PETER STERLING, ONCE THE MESA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE CEO, FIGHTS TO AGAIN GET UP OFF THE MAT
Peter Sterling’s ascent to the pinnacle of the Mesa business community was relatively fast.
From the time the then-out-of-work advertising executive had moved to Mesa in January 2009 to be closer to his children, it took only two years — nearly to the date — for him to be named CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.
Today, Sterling nears a one-year anniversary of a different kind. It was last March that he began facing a whole new reality.
Sickness. Uncertainty. Unemployment. Sterling had been diagnosed with a deadly and debilitating form of brain cancer.
“You’re going to die of this condition,” Sterling, 47, said of his prognosis. “It’s a matter of when — there’s no cure from it. You can maybe contain it a little.”
On the rise
When Sterling moved to Mesa from Southern California, he admits he ran into more economic walls than he’d faced before. It was the height of the recession, but selling his Orange County home and moving to Mesa was a priority, given that his 16-year-old son and 11-year-old daugther, both from a previous marriage, live in Gilbert.
“I knew hardly anyone here; I looked at every advertising place possible, every advertising agency and nobody was hiring,” Sterling said.
But Sterling said he knew that if he met enough people, the right people, he could make his own opportunity.
“I knew the only way to sort of get anywhere was to meet people,” he said.
After two years of doing just that and and creating a strong network, the Mesa Chamber of Commerce came looking for a new CEO. Sterling submitted his resume, along with a plan he created for the organization, and almost exactly two years after coming to Mesa jobless, he was the chamber’s top man.
Sterling worked tirelessly to build up the nearly 108-year-old organization he inherited in the wake of the nation’s worst financial disaster since the Great Depression — and he was using the same networking and advocacy skills he used earlier to get his position.
“Every business in Mesa should be a member of the chamber. It’s a great chamber,” Sterling said last month.
At the same time, Sterling’s wife Megan was also making a name for herself around Mesa and the surrounding comunities. She is now the director of programs and operations for the East Valley Partnership — another civic and commerce-centric organization that works to foster economic growth for the region. EVP projects often overlap with those of the Mesa chamber.
“It’s kind of a small world out here,” Megan Sterling said.
As time went by, the economy started to get better. Mesa was starting to grow again. The chamber was rebuilding its membership.
“Everything was cruising along,” Peter Sterling explained.
Until March 16 of last year, that is.
“When I was parking cars at Hohokam (Stadium) for a Cubs game, I collapsed,” he said. “But it only lasted a minute or so and I felt fine.”
Sterling said he was experiencing his first seizure — he just didn’t know it at the time. He had more later that day, and a few the next.
“It seemed like 80 percent of my brain — my thoughts — was not working, or working in a limited capacity,” Sterling said. “But that would only go for a minute then I would be right back to normal.”
But the recurring oddity was alarming enough for Sterling to go to an urgent care center, which promptly recognized the problem and sent him to the hospital. There, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
By Monday, March 19, he was undergoing surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible.
“The Glioblastoma multiforme, which is what I have, is the nastiest brain cancer you can get — which, thank you very much, that’s not what I need,” Sterling said, chuckling.
Sterling said humor plays a large part in keeping himself focused on his health and making the most of his time with his wife and children. He later joked about possibly being pregnant due to the sickness caused by chemotherapy and radiation treatments and that doctors cut out “about half my brain” when they removed 95 percent of the “nasty, quick-growing,” 2.5-centimeter tumor.
Sterling recently finished chemotherapy for awhile, and passed the nine-month mark in January which he said about only half of patients make. A year is just weeks away.
“I just focus on getting better and making every day work.”
Sterling said his colleagues at the Mesa Chamber of Commerce were very supportive during the aftermath of the surgery and through his recovery, he said.
Current chamber CEO Sally Harrison said the sudden news of Sterling’s condition shocked the chamber and the community.
“You can’t fix his illness, so we did what we knew was best, which would be all the little things, you know, stuff around the house, food, whatever,” Harrison said.
But as Sterling’s recovery transitioned into the toxic backlash of his treatment, the chamber — a small, nonprofit entity with only a handful of employees — began to wear. With its CEO away from work, the remaining employees were doing their jobs, plus those of their stricken boss.
Otto Shill was the chairman of the chamber’s board of directors during Sterling’s tenure.
“A lot of people have put in a personal time away from their work to make sure that the chamber could continue to run,” Shill said.
As it became apparent that Sterling’s recovery would prohibit him from continuing as CEO, chamber officials created a new position for Sterling during the summer. It was a member sales position, right up Sterling’s alley as an enthusiastic advocate and master networker.
Sterling would also be able to keep his employee health insurance benefits.
“For us that was the most important thing,” Megan said. “And for morale, it gave him a cause to be out in the community and talking to people. It was good to have something for him to focus on other than being sick.”
But Sterling continued to struggle with his health and energy levels, and he admits he struggled to do the job.
About a week before Christmas, the chamber board dismissed Sterling, effective Jan. 1 — a move Mesa City Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who also considers Sterling a friend, said was “awkward” because of the illness and the holiday-timing.
Kavanaugh posted on his Twitter feed the night of Dec. 19, “Peter Sterling was a transformative CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. His dismissal from employment is disturbing and disappointing.”
Shill said the remarks and those by others lamenting the move are misguided.
“We don’t have any government funding of any kind,” Shill explained. “We’re an independent nonprofit organization and like any small business with very few employees there are limits to what we can do legally and there are limits on what we can do according to contracts, insurance contracts.
“And from the time we learned that Peter was sick until now, we’ve been trying to manage this so that it could come out right for him.”
Picking up the pieces
Today, Megan Sterling is more concerned with the unfathomable amount of medical bills her family faces.
“What happened to him could happen to anyone,” Megan said. “I thought everyone has COBRA, right? No. They don’t.”
The Sterling family found out the hard way, she said, that businesses under 20 employees often don’t have coverage under COBRA. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act allows employees and families in many cases the ability to continue group health coverage for a period of time after employment ends. But that didn’t apply in the Sterlings’ case.
“I will never again have health insurance coverage that’s tied to a job,” Megan Sterling said.
East Valley health insurance broker Phil Bobadilla is CEO of Employee Benefit Exchange, and on the board of directors for the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce. Bobadilla said the situation would have been a “moot point” if Sterling had purchased his own insurance plan, outside of work.
“If you have a group policy, then when you don’t qualify as a full-time employee and don’t have the hours, then you lose coverage,” he said.
Bobadilla said that if Sterling had gotten sick in 2014, when new health insurance regulations tied to the national Affordable Care Act — commonly referred to as Obamacare — had taken effect, he wouldn’t be stuck without coverage.
“We’re good people. We’ve worked hard our whole lives and we did the right things and we saved and all that and it’s like everything can just come crashing down,” Megan said. “That being said, there are some things I would have done differently.”
For Peter, the most important use of his time is to spend the time he has with his family.
“I tell (my kids) I could not be here in a year, or I could and I’ll be making your lives miserable,” he said, laughing; Megan is also ready to move on.
“We’ve been dealt a bad hand lately, definitely, but there are tons of people that are in even worse situations than we are,” she said. “In many ways, we are incredibly blessed. We have our faith, our family, and our friends — that is what has been getting us through.”