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Cedars-Sinai Magazine

Heart of Playa

Jeff Baird

For Jeff Baird, Playa del Rey has it all: the beach, the bike paths—and the doctor who saved his life.

Jeff Baird has a lot of reasons to love living in Playa del Rey. If he’s not exploring the nearby beach and bike paths, he’s taking in the spectacular view from floor-to-ceiling windows in his living room, which frame the Ballona Wetlands and the sparkling blue Marina del Rey harbor.

But perhaps the best perk is that almost everything he likes to do is just steps away from his house.

“It feels like a small town next to a big city,” says Baird, 68, who grew up in New York City and has lived around the world, including stints in Tunisia, Qatar and the San Francisco Bay Area. “The people are friendly, and it’s very community-based.”

That community extends to his doctor, too—Cara Stalzer, MD. In fact, Stalzer’s Cedars-Sinai office is just two and a half miles away in Playa Vista’s new lively central district, Runway. That’s convenient for Baird, but he’d happily drive many more miles than that to see her, and for good reason.

“She saved my life,” he says.

Mysterious Pain

Jeff Baird

The first person Baird credits with saving his life, though, is his wife, Barbara Collins. Last summer, she convinced him to find a new primary care doctor who would take a closer look at his health.

She had good reasons to be concerned. For the past four years, Baird had been having sporadic bouts of chest pain, particularly when walking uphill or carrying jugs of water up the long stairway to their three-level beach house, where they’ve lived for three years.

“It wasn’t a strong pain, but it would get my attention,” Baird says. “I would just sit down for a couple of minutes until it subsided.”

He researched doctors online and chose Stalzer based on her profile. “She seemed personable,” he recalls, and the fact that she was nearby was a bonus. At Baird’s first appointment in September 2017, Stalzer spent nearly an hour with him.

As he’d hoped, she was easy to talk to, but Stalzer didn’t like what she heard about the chest pain.

“It sounded like a cardiac problem,” explains Stalzer, who completed her residency at Cedars-Sinai in 2017. “I said, ‘OK, we need to look into this.’”

She sent Baird for a “stress test” with Keith Yabumoto, MD, a Cedars-Sinai cardiologist. When that was positive, Yabumoto performed an angiogram—a catheter procedure that shows if heart vessels are clogged.

The news was not good. One of Baird’s coronary arteries was 90 percent blocked and the others were significantly clogged. He urgently needed open-heart surgery, a quadruple coronary artery bypass.

Lying there on the exam table, Baird was stunned.

“I think what hit me for the first time,” he says, “was that sense of not being immortal.”

A Lot to Live For

On December 12, Baird underwent open-heart surgery with a Cedars-Sinai surgeon at the Smidt Heart Institute. Just one week later, he was home.

Since then, he’s been slowly but surely regaining his strength. He works from home, as a city-planning consultant, and he and a partner have a firm near San Francisco that helps local governments address affordable housing issues. Soon, he plans to resume his twice-monthly trips to the Bay Area.

Even though Baird likens open-heart surgery to “getting hit by a truck,” he seems unruffled by the experience. Relaxing at his kitchen table in dark, stonewashed jeans and a casual blue collared shirt, he’s quick to smile and laugh, and his easy, friendly nature melds perfectly with the nearby beach. But as much as he loves the simplicity of Playa, he’s also an adventurer.

After college, he served three years in the Peace Corps, teaching physical education in the African countries of Tunisia and Togo. Later, he lived in Qatar, working with the government there on a large development project.

His destination of choice these days: Italy. He and his wife—who between them have three adult children and one 18-year-old grandson—got married in Italy and hope to eventually retire there.

Healthy Changes

For now, though, Baird is perfectly content walking their two dogs, Lola and Zooey—an excitable pair of Chihuahua-Italian greyhound sisters—along nearby Ballona Creek. He can’t wait to dust off his beach cruiser and resume his regular bike rides along the coast.

He’s lost 35 pounds since that first appointment with Stalzer, mostly through drastically cutting down on sugar, white bread and unhealthy fats. The lifestyle changes have also helped other aspects of his health: He is no longer prediabetic, and his doctor couldn’t be prouder.

“He’s really shown that healthy lifestyle changes can go a long way, and he’s lowered his risk of further heart disease,” says Stalzer, who also lives in Playa del Rey and loves being close to her job at Cedars-Sinai’s brand-new medical offices. Her colleagues include other family physicians, pediatricians and an urgent care staff who serve the growing needs of the corner of Los Angeles nestled between Santa Monica and the South Bay.

“I feel a real sense of community here,” she adds. “Many of my patients can walk to the clinic or work nearby, or I’ll run into them at Whole Foods. I like how local everyone is.”

Baird is grateful to Stalzer and all his doctors, including the multitalented cardiology team she recommended. Standing at his living room windows, looking out at the view and his life ahead of him—as Lola and Zooey exchange happy, high-pitched yaps and circle excitedly around his feet—Baird can think of only one word to describe how he feels.

“Lucky,” he says. “I’m just really, really lucky.”

Cara M. Stalzer, MD

Stalzer completed her residency with Cedars-Sinai and officially joined the team as an internist in 2017. She is passionate about medicine and keeps up her own health with the help of classical ballet classes, Pilates and bike rides along the paths of Playa del Rey.

Serving Playa Vista

Jeff Baird found his new favorite doctor at Cedars-Sinai’s outpatient services in Playa Vista. Residents of Silicon Beach and the surrounding areas can access urgent care, primary care and pediatrics at the brand-new medical offices in the Runway development.

 “The location features a sophisticated, calming design and a new, more efficient layout that let doctors focus more on their patients and make for a better experience,” says Mary Clare Lingel, vice president of Strategic Integration at Cedars-Sinai Medical Network. The medical offices cover 32,000 square feet and encompass on-site labs, X-rays and obstetric ultrasound services—with expanded services such as OB-GYN coming soon.