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Volume 21 No. 26
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After scare, Abramson back in the ballgame

Rick Abramson visited his clients at the start of baseball season, munching on walleye tenders at Target Field, tuna tacos at Petco Park, fried s’mores at Globe Life Park and a loaded bratwurst at Miller Park in his hometown of Milwaukee.

For Abramson, 61, Delaware North’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, it was a big deal to taste some of the best new foods in MLB. Eighteen months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer, Abramson, former president of Sportservice and a 47-year employee of Delaware North, has made a comeback. His cancer is in remission.

In March, Delaware North officials promoted Abramson to his new position, prompting his visits to those four MLB parks where Sportservice runs the food operation.

Rick Abramson, above with former President George W. Bush this year and in Detroit in 1973 below, has returned to a new position with Delaware North after receiving treatment for tongue cancer.
Photo by: DELAWARE NORTH (2)
“This is a remarkable story in every way,” said Bud Selig, former MLB commissioner and a longtime friend of Abramson. “I guess in the end, I’m not surprised. I’m as proud of him as could be and very grateful that he has successfully battled his health issues.”

All cancers are terrible, but suffering from tongue cancer was a cruel irony for Abramson, a food enthusiast in general who can rattle off local diners in every corner of America. For a time, the treatments effectively killed his sense of taste.

“It was like the worst thing that could happen to him on so many levels, not just in terms of threatening his life and his health but then taking away his ability to enjoy food,” said Jerry Jacobs Jr., Delaware North’s co-chief executive officer. “It was like a double whammy.”

In the fall of 2013, Abramson’s wife, Sylvia, noticed Rick had been slurring his words. He visited several doctors. One physician thought he had suffered a mini-stroke. The condition persisted, and it wasn’t until Abramson saw an internist and had an MRI that a tumor was discovered, covering 70 percent of the back of his tongue. A biopsy confirmed it was cancerous.

“It certainly gives you religion, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

The Abramsons live and work in Buffalo, home to Delaware North. To get the best treatment, they found an apartment in New York, and Rick spent the next two months enduring six chemotherapy sessions and 37 radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

At one point, Abramson was down to 128 pounds after having to drink liquids only while going through treatment. Treatment resulted in paralysis to the left side of his tongue, but for Abramson it beat surgery. Because of the size of the tumor, surgeons would have had to remove the tongue by peeling Abramson’s face back and moving his jaw aside.

Before his most recent promotion, Abramson was president of Delaware North parks and resorts and executive chairman of Delaware North Australia and Asia. As Abramson went through treatment, the long trips Down Under were eliminated — though not by his choice. Jacobs had to sit Abramson down and tell him the company would do fine while he stayed home and got well. It wasn’t easy, considering the work ethic for which Abramson is known.

During the second week in April of this year, for example, between the four baseball openers, Abramson squeezed in a trip to Los Angeles to tour Delaware North’s airport operation, attend an industry conference, go to a Dodgers game (he knows most of the team’s ownership) and entertain officials from Patina Restaurant Group, which Delaware North bought in 2014. Looking back over the time Abramson went through treatment, Jacobs believes it drove Abramson crazy that he couldn’t do his job.

“In all honestly, he really went through the ringer,” Jacobs said. “The biggest challenge that we as his friends faced was getting him to recognize that he needed to slow down, that he couldn’t keep working.”

Last summer, after completing treatment and spending a month in Florida to get some sun and gain some weight, Abramson went back to work part time, but a sudden setback scared everyone close to him.

In July, he attended the MLB All-Star Game at Target Field to catch up with old friends, including Selig, who’s known Abramson since Selig booked baseball exhibitions at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium in the late 1960s and a teenage Abramson roamed the stands selling hot dogs and popcorn.

Flying back home on the Jacobs family jet after the game, Abramson began hemorrhaging blood from his mouth and nose, and it wouldn’t stop. He collapsed, and Jacobs had to carry him from the bathroom to a couch where he held him on his side while the plane made a beeline for Buffalo.

“I thought we might lose him,” Jacobs said. “We were all relieved when the paramedics came on board. It was a really rough night and one we would prefer to forget.”

Abramson lost two pints of blood and spent three days recovering in a Buffalo hospital. To make matters worse, he was given morphine and had an adverse reaction, resulting in doctors quickly having to pump the drug from his body.

Doctors never really found out the cause of the hemorrhaging, but as a precaution, they put a tracheal tube in Abramson’s throat to prevent him from bleeding to death if it happened again. The device remained in place for two months, he said.

After his setback, Abramson returned to work in early September. After his promotion, he wrote letters to clients such as MetLife Stadium’s Brad Mayne, informing them that in his new role as COO, he wanted to schedule visits to see how things were going at their facilities.

“I thought, ‘Wow, here’s a guy going through his own personal challenges and he’s already reaching out to accounts,’” said Mayne, president and CEO of the NFL stadium.

“But it didn’t surprise me. He’s a strong individual with strong values. He’s one of the good people in this business that gets it.”