Longtime disc jockey and Shakespearean director Helen Borgers is fighting for her life and learning about public support along the way

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Courtesy Cannon Coccellato
Helen Borgers, longtime radio personality for KJAZZ and artistic director for the Long Beach Shakespeare Company, in 2011 at Cal State Long Beach

The vibrant, harmonious sounds of the music genre of jazz can prove difficult for many to define. The genre’s origins date back to the late 19th century, when it would eventually evolve from the classical roots of blues and utilize raw instruments, such as trumpets and horns.

There has been many a jazz enthusiast over the years, but none more prolific and knowledgeable of that music scene than Helen Borgers, her friends would argue— so it came as a shock for many when she couldn’t spread her passion to the masses when she lost her platform in the early summer.

After nearly 40 years of introducing Southern Californians to her favorite jazz tunes by way of disc jockeying at KKJZ, or KJAZZ, Borgers was laid off from the Long Beach radio station for financial reasons in June.

Her family, friends and fans saw it as a disheartening exit for such a passionate radio host, but merely days after announcing her intentions on her Facebook page to join the KSDS radio station in San Diego, Borgers’s fortunes took a turn for the worst.

In July, Borgers was admitted to Long Beach Memorial Hospital for a medical issue, the likes of which became more severe and eventually life threatening as time passed.

In a phone interview with the Signal Tribune on Wednesday, Borgers, currently in the intensive care unit (ICU) and accompanied by her longtime partner Cannon Coccellato, said she is feeling better after she took a “tumble” three weeks ago.

Borgers said her illness stems from a bacterial infection, which is compounded by a tumor that has been growing for more than a decade.

“I was really on the edge,” she said, adding that her team of about 20 doctors have been instrumental in her recovery. “[…] This tumor I’ve had for about 15 years. And because I’ve been a chicken and a coward— and also because I haven’t had the money— I haven’t done anything about it. But, it’s got worse and worse and worse and worse every day. I finally decided, since I was laid off, that I’ve got to do something about it, with or without the money […] And I knew if I didn’t do something about it, it would kill me.”

But the road to full health is an uncertain one. Doctors are attempting to stabilize Borgers’s condition to perform a necessary life-saving operation. Even then, the medical expenses are costly. The disc jockey has already run through her savings.

Brooke Wharton, a friend of Borgers since their days at Hill Classical Middle School, organized a YouCaring crowdfunding page— youcaring.com/helenborgers-954525— to raise donations for the medical costs.

The operation would put Borgers on a further but necessary path of recovery, which would leave her out of work for an unspecified amount of time.

Wharton, in a phone interview on Monday, said she just wants to see her friend, with whom she has attended various jazz concerts in the past, get better. She noted on a post this past weekend on the fundraiser page that Borgers had her first meal in some time.

Helen Borgers, a longtime disc jockey and artistic director for the nonprofit Long Beach Shakespeare Company who is currently hospitalized with a critical illness and is seeking medical funds, in an undated photo at KJAZZ

Wharton said Borgers is stable, but she always has a number of “not-so-great days.”

“Helen is a very kind person,” she said. “She is very giving. And she is very passionate about jazz, needless to say. She has been since I’ve known her for many decades […] She knows a lot of artists, and they all support her. She has a lot of wonderful friends. I’m very pleased.”

Coccellato described how he and Borgers had to answer “serious questions and make serious decisions” about matters concerning literal “life and death” these past few weeks.

“[…] And that’s not hyperbole by any sense of the word,” he said. “I love Helen. She’s my best friend. And, for me, what’s most important is to constantly be right here— by her side— 100 percent. Nothing is getting in the way of that.”

Coccellato and Borgers were both adamant in praising the doctors and their crucial efforts in nursing the radio personality back to health.

“Fortunately, the care I’ve received was so immediate and knowledgeable and skilled, I am now alive,” Borgers said. “[…] But there was a chance of not coming back. Yeah, that’s pretty heavy.”

Borgers’s YouCaring page has garnered $24,064 in one week, as of press time. The goal is to reach $60,000, a fraction of the total medical expenses. Wharton is urging the public to keep donating.

The website has numerous comments from donors encouraging Borgers to stay strong and get better.

“I’m really touched by all the love and affection,” Borgers said. “[…] I can’t believe it myself— so many people from so many places all over the world participating in not only making comments, but making financial donations. It’s been an incredible experience. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I feel surprised I’m living and humbled.”

Wharton said Borgers was practically the voice of KJAZZ for many years. In high school, Borgers had the opportunity to intern at KLON, which would eventually become KJAZZ. The internship turned into a job, and she never left until she was laid off this past summer.

Her passion also translates to the theatre stage, as Borgers has been artistic director for the nonprofit Long Beach Shakespeare Company since the late ’90s.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Dana Leach, producer and costume designer for the Long Beach Shakespeare Company, said Borgers was always generous with her time and patient in detailing the nuances of Shakespearean classics.

I found out what it's really like to have public support [...] All of a sudden, people I never knew or met are coming out of the woodwork thanking me for all I've done for them for all these years, and I had no idea [...] It has changed my life really utterly in all these different ways. Helen Borgers

“That thing that you thought was boring in school that you probably wouldn’t want to delve into as an adult, she makes it interesting and accessible,” Leach said. “[…] I enjoyed working with her so much. She’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. There’s something about Helen that makes you want to go to her and learn from her and her wisdom.”

She called Borgers the “heart and soul of the Shakespeare Company.” Her involvement with the theatre group dwindled during the production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in August. An assistant director came in to fill in for her, but Borgers would still provide feedback to the actors via webcam.

“The cast didn’t really know how ill she was,” Leach said. “By the time the show closed, she was in the ICU. Believe it or not, Helen is a very private person, and she didn’t want people to know how ill she was. We are literally just keeping the boat afloat. So, when she is well, she will be back.”

But, in spite of her improvement this past weekend, it looked as if Borgers might never come back, Leach said.

“It was just a few weeks ago that we thought we might be saying our goodbyes, but, boy, she is a strong and driven woman,” she said. “She is hanging in there, and we just need to get her the things she needs so she can get back on her feet.”

The Los Angeles Jazz Institute is also hosting a fundraiser event entitled “A Day of Jazz” on Oct. 1 from 1pm to 8pm at the Orange County Musicians’ Union Local 7, 2050 S. Main St., in Santa Ana. The proceeds will aid in Borgers’s medical and recovery expenses. There will be live performances from various musicians, and food and beverages will be available.

Amongst the performers will be the Tom Kubis Big Band, the opening act for the fundraiser that Sunday.

Kubis wrote “Helen’s Heart,” a song in honor of Borgers. The ballad, currently composed as a quick demo through a computer, will later utilize live instruments and be performed at the fundraiser.

The title of the song is in reference to Borgers’s loving personality— “her big heart,” Kubis said.

Those who donate to the YouCaring page will also receive a PDF package of the song.

“I don’t know if she really plays anything, but she’s one of us players,” Kubis said about Borgers’s support of jazz performers in a phone interview Wednesday. “We’ve always felt that. She’s treated us just wonderfully over the years. In my mind, I say, ‘Not only did she talk the talk doing the deejaying thing, but she walked the walk.’ She would come to the gigs and support us all. She’s just an amazingly warm, wonderful person. And that’s why we’re going to be there— because she is that to all of us.”

Borgers sees the irony in calling herself a very private person— after all, she has been in public radio and public theatre all her life. She knows there would, at one point, be a time in which she would be resistant to sharing her medical situation, but the public support has changed her “whole perception on life.”

“I’ve been very quiet about it because I am very reserved,” she said. “And, generally, I try to keep out of the public eye. This whole experience has been an incredible eye-opening experience.”

She is now drawing from her own experience and urging people to take care of themselves if they feel sick.

“If you’re ill, don’t wait,” she said. “They tell you that, and you listen and say, ‘Yeah— yeah, right.’ But, it is true. If you’ve got something wrong with you, you should not be afraid to go to the doctor and find out about it.”

Borgers, through the support of Coccellato, her loved ones and fans, can see the silver lining in her health scare. As she currently rests in the ICU, she knows she is not alone.

“I found out what it’s really like to have public support,” she said. “[…] All of a sudden, people I never knew or met are coming out of the woodwork thanking me for all I’ve done for them for all these years, and I had no idea […] It has changed my life really utterly in all these different ways.”