To Be Heard Again

A brain tumor stole his voice, but with the love of his wife, Janet, and a miraculous surgery, Bob Sagendorf is back on the radio at WATR.

                       Story and Photographs By John Murray

   Bob Sagendorf slowed his SUV and peered into the woods. “There it is on the other side of the brook,” he said pointing, “that’s where we used to camp as boy scouts. We swam in that brook. We drank water from that brook, and we used water from that brook to cook our meals.”

   Sagendorf was on top of Hunter’s Mountain in Naugatuck and the camping site he pointed towards was less than a quarter mile away from Murtha’s Dump, a landfill used for 40 years to dispose of solvents, oils, hydrocarbons, chemical and liquid sludge, chemical solids, tires, and rubber products used by Naugatuck Chemical and Uniroyal.

   Murtha’s Dump was closed in 1987 and is now a EPA Super Fund site. Contaminates from Murtha’s Dump continue to leach into the soil, and houses in the leach-fields beneath the dump have been drinking bottled water for three decades.

   Further down the mountain Sagendorf pointed out the house he lived in for the first eight years of his life. “We lived in the Naugawaumg neighborhood on South Circle Road,” Sagendorf said, “our house was right on Thurston’s Pond and we used to swim in the pond all the time.”

   Thurston’s Pond lays at the base of Hunter’s Mountain, directly in the leach field beneath Murtha’s Dump.

   “My late father had a theory why I ended up with so many health problems,” Sagendorf said. “He said I grew up in Naugatuck.”

   Sagendorf wasn’t the only one with health problems in the family. “My brother Alfred and I had tumors no one had ever seen before,” Sagendorf said. “I can’t scientifically prove our problems came from the chemicals, but I think there is a connection.”

   Sagendorf has two other siblings, Jessica and Victor, and they were raised away from Hunter’s Mountain, and neither one has experienced the long-term health issues that Bob and Alfred have.

Bob Sagendorf spent the first years of his life playing on Hunter’s Mountain and swimming in Thurston’s Pond, both sites later to have been contaminated by toxins.

   Murtha’s Dump was not the only issue in town. Sagendorf played baseball and softball for years at Rotary Field, directly across the river from Uniroyal. “When we’d hit a ball into the Naugatuck River it would turn an iridescent yellow orange,” Sagendorf said, “and no one would go near it.”

   Industry all along the Naugatuck River used the waterway as a glorified toilet to dispose of thousands of gallons of dyes and solvents. “We would throw a match on the river and it would catch on fire,” Sagendorf said. “No one would ever think of swimming in the Naugatuck River back then. We never saw birds or animals. Everything was dead.”

   When Sagendorf was eight years old the family moved out of the hollow and onto Swede Hill. “Every day that I walked down off Swede Hill to my school I walked into a haze that smelled like rubber and chemicals. It was hard to breathe.”

   The Uniroyal Holding Company Inc. still operates in Naugatuck at 70 Great Hill Road and a former employee at the company confirmed that settling health claims continues to be a vigorous part of its business.

   In addition to Bob and Alfred, who have not filed claims against Uniroyal, Sagendorf’s mother also experienced health problems and died of what was diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. “We weren’t sure what she had, but it was insidious,” Sagendorf said, “We know a lot of people in the area who have died from brain tumors. Charles Goodyear was a great man and he developed vulcanized rubber, but at what cost? What did that do to us?”

Crisis On The Air
   Bob Sagendorf is a professional radio broadcaster and producer and was elected to the Naugatuck Hall of Fame in 2009. Sagendorf began his broadcasting career in 1975 at WOWW-AM in Naugatuck as the afternoon news host and sports director. Three years later the station morphed into WNVR and Sagendorf teamed up with Chris Berman to host a nighttime sports talk show, “Calling All Sports.”

   Berman was 23 years old at the time and would go on to international fame as the anchor of ESPN’s SportsCenter (where he was selected National Sportscaster of the Year six times). But in 1978 Berman was on local radio working with Sagendorf calling Naugatuck football games on WNVR. They called one game from the top of a school bus, and Berman later described the experience as “improvisational.”

   Sagendorf and Berman became fast friends at WNVR. “It was 1978 and Bob was a Yankee fan and I was a Boston guy,” Berman said during an telephone interview from Hawaii. “That was the year the Yankees and Red Sox were tied at the end of the regular season and played that epic playoff game. I was the new kid and Bob was the veteran. We became buddies.”

Sagendorf with his life-long friend, Chris Berman from ESPN.

   Sagendorf went on to work at WCBS in NYC as the production director of the nation’s top oldies station. Several years later when ESPN decided to enter the radio market, Sagendorf was hired as the first employee at the ESPN Radio Network.

   Chris Berman had no power to hire Sagendorf at ESPN, but said, “I laid it on pretty heavy that they would be crazy not to hire him,” Berman said. “Bob lived in the area and he had an on-air voice to go places.”

   At ESPN Radio Sagendorf became the signature voice of NFL Primetime, NFL Sunday Night Football and the U.S. Open Golf Championship. Despite being heard every night by millions of people around the world, Sagendorf, at heart, was always a Naugatuck guy.

  “I never left home,” Sagendorf said. “I’m grounded and I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

   In 2001, while continuing to work at ESPN, Sagendorf became the News and Sports Director at WATR-AM in Waterbury and began calling play by play during Friday night football and basketball games. It’s what he loves to do.

   In December 2008 during a morning newscast at WATR Sagendorf tried to speak and his voice malfunctioned. Bob’s wife, Janet, is a teacher at Tinker School in Waterbury and she was listening to the show at home as she was getting ready for work.

   “All of a sudden his words were garbled and unintelligible,” Janet said. “They cut him off and I thought Bob had a stroke.”

   Sagendorf’s voice returned quickly, but he went to the hospital to see if he’d had a stroke. The doctors couldn’t find anything. Weeks later an MRI revealed a brain tumor - glomus jugulare - pressuring nerves inside the base of his skull. Glomus jugulare tumors are very rare, and usually benign, but Sagendorf said his was doubling in size every eight weeks.

   “My cousin is a doctor and told me that my tumor was very rare,” Sagendorf said. “He told me that 1 in 8.2 billion had it, which made me the only person in the world with it.”

   Doctors at Yale used a Gamma Knife procedure and attached Bob’s skull to a halo and attacked the tumor with precise radiation strikes. “I looked like someone from the old TV show, “Lost In Space,” Sagendorf said. “But I got to listen to Mozart’s Requiem in D major during the 56 minute procedure, and afterwards they let me walk out of the hospital.”

   Gamma Knife surgery has enhanced neurosurgical treatments offered to patients with brain tumors and vascular malformations by enabling patients to undergo a non-invasive form of brain surgery without surgical risks.

   After Bob left the hospital he wanted to go to Pepe’s Pizza, but Janet looked at the massive bandage around his head and suggested they go home.

   With the tumor in remission and his voice working perfectly, Sagendorf returned to the WATR airwaves to produce newscasts and broadcast local high school games.

   Eighteen months later his voice began to lose power, and Sagendorf’s voice was reduced to a whisper. The Gamma Knife procedure had interrupted four nerves and although the tumor had been corralled, a side effect of the surgery was a compromised voice.

   Through the upheaval Bob and Janet stayed positive.

   “We never had time to worry,” Janet said, “we faced what was in front of us and pushed through it. In a way we felt blessed because Bob did not have cancer. We both felt it could have been worse.”

   And it did get worse.

   As part of his treatment Bob was prescribed powerful steroids and it changed him. “His personality was explosive,” Janet said, “One time he put his fist through the ceiling. It was scary.”

   Bob agreed. “It was my incredible Hulk phase,” he said, “and as it turned out the doctors had forget to taper me off the steroids.”

    As he struggled with his health Sagendorf had openly talked about his issues on air at WATR. “It was remarkable how supportive WATR listeners were,” Chute said. “The audience knew Bob was having an issue and they had sympathy and support for him.”

   In May 2011 Bob went of the air at WATR radio. Too many procedures had done too little to restore his voice, which by the time he went off the air was breathy, raspy and he had trouble swallowing.

   WATR general manager Tom Chute had adjusted Sagendorf’s schedule at the station and allowed him to pre-record sections of newscasts to protect his voice. “Bob decided at the correct time that he couldn’t go on any further,” Chute said, “and he took himself off the air. I knew that he would know when it was time, and he did.”

   Although he was off air at WATR, Sagendorf continued working at the radio station producing high school broadcasts and booking guests for shows.

   Sagendorf tried substitute teaching, but without a strong voice, it didn’t work out. Job rejections began to pile up. Could it get worse?

   Yes, and Bob’s health was about to take a hard left into a stone wall.

   Bizarrely a bone began to grow in the back of Sagendorfs throat and he headed back to Yale for an appointment with Dr. Clarence Sasaki, the head of Yale’s Head and Neck Cancer Program. Sagendorf had developed Eagle Syndrome, another extraordinarily rare growth in the back of his throat.

   “It was a highly unusual inner ear growth that no one had ever seen around here before, Sagendorf said. “When Dr. Sasaki snipped the bone I was surrounded by medical students and doctors.”

   As bad as that was, more problems were on the horizon. The soft palate in Sagendorf’s mouth collapsed upwards and within two weeks he had two major oral surgeries and ended up with 36 sutures in the roof of his mouth.

  “Thanksgiving was in a blender that year,” Sagendorf said, and he was on a strict liquid diet for 5 weeks.

   Then the right side of his esophagus collapsed and had to be stretched back out with a balloon. Sagendorf had trouble swallowing and was forced to eat six to eight meals a day. Loose food would get stuck in his throat and solid food would go through. Bob’s weight crashed from 200 pounds to 164 pounds, and the only way he found to keep weight on was by drinking “heavy craft beer.”

   With his body betraying him, Sagendorf leaned on his faith.

   “I’m a conservative Episcopalian and a deeply faithful man,” Sagendorf said. “God was telling me that he had work for me and I wasn’t listening, so he took my gift away, my voice.”

   Bob plunged himself into charity work, “but what I didn’t realize was that I was neglecting myself. I didn’t realize what was happening to me internally as I lost my career, and the medical bills piled up.”

   Sagendorf became reclusive and wouldn’t leave the house. He’d lost 80% of his hearing and he couldn’t communicate. “People couldn’t hear me speak,” Sagendorf said. “And I couldn’t hear them talk.”

  He would read, watch TV, and play golf at Hop Brook in the off hours when nobody was there and he could play alone. Sagendorf had always been highly social and he didn’t realize how depressed he’d become.

   Bob didn’t know, but Janet did.

   “Bob had fallen into depression and didn’t want to leave home,” Janet said. “He was reclusive and I knew he needed help. I asked if he would help out Hidden Acres (a therapeutic riding center) with some publicity. I told him “I think they could really use you. Why don’t you look into it?”

   Sagendorf went to see Theron and Mary Simons at Hidden Acres in Naugatuck to understand their program, and his greater realization was that he was deeply depressed, and he became a client.

   “Hidden Acres is a beautiful place and Theron and Mary do amazing work,” Sagendorf said of his first visit. “Janet and I stood there for three hours and watched handicapped children work with horses.”

  Sagendorf was immediately drawn to Windsor, the biggest horse in the stable.

The Hidden Acres Therapeutic Riding Center in Naugatuck triiggered a deep emotional response in Sagendorf and helped him realize the deep depression he had tumbled into. Pictured here from left to right are Janet Sagendorf, Bob Sagendorf, Windsor the horse, Mary Simons and Theron Simons.

  Theron Simons said when Sagendorf first walked into the barn he could tell that Bob was highly intelligent and very inquisitive. “The person who he is never left,” Simons said. “Bob just had to find it again.”

   And Windsor became his guide back to himself.

   “Bob got to experience love in a different form,” Simons said. “Through the exchange of love with a horse he peeled the onion back and realized he was okay, and life began to percolate back up.”

   When Sagendorf speaks about Hidden Acres he gets choked up, and when he went to see Windsor in mid-March he wept. “I deeply bonded with this horse,” he said. “I feel love when I come here. The psychology of healing is more important than the medicine and science of healing.”

Sagendorf hanging out with his buddy, Windsor.

    Mary Simons said, “animals can see into our soul and sense our needs. They welcome us into their open space and that’s where the magic happens. That’s where the healing occurs.”

The Break
   During a round of golf last summer with former classmates from Naugatuck High School the name of Mary Ellen Kilgallon came up. No one had seen Mary Ellen for years, but she was in town for the class reunion, and she worked at the Mass General Voice Center where Julie Andrews, Bono, Cher, Joe Buck and Steven Tyler all had been treated.

   “My friends told me I had to talk to her,” Sagendorf said. “They told me she worked with the best doctors in the world, and they fixed voices.”

   Sagendorf was reluctant. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I’d had enough of medicine and procedures, but my friend Mickey Fortin wouldn’t let it go.”

   Eventually Fortin grabbed Sagendorf and got in his face. “Mickey told me I was doing this,” Sagendorf said, “and I reluctantly sent a message and my medical history to Mary Ellen.”

   Not long after, Mary Ellen called Sagendorf and said Dr. James Burns was highly interested in his case. The voice doctors decide who they want to see and on November 1st Sagendorf met with Dr. Burns.

   The doctor asked Sagendorf what his expectations were, and Bob told him he didn’t have any. The doctor asked Sagendorf what he wanted, and Bob told him he wanted 25% of his voice back.

   “Dr. Burns said he was going to take a ligament from my throat and make it into a vocal chord,”Sagendorf said. “He told me I would have a full voice again. He told me I would be heard again.”

   At that point “the waterworks started on the spot,” Sagendorf said. “I was overwhelmed. Dr. Burns told me I would be whole again.”

   The surgery was scheduled for December 7th in Boston and Sagendorf described the surgery as an ACL or Tommy John repair, but in his throat. Bob was awake for most of the five hour procedure and Dr. Burns talked with him at various times during surgery asking him to make aaaa sounds, eeeee sounds and iiiii sounds. Then Dr. Burns asked Sagendorf to give him something, so he did.

   “Brady in the gun, looking for Gronkowski over the middle, Brady fires, and it’s a 19 yard completion for the New England Patriots...”

   Dr. Burns said he wasn’t a Patriots fan, and asked Sagendorf to call a Giants play.

   “It was great to feel my voice again,” Sagendorf said. “It was great to feel the vibrations in my chest. I had my voice back.”

   Janet was seated in a massive waiting room at the Mass General Voice Center. Every seat was taken. She was nervous. One by one the doctors would come out to address a family and relay the news about a surgery. When it was her turn, a nurse came up to her and said Dr. Burns wanted to see her in a side room.

   “I thought the worst,” she said. “What happened to Bob?”

   Moments later Janet saw Dr. Burns bounding down the hallway. “He grabbed me, hugged me, and said the surgery came out better than he ever thought.”

   Bob’s son Aaron had been apprehensive about the procedure. After the surgery Aaron sent his father a text asking “how did it go?”

   Sagendorf texted back, “why don’t you call?”

   Aaron called and Bob answered, “Well, what did you think?”

   Aaron was stunned.

   “It was surreal,” Sagendorf said, “After being told for so long I’ll never have a voice, and then it was back. Jimmy V. said ‘don’t give up, don’t ever give up.’ And I don’t.”

Back On The Air
   Five weeks after surgery Bob Sagendorf returned to the WATR airwaves to broadcast a basketball game between Crosby High School and Kennedy High School, ironically on Friday the 13th. It was a thrilling night for Sagendorf as he called his first play by play game since losing his voice six years ago.

  Janet sat in the bleachers at the Crosby Palace and listened to Bob’s play by play on WATR radio. “It was very emotional,” Janet said. “It reminded of when we first met.”

   Bob admitted to being a little nervous before the game, “but after the tip-off I got into my rhythm and my mind got right back into it,” he said.  Calling the play by play was so natural for Sagendorf that he didn’t pay attention to his voice. “I think I did pretty good,” he said. “It’s been six years, but it all came back to me.”

Sagendorf calling the play by play of the Crosby-Kennedy High School game in January, his first game in seven years.

   With his voice back Sagendorf continued to call the play by play at games right through to Sacred Heart High School’s Class L State Championship game at the Mohegan Sun. “It’s been such a whirlwind since December 7th. I’m emerging from six years of hell to deal with life again. I never allowed myself to think I’d be back at the Mohegan Sun calling a championship game again. But there I was back doing what I love to do in an arena.”

   Sagendorf works part time at WATR as producer for Steve Noxon’s Talk of the Town show. Bob books guests and helps guide Noxon, who is WATR’s new talk show host. “What I do at Talk of the Town I did at ESPN,” Sagendorf said. “Before I lost my voice I was in discussions with FOX News about anchoring a show, but that’s long gone now.”

   So what’s next for Sagendorf?

   “Am I going back to ESPN? No. They don’t want me and I don’t want them. They are looking for younger people and aren’t interested in a 62-year-old broadcaster on the rebound. Maybe I can broadcast Division II or Division III sports or Ivy League games. Those would be my highest aspiration, and I would love to do a book on tape.”

   Focused on the financial turmoil of his six-year crisis, Sagendorf hasn’t given himself the opportunity to revel in his remarkable recovery. When the weather breaks he’ll head back to Hidden Acres to continue his therapy with Windsor, and he has ear surgery scheduled for April 14th to try and correct the hearing loss he has endured the past six years. If the hearing improves it will be an enormous boost to further train his voice, which he calls a new instrument.

   After the surgery Sagendorf communicated with Joe Buck of FOX, who had a procedure done on his vocal chords at Mass General. ‘We tried to meet in NYC but we were snowed out,” Sagendorf said. “We ended up e-mailing and he told me that it would take at least nine months to trust my voice, and that I would wake up in the morning wondering if my voice was still there.”

   Part of Sagendorf’s voice therapy is to yell and hold it. “The doctors want me to strain and push hard,” Bob said. And now he sings in the shower.

   “I love to hear him sing, Janet said, “he sings anything and everything, but he really likes the Kingston Trio.”

   Janet said the hardest part of the ordeal was that Bob lost his career, and a once gregarious guy could not communicate well. “He made himself known without a voice,” Janet said, “and we developed our own sign language that Bob would use to signal me it was time to go. He struggled with social situations. Eating was difficult and breathing was difficult.

   In the past five years Sagendorf endured 67 job rejections, and his income loss and medical bills amounted to $2.7 million.

   “I had no income and was living on disability,” Sagendorf said, “now that I have my voice back I want to go to work.”

   ESPN’s Chris Berman said if the breaks had rolled Sagendorf’s way he would have been a big time radio star. “The ball bounced right for me,” Berman said, “but it didn’t bounce right for Bob. Losing the voice you make a living with is heartbreaking, but after all he’s been through, and now that he has his voice back and he’s back broadcasting....maybe the ultimate ball bounced his way. Maybe all the professional breaks that didn’t go his way were all saved up for this.”