a neighbourhood pharmacy, and on leaving university purchased a retail unit. Before long, he was running three c-stores, and took them to the next level by converting them to Booker’s Premier fascia.
When Musgrave started selling off the Budgens store estate to independent retailers, Dee saw another opportunity to grow, and purchased three in Cambridge and East Anglia in 2003. His first pharmacy opened in 2008, and he added one a year until 2011. In between times, he signed up to run Costa coffee franchises across East Anglia. Plans were in place to open 20, and five had opened by the time he became ill. Formerly fit and healthy, and well known within the grocery sector for enjoying a good night out, Dee was confronted with a sudden, dramatic change of lifestyle.
“I’m a better person now,” he says. “I’m more relaxed. I used to talk work all the time, not just in the office but when I got home as well. I take notice of things more now. Before I didn’t understand how important charities are.”
“It was a full life change, overnight,” Dee told C-Store. “Our business is 100mph, and to come to a full stop hit me hard. As a businessman, you are used to being in control. Problems occur all the time, but you can usually fix them yourself, or call someone. Here was something I couldn’t fix.”
The dramatic change brought an equally dramatic new perspective. “I no longer worried about how much wastage there was in the produce department,” smiles Dee. “Family and friends came first business and money were not even fourth or fifth on the list.
“You see people die around you, but you just try to be positive,” he continues. “You don’t realise the effect it has on your friends and family until afterwards.”
Fortunately, Dee has lots of friends in the grocery trade, and acknowledges that the many visitors he received while in hospital helped him through the illness. His family moved in with retailer Jonathan James for the duration of the stay in hospital, and Jonathan was a regular visitor.
As for his business empire, he is scaling it back. He has sold the Costas, and will keep one pharmacy, but sell the others. But, largely because of the support he received from the grocery sector, he is keeping the three Budgens stores, which are currently being looked after by his friend and fellow Budgens retailer Jinx Hundal.
Officially, Dee is retired. But there is much that he still wants to do. The life expectancy of heart transplant patients is shockingly only 30% in the first year, although once you get through the first year it rises to 75%. So that’s his first target, to get to October. After that, he might start to make more plans. His children Aimee and Ben are 12 and 10, and he’d like to see them married, says Dee.
Dee’s perspective is entirely positive. “I’m a better person now,” he says. “I’m more relaxed. I used to talk work all the time, not just in the office but when I got home as well. I take notice of things more now. Before I didn’t understand how important charities are.”
Which is why he wants to do something for Papworth Hospital. “Everyone is so passionate about working there. Consultants are being called in at all hours, at weekends. My consultant saved so many people besides me, in my view he is worth more than any footballer on the planet.”
As well as the consultant, Dee saw a surgeon four times a day, plus a transplant co-ordinator to ensure the smooth running of the process. “The whole place is amazing, and the dignity they give you is unbelievable. The receptionists are all volunteers, people who have been affected by the good work of the unit - even the cleaners are passionate about their work.”
A lesson for us all
He also wants to get a message out to all retailers. The first point is that Dee had critical illness insurance in place, and it paid out.
“Retailers need to look at their business and their environment and ask, ‘If I couldn’t work, what would happen?’,” he says. “Only 44% of the working population have some form of sick pay and benefits in place. The remaining 56% are either self-employed, or are not entitled to any form of benefits. I saw some people who had a heart transplant and within three or four days they were worrying about paying the mortgage.”
And the second thing is to join the donor register. Dee doesn’t know who the original owner of his heart is, but the same person also saved two other lives by donating their liver and kidneys.
“The donor register is so important,” he adds. “If you’re willing to take an organ like a heart, you should be willing to give one, so I would urge everyone to think about it.
“The team at Papworth saved my life, and you cannot put a value on that. It was just a miracle.”
You can find out about joining the donor register at www.organdonation.nhs.uk. If you’d like to contact Dee, his email is email@example.com