Healing Side by Side
Aug 25, 2021 Cassie Tomlin, photos by Alexis Hunley
Wholehearted support from his family and his doctor helps a patient heal from a health crisis
In 1991, Eric Berry was a shy, “daredevilish radical” in a black Western jacket and Drakkar Noir cologne. Cheri was a pretty student attending college in Walnut, Calif. They were both paying bills in a city building when they noticed each other for the second time in three months, but he choked over how to approach her. That day, he got his serendipitous green light: She forgot her purse out in the open.
He rescued the handbag and strolled over to return it. She craned her neck to meet his eyes, a foot above hers. They spent the rest of that day together—and every day since for the last 30 years.
As far as Berry is concerned, it was divine intervention that he ended up with Cheri, his wife, true love and unflinching advocate.
"It's important to me to know patients outside of the exam room."
– Nitin Kapur, MD, MPH
NITIN KAPUR, MD, MPH
Kapur earned his medical degree at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and his master’s degree at Harvard School of Public Health. He completed his internship and residency at Yale School of Medicine and joined Cedars-Sinai in 2018. He and his wife, Alpna Agrawal MD, PhD, MPH, a psychiatrist, live in Pacific Palisades with their three daughters.
And he knows it may sound weird, but it’s the same with his doctor, Nitin Kapur, MD, MPH, a Cedars-Sinai primary care physician who showed up when Berry really needed someone to listen and help him make sense of his health. He was suffering under the weight of new symptoms—fear and panic—colliding with his already unchecked blood pressure.
"I always pray to God to put people with my best interests in my path," says Berry, a freckled 52-year-old with a clean beard and muscular frame. "Dr. Kapur was right on time for me."
THE BIG UNEASY
Kapur calls him "Big Guy" now, but Berry was scrawny as a kid growing up in Riverside and Compton. Though he was small, he was fearless: His grandfather taught him to ride horses when he was 4, and he sped around his family’s property without a saddle. On the football field, he absorbed tackles "like thunder" from guys twice his size and raced streetcars at local speedways.
Life grew tamer after he and Cheri married and settled in the South Bay, where they raised their sons, Jo Jo, 32, and Doug, 30, and now live with their sweet, stout bulldogs, Cha-Cha and Ghost.
But in 2019, Berry’s intrepid nerve plummeted with his health: He was taking four medications for uncontrolled high blood pressure and he’d fallen into such severe depression and anxiety that he was scared to leave his house. He was in and out of the emergency department for spells of panic and wooziness. No one could figure out what was wrong.
"I’d never had anxiety, so it was hard to explain to doctors," Berry says. "I just knew something was wrong and no one really got it."
In the fall, Berry booked an appointment with Kapur and described being haunted by a terrifying feeling, his heart pumping like he’d just done three backflips out of a plane.
Kapur listened intently, encouraged him to say more and reassured him that he wasn’t dying like he thought he was.
"He tapped in immediately, and I felt like we were on the same page," Berry says. "It was like a huge brick lifted off my chest."
DISRUPTING THE CYCLE
That day, Kapur immediately simplified Berry’s medications. With his wife by his side, Berry saw Kapur regularly and consistently to work out solutions to his whole health.
Kapur diagnosed Berry with a unique combination: high blood pressure and anxiety that make each other worse in a vicious little circle.
"His symptoms were complex, but meeting him where he was and giving him the space to just talk were key to understanding how to reduce both the blood pressure and the anxiety with the right combination of medications that work for him," Kapur says. "Purely from a diagnostic perspective, he’s somebody young and fit—we had to ask ‘What are we missing here? What are the underlying causes behind these spikes in blood pressure?’ It’s an ongoing process to manage the interplay between these conditions."
Less than three months after that first visit, 2020 struck, and disaster after disaster inflamed Berry’s conditions: News coverage of the pandemic with so many deaths sent him reeling. On top of that, the murder of George Floyd and the plague of police killings of people of color scared him. He’d always been treated respectfully by cops—his father-in-law was a highranking police officer—but it was a lot to swallow.
Kapur was there through it all, listening.
"It’s important to me to know patients outside of the exam room," Kapur says. "It might not be what you expect if you come in and need a refill on your blood pressure prescription, but I’m in this because I want to have relationships."
He admits his approach garners skepticism from some, but for the Berrys, it clicked.
"When you have health issues, you’re in your own skin literally and figuratively; it’s not something any other person knows about," Kapur says. "When a patient allows you into that sacred, private space and you’re able to connect about their body and their feelings about their body, that’s an intimate thing and such an honor."
"The day we met Dr. Kapur, we became a team," Cheri Berry says.
Berry’s health is on track—he still gets treatment for knee arthritis brought on by years of wear and tear in warehouse distribution work, and will one day need a knee replacement. With his blood pressure and anxiety controlled, the couple’s visits with Kapur are less frequent, so the physician calls the Berrys to check in—as powerful a therapeutic tool as any.
"It’s huge that he calls just to let us know he’s concerned," Cheri Berry says. "You know he’s taking care of hundreds of patients, but you feel like you’re the only one."
Eric Berry keeps busy fixing up his 1993 Ford Mustang Fox-body coupe, a pearl-silver beauty, and works out in his garage on the dip bars he constructed himself. The couple is active in their church, and he no longer walks around scared, feeling like he could drop at any moment, a credit to Kapur’s openness, honesty and interest in hearing him out.
"He did more than he thinks he’s done for me," Berry says. "He’s my doctor and I respect him for that, but he’s my friend, too."
CARE FOR THE WESTSIDE AND COASTAL REGIONS
Eric Berry sees his physician, Nitin Kapur, MD, MPH, in Cedars-Sinai primary care offices in Santa Monica. Patients on the Westside can keep their entire care local, with a range of comprehensive programs and services in Santa Monica and West L.A., including full-service surgery, radiology and imaging. And pediatrics, OB-GYN and urgent care offices are nearby in Playa Vista, rounding out the full range of specialty care in the coastal region.