Former CAA Partner: Why I Became an Agent for the Sick (Guest Column)
After a series of family misdiagnoses, Byrdie Lifson Pompan — whose roster included Paul Haggis and Frank Darabont — left Hollywood and now fights for more vulnerable clients: patients. She tells her story for THR's annual Doctors Issue.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
I was an agent at the most powerful talent agency in the world. Today, I’m still an agent of sorts, but I’m representing a very different clientele — people with serious health issues.
My formidable years as an agent were at CAA. The years that I represented clients who won Oscars, whose movies broke box-office records, that all happened when I was at CAA. I grew up as an agent there. I grew up as a person there. I started there when I was so young (27), in 1994. I gave birth to my kids when I was there — Noah and Simon, who are now 19 and 16.
It’s an incredible environment to work in, and because it was so nurturing, I didn’t want to let anyone down. I really thrived on being that person that people say, “I don’t know how she does it.” I thrive in drama and chaos. The busier, the more chaotic, the more successful I am. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I have an intense fear of failure so I never allow it to happen. I recognized that when I got a job at CAA that I had this incredible opportunity. The culture of CAA is such that if you embrace the culture — which centers around teamwork — then you succeed.
A personal achievement was helping create the opportunity for the director Mimi Leder to go from directing ER to direct George Clooney and Nicole Kidman in DreamWorks’ first movie, The Peacemaker. To put this woman, who had never directed a movie before as the director of DreamWorks’ first movie — as a woman myself — that was a huge personal accomplishment. I also represented Brett Ratner, who went on to direct Red Dragon coming off buddy comedy movies that were wildly successful in their genre, but he’d never directed a serious, heavy movie.
You have to step back and look at it like a puzzle. That's how I did it, anyway. How are you going to make all the pieces fit? How are you going to get the studio to sign off? Who are you going to call first? I always say if you don’t know what your options are, you don’t have any. I use the same skills today in my new job, to help save lives.
In 2003, I was horribly misdiagnosed by the head of neurology at a major Los Angeles hospital; a doctor that I had the privilege of getting an appointment with thanks to a very important client of the agency — whose name is on the building. You think that if you’re going to the head of a department at a top hospital, he or she must be the very best. But this doctor misdiagnosed me twice over a six-month period. He did MRIs but didn’t look at them closely enough, and I didn't know that I had options. He told me I had a condition called Bell’s palsy, but unfortunately, I had a brain tumor that he missed.
We’re in a society that is conditioned to listen to our doctors. You go to your doctor. They say you have high blood pressure. "Here, take this pill." You take it. I have tremendous respect for physicians, but I think it’s incumbent upon individuals to advocate and investigate. I didn’t do it. Instead, I went to the Oscars the year my client, Jim Sheridan, was nominated for In America, with a half-paralyzed face, believing I had Bell’s palsy.
Also in 2003, my father was diagnosed as having a bladder infection, and his urologist put him on vitamins and supplements. As it turned out, he had a very rare form of prostate cancer. Not the “good news” kind — not the kind you recover from. He was given six weeks to live. I spent hours researching the most appropriate specialist for his particular cancer. I identified an oncologist at City of Hope who said, “I can give him real quality of life. I can put him in remission, but when it comes back, there isn’t anything I’m able to do.” He stayed alive for two more years — two really good years. And she was right, when the cancer came back; there was nothing that could be done. But because she was a specialist in this particular type of cancer, she knew the secret sauce to keep him alive for two more years.
That’s when wheels starting turning in my mind. Why aren’t there agents for sick people? How could I use the skills I’d built up over a 24-year career in Hollywood to help other patients navigate the health care system to get the very best care available? But at the time, I didn’t think about leaving CAA. I loved my job and everything that came with it: great colleagues, a beautiful office, flying first class — and of course, making lots of money. I had an enviable career, to be sure. Who would give all that up?
But then two other major things happened. In 2008, my mother, who had always suffered from a compromised respiratory system, had a really bad asthma attack, and they had to give her a tracheostomy. She needed respiratory rehab, but had trouble getting a bed.
Byrdie Lifson Pompan
The final straw came in 2010. My brother was having horrific headaches, so he drove himself to a local regional hospital where they did an MRI and diagnosed him with tension headaches. By June, the headaches were so bad that I took him to UCLA, and on June 10 he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was horribly misdiagnosed, and at that moment, I knew I couldn’t be a Hollywood agent anymore.
I left CAA in February of 2012, and my brother died that July. I had already become an expert at being a literary agent, but I was slowly becoming an expert on what kind of doctors people needed, though I had no formal training. Obviously I’m not a doctor, but because I lived through brain tumors, prostate cancer, respiratory compromise, all these different things, people came to me to say, “Where should I go?” That’s how this career began.
About a year ago, I partnered with Dr. Valerie Ulene to launch Clear Health Advisors. We begin with identifying the most appropriate specialist for each client. Thankfully, my skills as an agent really do translate. When I was at CAA, I really got to know my clients, the landscape they were about to traverse, and how to best equip them for success. Because of this I was able to strategize and advocate on their behalf. I do the exact same job now — only now it really is a matter of life and death.
The biggest challenge now, like in my former job, is that I’m never done reading. I used to go to bed with scripts piled on my nightstand. I’d spend all Sunday reading because I had to report what I had read on Monday in the staff meeting. Now I’m reading up on clinical trials, publications by physicians that we’re looking into, and about diseases. Currently, at 49 years old, I’m getting a master’s degree at Brown University. I have homework and projects to do for school. I’m going to turn 50 and have a master’s degree in 2016. There’s always more work to be done, and that was true in my last job. Both are 24/7.
Richard Lovett always said that it starts with "no." It never starts with "yes." It starts with "no" and you figure out a way to get to "yes." You don’t give up until you get there. And as long as you’re willing to stay in and fight, which you have to be — especially in this job — you’ll get there. We have a client who was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was being seen by the breast cancer oncologist at a major institution in L.A. The doctor was using standard chemotherapy that you would use for this type of breast cancer, but she wasn’t getting any better. She came to us, and Val went through all the documentation and determined that she had a very specific type of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancer, which is very rare. So Val identified the most appropriate physician specialist for triple negative breast cancer, who is out of state. In this case, this patient was able to travel to Duke University Hospital to see the world’s foremost expert on triple negative breast cancer. She’s now in remission — eight months later.
Our mission is to give people every resource available so they can make informed decisions about their treatment plan. We don’t say we save lives, because we’re not God, but no stone goes unturned so a client will be aware of every single one of their options.
Even when we lose clients — because we do — we give their loved ones the piece of mind that everything humanly possible was done. As someone who has lost people I love, there’s no price tag that you can put on that — knowing you did everything. To be able to give that to people is an amazing gift. My mom, and I know she didn’t make it up, always said, “Your life is broken into three parts: to learn, to earn and to serve.” And I kind of felt by the time I was getting into my late 40s, I had earned, and now it was time to serve. I am still learning.
Do I miss my old job? Yes. I miss my colleagues, my paycheck, my office, and not flying business class. I would say the difference between CAA and Clear Health Advisors is that I now get on an airplane and turn right. But it’s worth it.
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