For more than a decade, Max Szadek had worked as Luther Vandross's personal assistant, doing everything from overseeing the R&B star's household staff to making sure he always had supplies of his favorite sugar substitute when he was on the road. Then, on the morning of April 16, 2003, Szadek arrived at Vandross's Manhattan apartment to find his boss laid out on the floor, having suffered a massive stroke that would put him in rehabilitation for the rest of his life. From that moment until Vandross's death on July 1 at 54, Szadek stuck by his side. "Luther inspired me every day, because he was a fighter every day," he says. As Szadek made the difficult transition from assistant to caregiver, he also became a passionate crusader in the fight against diabetes, which likely brought on Vandross's stroke. The founder of Divabetic, an outreach and fund-raising organization, Szadek, 40, spoke to PEOPLE correspondent Mark Dagostino about Luther's brave battle.
After his stroke, Luther was mostly unresponsive for about three weeks. Then, in early May 2003, I remember playing some old Dionne Warwick for him—his favorite—and seeing him be much more responsive. He could nod to let me know what he wanted to hear and how loud he wanted the volume to be. Music was definitely the trigger for getting a higher level of response from him. Within a few months he could use his voice again, and his backup singer Lisa Fischer came and started singing with Luther every week. Aretha came. Patti LaBelle came and sang "If Only for One Night" with him. Those are some of my greatest memories. It was magical.
When Luther was moved to John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, N. J., where he lived and was taken care of by a team of top-notch doctors and physical therapists until he died, I got very involved in his rehabilitation. I'm not a nurse, I'm not a doctor, I'm not a therapist—but I could do some of the therapy with Luther. Walking was a big deal in the beginning. He went from relying on walkers and machines all the way to being able to walk down the hall with very limited help towards the end. He didn't have a speech impediment, but breath control was part of his therapy. He was very committed to fighting—I could see that glimmer in his eye that was piercingly focused and determined—because initially he failed so much. I saw someone who could do these simple tasks, fail to do them another day and then learn to do them again.
Everyone assumes from movies that recovery is just a mountain that goes up, up, up. But it was always up and down. He had incredible highs throughout his recovery, but it wasn't as consistent as people want to think it was. He intuitively knew when cameras were around. We did Oprah
in April 2004 and he pulled out an incredible performance that day. The funny thing was, when you put Luther back in superstar status mode, he would jump up to that level.
In between physical and occupational therapy, we read magazines to find out what was going on in the world. I read him fan mail and e-mails. He was always a huge Price Is Right fan, so we'd watch that. We'd watch Oprah
, especially if Beyoncé or Usher were on. We even watched a little American Idol. Sometimes we'd talk about deeper subjects. When he was willing to talk about it, we discussed the reality of what was happening. And at times it was heartbreaking.
But in the last 2½ years, he really did have a lot of moments of joy. Last year we brought Luther to Philadelphia to celebrate his mother Mary Ida's birthday. He loved a show as much as he loved performing a show, so his friends would come to JFK at Christmas and birthdays and sing "Power of Love."
When he died, I was really shocked. Even though I knew that his health was compromised, we had just done some doctors' appointments, and there was nothing to let you know that was around the corner. At least every day I had a chance to tell my boss just how much he meant to me. I didn't have that opportunity before the stroke, so after the stroke, in some ways I had an opportunity to give back what he gave to me. I've committed myself to fighting diabetes 24/7 now. With Divabetic (www.divabetic.com), the idea is to empower people to talk openly about diabetes. I'll never be able to erase the pain and sadness that happened. But I really feel like Divabetic is giving me something new to wrap a hope and a dream around. Luther's legacy deserves to end on an inspiring note—not on a note of utter sadness.