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Exceptional DBA Josef Richberg: fighting cancer, but still sharing

By Bob Cramblitt,

Josef Richberg is an exceptional person: The Judges of the Exceptional DBA Award were quickly proved right in their decision to choose him, when he subsequently showed extraordinary resilience and determination in the face of an unexpected diagnosis of cancer. His determination to deal positively with a difficult life-event is surely a source of inspiration to all of us.

In the weeks since he received the 2009 Exceptional DBA of the Year award, life has displayed all its vagaries to Josef Richberg.

There was the euphoria and recognition in the month after winning the award, followed by an unexpected diagnosis of cancer last month that made it impossible for him to receive the award in person at the SQL PASS conference in Seattle.  Through it all, Josef's spirit remains indomitable, as evidenced in this interview with me a couple of weeks before SQL PASS.

BC: What was the reaction among your co-workers and peers to your winning the 2009 Exceptional DBA of the Year award?

JR: They were thrilled and excited.  They said I deserved it because of my commitment to sharing and teaching.  That was the nicest part: finding out that your perception of yourself aligns with how others see you.

BC: How did your family react?

JR: When I showed my eight-and-a-half-year-old son the announcement on the Exceptional DBA web site, he gave me a big hug and a kiss and said "I'm sooo proud of you."  That was worth everything in the world.  My wife said, "I'm proud of you; I don't know exactly what it means, but I'm proud of you."  She's a dentist and doesn't understand a lot of what I do.

BC: You probably share that characteristic with just about every DBA – people outside your immediate work circle don't understand what you do.

JR: That's right.  Once you get beyond the real techno people, people don't realize what you do unless you have to fix something that is broken.  And that's a love/hate thing.  I love being in a position where I can fix something that is time-sensitive and really needs to be fixed.  And, of course, you get the attention of the higher-ups.  But on the other hand, if I'm doing my job right, the VP shouldn't know about it.

BC: Does the award change your perception about yourself and your job?

JR: It has reaffirmed that I'm on the path I want to be on.  It reinforces that my philosophy of constantly reading, learning and teaching is what the community values.

BC: Is there anything you want to say to the DBA community?

JR: Thank you for the votes and I'm sorry I couldn't be with you at the SQL PASS conference.  Thank you for helping me stay on the right path.  You've reaffirmed the necessity of learning, teaching and sharing.  I pledge to put everything I have into supporting the community – answering questions, evaluating new tools, and making sure I can give back as much as possible.

BC: Are you comfortable talking about your illness and current treatment?

JR: Sure.  A little more than a month ago I was playing with my son in the garden and my back started bothering me.  Soon after, it became tight when I was driving.  A few days later, I'm sitting in my chair and a sharp shooting pain comes up my back.  I told my wife that something's wrong.

We went to the hospital and the emergency room doctor says that he thinks I have an overworked muscle.  I take some medication and it doesn't help.  They admit me to the hospital. Two days go by and I'm thinking I have a torn muscle – I'm 39 and I figure I can heal myself up.  Then, the doctor says, "We think you have multiple myeloma."

I go in for a back problem and wind up with a cancer that's rare for people under 55 and unheard of for people under 40.  It was completely out of the blue and my family has no history of cancer.

So I went into rehab because the myeloma caused my spine to be somewhat soft and I have a few fractures that limit my movements.  I still need a walker because my muscles are sore and they are still getting used to being worked.  I have a recovery time longer than I wanted but no longer than necessary.

Editor's note: Josef was released from rehab and returned home shortly after this interview.

BC: What happens next?

JR: According to the oncologist, the myeloma is being reduced at a rate that they are very happy with.  Once I can stand and sit up by myself I can resume my work, my twitter, my blog.  Travel is limited because I'll still have my walker and I don't know if I'll be driving anytime soon.

BC: How do you keep your spirits up?

I have my wife and son and a family that has been here all the time – my mother, my brother.  My friends and the people at HarperCollins have also been absolutely phenomenal.

But I think the one thing that is driving me is a story.  My great grandparents were married for 50 or 60 years.  My great grandfather always assumed my great grandmother would pass away first. He was in phenomenal health; he would jog 3-1/2 miles twice a week and play handball.  According to his doctor, although he was in his 70s, he was as healthy as someone in his 50s.

When my younger brother was born, my great grandmother held him and shortly thereafter had a massive heart attack and passed away.  I saw my great grandfather, who was in phenomenal condition, waste away to nothing within three years.  So I'm thinking to myself, "I'm in the hospital and I have cancer.  If someone so physically fit can give up and have their body just fall apart, why can't I do the reverse?  Why can't I have such a will to push forward and be with my family that I fight it"?

My inspiration is the reverse of my great grandfather.  If he can justify not going on, I can decide to push forward, to be with my wife and son.  So that's my thing: Why can't it be mind over matter?  Why can't I say "time to get up, time to get up" instead of laying there and going "oh woe is me"?   I've got to push forward.

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