Coach. Husband. Father.
These are words that describe Frank Orgel, an 82-year-old Auburn resident who spends his retirement days with his wife, Sarah, and their dog, Gracie, in their home off Donahue Drive.
Football was Orgel’s life. From childhood, Orgel’s passion for the game grew as he continued on to play semi-professional and professional football. After his NFL run, Orgel took his talent to East Carolina University in 1974 for his first coaching position.
From that moment, it began.
Orgel toured Power Five universities as an assistant football coach. He coached at Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and even stopped in Auburn to work next to Pat Dye from 1981 to 1986. His family was with him every step of the way — packing and moving when the call came.
Life was good. That is … until it wasn’t.
It’s now 1996 — Orgel is running through the airport to catch a plane and, as he recalls, he suddenly trips.
“I just fell in the middle of the airport for no reason at all,” he said. “That never happened to me before.”
That day changed everything.
The falls progressed — Orgel was now working as the athletic director in Dougherty County, Georgia. With Sarah by his side, they sought answers — what was happening?
“For a long while, I was in denial,” said Orgel.
“We were traveling all around the U.S. — Atlanta, Birmingham, Rochester, San Diego — asking doctors who just couldn’t tell us what was wrong. We went to Mexico five times for stem cell research, trying our luck with exploratory medicine, just to receive the same answers.” Sarah added.
In 2007, the answer finally came.
Orgel was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. There is no known cure for the disease that progressively deteriorates motor neurons in the brain. Those afflicted eventually lose all ability of voluntary muscle action.
“When we found out it was ALS, Frank just shut down,” Sarah said. “He had severe depression for years …we were living in Albany at the time and it just felt like he was going to lay around, waiting to die.
“I was calling his friends and old co-workers to try to get him out the house. They were all telling him to get the help he needed."
Eventually, Frank and Sarah decided attending water therapy at the YMCA, two miles from their Albany home, was the best solution.
“I was going three times a week,” Orgel said. “It was close to my house so I could go as much as I wanted, too.”
Yet, another thought was hanging over the Orgels’ heads and this thought was definite — time was ticking. The couple had originally planned to retire in Albany but with Frank’s diagnosis and the progression of age, Sarah had another plan.
“Our daughter and only grandchild live in Auburn,” said Sarah. “After the diagnosis, Frank was getting older, the disease was progressing and somehow, I looked up and I had gotten older, too.
“We were living in a sort of remote location by ourselves and that raised some concerns as well. I thought moving to Auburn with our daughter, her husband and his family to watch our grandbaby grow up might be just what Frank needed."
At first, Frank was apprehensive.
“He refused to go,” said Sarah. “He had gotten a routine down at the YMCA and just began to trust his therapists and here I was trying to move.”
But thanks to their Realtor, who is also a family friend, the Orgels decided to come into town and explore the community. Their first stop was East Alabama Medical Center’s HealthPlus Fitness Center.
HealthPlus offered a variety of physical therapy and amenities to its clients but there was one that stood out to the Orgels immediately — the 85-degree saltwater pool.
“As soon as we walked in, it’s like I saw life come back into Frank,” Sarah said. “I knew, right then, that we were going to be all right.”
HealthPlus sold Auburn to the Orgels and in February of 2012, they decided to make their own cottage on The Plains their permanent home.
Orgel was doing therapy as much as he could. With a few hospital stints in between, the water therapy with physical therapist Allen Graham was proving to be more than just therapeutic.
“Every day I can’t lift my left hand and leg, I’ve lost all ability,” he said. “But in that pool, I can.
“When I come out that pool, I feel life come back to my body.”
Therapy wasn’t the only great thing the Orgels found at HealthPlus. Over the years, they had made connections with staff and other clients — all with the common goal of lifetime wellness. They had convinced the facility to invest in a Quadriciser, a robotic rehabilitation therapy system, to accommodate other patients with disabilities that affected their neuroplasticity and mobility. HealthPlus was a part of the Orgels' daily lives.
Then, on Dec. 16, 2019, they got a letter.
HealthPlus was relocating and there would be no 85-degree saltwater pool at their new facility.
“We have secured a storefront facility at the Auburn Mall that has about 4,600 square feet and we plan to reopen there on March 2, 2020,” said the letter, written by Laura Grill, president and CEO at EAMC. “We feel that this is a more appropriate size.”
The downsize, according to EAMC officials, was prompted by a decline in membership dating back to the 2008 economic recession.
HealthPlus will now be utilized as an office park for internal medicine professionals. According to James Buston, Auburn city manager, this will be a significant benefit to residents.
“I believe we have 12 primary care physicians that they are bringing into the community,” said Buston. “They need housing and they (EAMC) have chosen to house them there.”
Buston reassured EAMC’s claim that aquatic services will now be offered at the Opelika Sportsplex after a number of concerned residents voiced their opinions during the Citizens' Open Forum at the Jan. 7 City Council meeting.
In conjunction, the Opelika Sportsplex has agreed to raise the pool temperature to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It is my understanding that the temperature will be raised to 85 degrees,” said Buston. “So EAMC will be taking that part of their services to Opelika.”
Buston also claims the city is actively looking into the development of an indoor pool facility as a part of the $40 million Parks, Recreation and Cultural Master Plan that first began in 2018.
“We do a citizens survey every two years to see our budget priorities,” he said. “One of the things we saw and have seen, for a long time, is our population wanting more pools.
“We lost one of our pools with the renovation of Drake Middle School so really we only have one pool. A pool is definitely on our priority list."
As for the Orgels and other clients, the pool at the current HealthPlus facility may not be leased by the city of Auburn in the meantime, although the city and EAMC are still in discussions. Clients might, instead, have to make the trek to the Opelika Sportsplex — adding an additional 22 minutes to the commute.
“Luckily, we have a van and luckily, I’m here to take him,” said Sarah. “But what about those who don’t have those means? Some people walked down the hill from the retirement home to the facility while others used public transportation. What about those people?”
According to their website, “The last day of operations at the current facility will be Jan. 31, 2020. A new storefront location will open at the Auburn Mall on March 2, 2020. The new location will offer cardiovascular equipment, strength equipment and personal training, and the membership fees will be reduced to $26 per month.”
As for the Orgels, they will still continue with their course of therapy, even if that means adding time and distance to their daily operations. “We will find a way” Sarah said.
“We always do.”