Sitting behind the front desk of his automotive shop on the border of Long Beach and Signal Hill, Sal Lombardi recounts the most difficult breakdown of his life. In 2007, Lombardi was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

 

Born in Montreal, Canada, Lombardi moved to Southern California with his family in 1978 at the age of 14. In Canada, Lombardi’s father was in the auto repair business, and though he wanted out of automotive, the family needed a steady income.

Sal Lombardi is shown in front of his truck at LB Walker Automotive at 1000 E. Wardlow Rd. He has more than 43 years of experience in the automotive business, having worked with his father during his early teen years in Montreal, Canada. Lombardi survived stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008.  (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)

 

“We had a 76 station on Atlantic Avenue and Carson Street from 1978 to 1992,” Lombardi said. “It was very successful and we worked really, really hard. Then in 1992, my dad decided he was done with automotive. We sold the business and I opened a shop on Spring Street and Orange Avenue. I continued with the tradition of Lombardi’s automotive customer service. It was great.”

 

Lombardi’s Automotive Repair in Long Beach was open until 1995 when Lombardi decided to move his wife, Janice (Jan, for short), and two kids, Jessica and Jeremy, to Las Vegas. After only 11 months in Vegas, Lombardi said he could not stand it. He said the heat was unbearable, with temperatures hitting 114 degrees by 8 a.m. “If you want to lose weight, that’s the place to go – Vegas. I dropped a lot of pounds there.”

 

He moved his family back to Southern California in May 1996 and worked for several auto repair shops before he reopened Lombardi’s Automotive Repair in Cypress in 1999 where it remained until 2002, when he closed up shop and began selling tools.

 

Lombardi sold for Mac Tools, Cornwell Tools and, lastly, Snap-on Tools in 2007.

 

“When I was with Snap-on Tools, that’s when I found out that I had cancer,” Lombardi said. “That is a part of my life that I would really like to forget.”

 

The non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was isolated to the top of his head, where doctors also found a small amount of melanoma. When he was young, Lombardi’s aunt, his mother’s youngest sister, died at the age of 33 due to melanoma.

 

“Having a stage IV lymphoma doesn’t make it a terminal problem, unlike stage IV lung cancer, for example,” Dr. Devi Asuncion, a hematology oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in Harbor City, said. “It’s usually mostly treatable, but infection is a big problem because it does suppress the immune system. And a lot of the treatments that they embark on further suppress the immune system.”

 

When he was diagnosed, Lombardi’s wife was working for AAGL, originally the American Association of Gynecologic Laparoscopists. Through the organization, Dr. Pedro T. Ramirez, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, heard about Lombardi’s diagnosis.

 

“My wife got a phone call from him out of the blue and he said, ‘I overheard what happened to your husband. I want to treat him. Bring him down to MD Anderson,’” Lombardi said. “I [had] never met this guy – ever.”

 

Ramirez told the couple that they could stay at his home during treatment to help reduce the cost. Also, upon hearing this news, AAGL purchased Sal and Jan’s plane tickets.

 

As they prepared to leave, Sal received a phone call from Ramirez saying that they could no longer come to Houston for treatment. Hurricane Ike had just swept through the area – his home was damaged and the hospital was trying to recover. Instead, Ramirez suggested Lombardi contact the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Lombardi informed Ramirez that he had already tried to get admitted to UCLA but was denied.

 

“He said he’d call me back in five minutes,” Lombardi said. “Within five minutes, the chief of staff at UCLA calls us. He said, ‘I don’t know who you are and I don’t know how you know him, but get your butt over here.’”

 

When Sal, his wife and his parents arrived at UCLA, all the doctors who would be treating him, including lymphoma expert Dr. Lauren Pinter-Brown, hematologist Dr. Bartosz Chmielowksi, the chief of surgery and several others, greeted them in the parking structure.

 

After looking at his medical history and running their own tests, it was decided to start with the removal of the melanoma by the chief of surgery before starting chemotherapy three weeks later.

 

There are 21 days between each chemo treatment to allow patients to recover and build up strength. The day after his second treatment, doctors ran tests to get an idea of his progress. Usually, news of results take days or weeks to reach the patient, but Lombardi said he got a call from the hospital that same night.

 

“We got scared. It’s in my brain, ‘I’m done,’” Lombardi said. “The assistant’s name was Grace. She said they had never seen this before. Before they called me, [my results] had to go through a series of doctors and specialists and they all came to the same conclusion: I was 100% in remission. She said, ‘You’re a miracle. The doctor can’t come to the phone because she can’t stop crying – she’s so happy.’ It was awesome.”

 

To be sure that the lymphoma did not rally, Lombardi opted to continue his treatment for the remaining four sessions. He said it was hard, but with the support of his family, friends and his church, the Cottonwood Church in Los Alamitos, he was able to get through it.

“I was scared, but you just have to have a higher power to help you through all of the turmoil,” Lombardi said. “I started my life all over again. You’re more or less reborn.”

 

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the “overall five-year relative survival rate for patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is 67% and the 10-year relative survival rate is 55%.” Lombardi has been lymphoma-free for just over eight years now.

 

“Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, fortunately, is one of the cancers that we are continuing to improve on in terms of therapies,” Asuncion said. “We have more patients living longer and longer because of the therapies that we have.”

 

After his recovery, Lombardi said he became more passionate about the automotive business. He said he realized more than ever that it is what he was born to do.

 

“This is a huge thing,” Lombardi said. “I like to talk about what I went through because a lot of people are going through it right now and they need help, they need guidance. I already had one foot in the grave, and for me to stand here right now at 52 years old, I feel great. The old Sal was gone. New Sal is very caring and wants to do good for people.”

Brian Yu, left, and Sal Lombardi first met in 2009 when Lombardi began working at Yu’s shop, 1st Class Automotive in Garden Grove, which has since closed. When Yu decided to open LB Walker Automotive at the start of 2015, he brought Lombardi in as his partner and shop manager. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)

 

In 2009, he began working at 1st Class Automotive in Garden Grove, which was owned by Brian Yu who is now Lombardi’s partner at LB Walker Automotive.

 

“When I opened 1st Class, I was looking for the best manager in the area, and my partner recommended Sal,” Yu said. “He’s the best manager. When I closed 1st class, he started work at another shop, and when I found the new location in Long Beach, I contacted Sal immediately. Now, we have a partnership.”

 

Lombardi worked for Yu at 1st Class for a year and a half before he had a falling out with Yu’s partner and left the shop. He worked for various repair shops for several years before Yu offered him a partnership at a new shop in Long Beach, which would become LB Walker Automotive.

 

LB Walker has been open since early 2015, and Lombardi said he loves working in the area because the customers are all great people. He explained that the shop also has customers that come from as far as Hollywood and San Diego because they feel at home and trust Lombardi and Yu’s team.

 

Yu said that hopefully in the future the two will be able to open a second, maybe even a third, shop before they both retire. “I told him we must go together always. We think it’s about 10 or 15 years more that we’ll have to work, so for 10 or 15 years, we will go together as partners. He has a lot of humor. He’s very nice when taking care of customers, and he really knows cars. He’s the best man.”

 

Now 52, and after 28 years of marriage, Lombardi said he and his wife are enjoying the freedom that comes from having grown kids. Jessica is turning 27 later this year and Jeremy recently celebrated his 21st birthday.

 

“It’s really nice now that the kids are grown and we’re having fun,” Lombardi said. “We don’t have to worry about kids and stuff, we just do our thing.”

 

Lombardi said that he loves working with his hands and that he recently finished building a custom barbeque in his backyard. However, he said fishing is what relaxes him most – specifically trout fishing at Lake Isabella in Kern County where his friend owns land.

 

“I like the calmness of a river or a lake, and I don’t like when there’s a million people,” he said. “I’d rather be secluded somewhere quiet where I can enjoy myself.”

 

He is also a big fan of the Green Bay Packers, and being Canadian, he said he is a lifelong Montreal Canadiens hockey fanatic. But ultimately, his life always comes back to the automotive industry.

 

“I love cars. We try to do honest work, we have integrity. Our Yelp reviews are all five stars. A clean shop. What else could you ask for?” Lombardi said. “Go see Sal.”

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