Phoenix widower uses craft-beer nonprofit to advance brain-cancer research and grieve loss

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Louis Dolgoff, founder of Beer for Brains Foundation, shares old photos of him and his wife in his downtown Phoenix apartment, surrounded by packed away photo albums, paintings collected over a lifetime and beer glasses. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

Twenty-two of Louis and Laurie Dolgoff’s closest friends and loved ones quietly mill about the couple’s home, just south of Carefree Highway where Phoenix and Peoria meet. Although Laurie can offer only a smile, Louis knows that his wife has been excited about her 55th birthday party for weeks.

It’s late August and the air conditioning is not working. The birthday girl lies on top of the sheets of her hospice cot, in front of a fan turned to high, her arm draped around a “Good luck!” teddy bear. An oxygen tank sits next to her bedside. She has not been able to consume water for nine days and her skin is warm under her blue-gray hospital gown. Attendees of the party wander in to visit Laurie, giving her small squeezes on her shoulder and patting her arms, while the voices of Willie Nelson and James Taylor croon through the speakers.

Brain cancer has rendered Laurie nearly paralyzed and unable to speak, but she smiles up at her friends, her two brothers, her mother and her husband.

Dolgoff leaves the room and returns with a birthday cake topped with two number-five candles. Everyone sings happy birthday. Laurie’s eyes grow huge at the sight of the cake that confesses her true age and everyone laughs at this brief flicker of the old Laurie.

Laurie can’t eat the cake, so Dolgoff decides to try to give Laurie a sip of two of her favorite beers instead. She watches Dolgoff as he opens the bottle of Dogfish Head Immort Ale, a maple, vanilla and barley-flavored beer. Guests gather around the cot as he feeds Laurie a small taste. She smiles at the familiar flavor and Dolgoff smiles too.

He puts the bottle down and pours Dogfish Head Fort, a potent fruit beer, into a champagne glass for his wife. Laurie’s eyes register excitement as Dolgoff feeds her another small taste. He smiles and turns to put the glass down as he notices Laurie’s arm quivering slightly. “Would you like another sip?” Dolgoff asks. Laurie stares up at her husband. He gives her a second sip of the beer and she gently closes her eyes and slips into a coma, the flavor of the beer lingering on her taste buds.

***

This is a story about Louis Dolgoff’s grief, and how he channeled it to help others and heal himself. Shortly after Laurie’s diagnosis in 2009, Dolgoff created a nonprofit, craft beer-related, brain cancer foundation that funnels dollars into brain-cancer research.

The pair decided to start the Beer for Brains Foundation when Laurie was still undergoing brain tumor treatment. An oncologist told the couple that Laurie had a year to live, giving them little hope for improvement or potential remission. Disgruntled, the couple was referred to Dr. Lynn Ashby, neuro-oncologist at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

Louis Dolgoff and his wife Laurie pictured at their wedding. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

Ashby gave the couple hope for Laurie’s future, if enough money could be raised to develop a new clinical trial or formulate new medicine that could possibly spare Laurie and some of the other approximately 14,080 men and women who die each year from brain tumors. Dolgoff wanted to make sure that Laurie wouldn’t just be another statistic— just one of the nearly 70,000 people diagnosed with brain cancer in the United States each year.

Dolgoff knew that beer was the fund-raising solution. He was and still is very connected to the craft beer industry; he says he helped open Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware in the mid-1990s.

He knew that the combination of his connections in the industry and the entrepreneurial spirit of craft beer lovers would yield success.

Arizona’s craft-beer community is significant. Craft brewers had a direct economic impact on the state of $150 million in 2011, and beer distributors add $54 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product. Craft beer production is a rapidly growing industry, with an average of 115 breweries opening up each year since 1990, with the all-time record set in 2012, according to the Craft Brewing Study by The Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center.

Dolgoff started the Beer for Brains Foundation in 2010. All of the money raised by the foundation is donated to supporting the development of brain cancer research and treatment options at the Barrow Neurological Institute.

Dolgoff designs interactive beer and food fundraisers. For instance, the Epicuriad pairs local breweries and chefs together to create cohesive dishes that attendees vote on, and the RAREaffair features unique, hard-to-find beers.

In Nov. 2012, Dolgoff hosted the RAREaffair at downtown’s Arizona Science Center. The event featured three bands, wine, food and about 70 distinctive beers, many of which are nearly impossible to find in Arizona. Dolgoff even found a couple of beers that were one-of-a-kind, like the brew that was created especially for and named after the event. This particular RAREaffair raised approximately $41,000 for Barrow’s research center, the most ever donated by the foundation at one time.

“We hope to really kick it up next year and make it a world class event,” Dolgoff now says. “It was a success, but we need to make a lot more [money] in the next event, and we will.”

Since its start, The Beer for Brains Foundation has raised more than $75,000 from events held in Phoenix for the Barrow Neurological Institute, he says.

“We have to do things that are exciting so people want to learn about it,” Dolgoff now says. “We have to make it so fun, or so weird, or so unusual, that people learn about brain cancer.”

The foundation is intended to help others battle cancer, but in a way, it has also helped Dolgoff battle an almost insurmountable grief.

***

Grief experts suggest those who have lost loved ones establish new routines by focusing on a television show or movie or exploring new foods and new places. Dolgoff found a way to establish a new routine, and an enduring connection with Laurie, via the foundation. He carries on Laurie’s legacy by trying to save others.

“This is the most obsessive I can be because I can’t save Laurie anymore,” Dolgoff says.

This path of recovery is uncommon, yet very commendable, according to Kathy Kramer-Howe, manager of bereavement services at Hospice of the Valley. The value of this foundation to Dolgoff is a reflection of how much Laurie meant to him.

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, one of the stages of grief is the gradual regaining of hope. Dolgoff never lost hope to begin with, from Laurie’s diagnosis to her death to now. He has remained steadfast to his goal of raising the most money possible for brain-cancer research.

“I believe that anything can happen. I believed that she would get well,” Dolgoff now says. “One in 1,000,000 beat it and they don’t know why. I thought it would be her.”

***

Dolgoff shows photos of him and his wife, noting how she really didn’t change over the years. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

Louis Dolgoff grew up in Baltimore, unknowingly living half a mile away from the girl he would marry.

Dolgoff and Laurie met when they were both camp counselors in a fit of chance; the owner of the camp had fired another counselor and asked Dolgoff to replace him in the coming summer session. Had 17-year-old Dolgoff not returned to the camp, he and Laurie may never have met.

The pair dated for eight years and were married for 30, sharing a life in Maryland, N.J., and then Arizona, he a tennis-pro-turned-beer distributor for Dogfish Head Brewery, and she a retail fashion saleswoman. They shared a special passion for craft beer after discovering a bottle of Chimay Cinq Cents in a wild mushroom restaurant where they were having dinner one night in 1995.

Every Sunday night, Dolgoff would prepare a gourmet meal for his wife and they would talk for hours as if it were their first date. They collected artwork, learned new things, loved The Beatles and never had kids because they just wanted to be with each other, together.

In 2009, the two traveled back to Baltimore for Passover with family. On this trip, Dolgoff began to notice a change in his wife, who was unable to read the Book of Exodus and was randomly falling asleep. The couple went to the hospital and later learned that Laurie had glioblastoma multiforme, one of the most highly malignant brain tumors.

Dr. Taro Kaibara of the Barrow Neurological Institute operated on Laurie’s brain, and remembers Laurie’s positive attitude. During the first year of her diagnosis, Laurie lost some of her vision and became unable to drive. At times she couldn’t read or write. For two and a half years, she endured seizures, multiple tumors, chemotherapy, arm-breaking falls and invasive surgeries, until finally she lost the battle and became a home hospice patient.

***

Louis Dolgoff walks into the seventh-story community room of his new downtown Phoenix apartment complex. His forest-green Beer for Brains polo is tucked into his khaki shorts, and he wears a black Beer for Brains hat and tan boat shoes. He shuffles to the center of the floor-to-ceiling glass-paned room and hoists a cardboard box labeled “photos,” written in black sharpie, up onto the table. He sits down, opens the box flaps, pulls out a drawstring Barrow backpack, loosens the top and removes a stack of photos and old notes from Laurie.

“It’s kind of weird that this is all that’s left. Memories and pictures,” he says. He explains each of the photos, where they were, the funny thing that Laurie said that day, why she had a different hairstyle in almost every picture, about how beautiful she was. He talks about the hundreds of letters Laurie wrote to him daily while he was at college at the University of Nevada at Reno on a tennis scholarship, and how she was notoriously late to everything.

“I was always sitting and waiting for her. Now I wish I was still waiting,” Dolgoff says.

Baby photos of Laurie lay on the floor of Dolgoff’s apartment as he packs in preparation of moving. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

He reaches his arm over the box and grabs another chunk of memorabilia. On the top is a homemade birthday card from Laurie to Dolgoff written in her scrawling black cursive while she was sick.

“I am working very hard (and it doesn’t feel like hard work) to continue to feel as healthy as possible, to continue to get terrific MRI results with the goal of one day finding out that the cancer is gone for good. The day we have been working towards together. I can’t wait until you can relax and exhale. I love you so much and hope that this is the first of many birthdays where you are able to relax and enjoy the day without worry and only think about how much fun we are having now and will have in the future. We have so much to be thankful for and so much to look forward to,” she wrote.

“She never believed she was going to die. I would look at her and think, ‘she’s not going to be around.’ Laurie had the worst thing that could happen, happen to her.”

Dolgoff looks quietly at the birthday card, at the photos of Laurie scattered on the table.

“Someone tells you you’re going to die. She would watch comedies and laugh her head off. How many people do you know that would wait to die like that?”

***

Attendees of the Beer Versus Wine Dinner cautiously rearrange their personal sets of polished glasses. Six open-fire heaters warm the patio of Litchfield’s, a restaurant in the Wigwam Resort. Dolgoff stands and smiles, waiting for the group to notice. He isn’t wearing his bowler hat, and his scalp is taut and lightly tanned underneath a light dusting of soft, white hairs.

He addresses the small group: “This was all started about two and a half years ago because I knew so many people in craft beer and knew we could turn the fundraising into events. I promised Laurie, she was the reason I did this.” He adjusts his half-silver-rimmed glasses high on his nose and sits down with his hands in his lap.

Dolgoff sits and listens to David Walker, co-founder of Firestone Walker Brewing, who speaks about the mini-revolution that is craft beer and why he chose to pair Firestone’s Double Barrel Ale with the dinner’s first course of pecan-smoked sea prawns in a jalapeno corn broth.

Next, Pete Hedges of Hedges Winery introduces his Sauvignon Blanc blend. Dolgoff initiates a polite round of applause from the attendees. He alternates taking respectful tastes of wine, eating the prawns directly after to discover the similar flavor profiles in the pairing, and repeats the process with heartier sips of beer.

The respective beer and wine masters finish their pitches and Dolgoff is again the catalyst of applause from the guests, regaining the center of everyone’s attention at his table. The sounds of quiet chatter blend with forks touching plates. Dolgoff doesn’t eat pork, and he’s asked for fish but it doesn’t appear. He speaks about coming events, rubbing his hands together, pointing and gesturing.

“I want to do a million things,” Dolgoff says to the table. “I want things to happen much faster, more money, more medicine.”

***

Dolgoff remembers his last few moments with Laurie, just nine days after her birthday party. It was a cool Arizona summer morning and the sun was just beginning to turn the sky orange. Dolgoff slept in the bed that he and Laurie once shared, she lay next to him in her hospice cot. At 6:29 a.m. on Aug. 29, Dolgoff woke abruptly from his sleep and shot out of bed, sheets floating to their resting place on the mattress behind him. At the time that Dolgoff reached Laurie’s side, she took her last breath as Dolgoff held her, sobbing. Dolgoff remained with her body for two hours, crying and letting the pain of his loss overcome him.

“We were so connected, you know,” Dolgoff now says, looking down to examine his folded hands.

Contact the reporter at apsmith5@asu.edu