After a brain hemorrhage nearly killed him, South Bay chef and musician Albert Kim reckons with recovery

Albert Kim has been forced to step back from the grueling work schedule he set for himself at Pa-Do in Manhattan Beach before his brain hemorrhage. Kim is wearing an eyepatch until the nerves that control eye movement recover. Photo by JP Cordero

by Ryan McDonald

Early on in Albert Kim’s 61-day hospitalization at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center, a member of his medical team examined Kim’s hands, and asked if he was a “working man.” Had Kim been conscious at the time, he might have smirked at the question.

Kim was in a deep coma when he arrived at the Torrance hospital, and unable to respond that the calluses on his fingers were from decades of playing bass guitar. Kim has played in some of the South Bay’s most popular and accomplished bands, and although until recently music had been his primary source of income, he treated music with too much reverence to think of it strictly as work. Work for Kim meant restaurants, an industry he joined soon after graduating from college because it afforded him the flexibility to play music as much as he wanted.

Last fall, he helped open Pa-Do, a Manhattan Beach restaurant specializing in dumplings and ramen. As he prepared for the restaurant’s November opening, Kim, a part owner and the head chef, began telling family members and fellow musicians he would soon have much less time. Kim had found something that might be able to compete with music for his attention. 

Both Pa-Do, and playing music have been derailed since the day that, as Kim put it, his “head exploded.”

On Feb. 7, Kim suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a rare, often fatal bleeding within the brain. The buildup of blood puts pressure on the brain, typically to devastating effect. Many people who experience the condition die too quickly to receive medical treatment. Doctors evaluate those who make it to a hospital according to the Hunt-Hess grading system, which rates the condition of subarachnoid hemorrhage patients from from 1 to 5 on a scale of worsening severity. Kim was “definitely a 5,” said Dr. Jian Guan, a neurosurgeon at Providence who treated Kim. On the young side of the curve for subarachnoid hemorrhage patients and otherwise healthy, Kim entered with better chances than most, but studies suggest that more than 80 percent of people with so severe a brain hemorrhage do not survive. 

Other people were at home with Kim when he collapsed, and their 911 call got him to the hospital quickly. Within roughly 48 hours Kim began showing signs of physical responsiveness, including slight movement in his right thumb. But among those who survive a subarachnoid hemorrhage, more than 70 percent experience lasting neurological impairment, including being unable to care for themselves, or to walk without assistance. Even after it became clear Kim would survive the ordeal, it was far from certain what kind of life he would return to.

Kim is now back in his Redondo Beach home, rehabilitating from the squeezing of his brain and the muscular atrophy associated with his lengthy hospitalization. He has stopped using a walker, swapping it out for a metallic black cane. He recently covered the length of The Strand in Hermosa Beach. He sports an eye patch because of trouble focusing, but the nerves responsible for eye movement are expected to heal themselves. (Doctors have instructed him to switch the patch from side to side each day.) Kim’s voice is quieter, and his tone is less certain than it was before the accident, but in conversation he is funny and warm, generous and observant.

Chopping is out of the question until his eye issues resolve themselves, and handling bulkier items, like a Dutch oven, remains challenging. While a shift on the line at Pa-Do may still be a ways away, Kim is working. From home, he has conceived and perfected items that are now on the restaurant menu, including braised short ribs. He shows up at the restaurant to fold dumplings, an intricate task helpful to the restaurant and his own cognitive recovery.

Ron Kripalani, one of Pa-Do’s co-owners, described Kim’s status as one in which his body is “behind his mind.” This characterization extends to music, where Kim’s understanding of harmony, melody, and rhythm remain impeccable, but his ability to express them on his instrument of choice is not.

“This is just not as fast, and as steady as it used to be,” Kim said, raising his right elbow to let the hand he plucks the strings of the bass with hang down. Against an invisible instrument, he made quick alternating movements with his index and middle fingers, the way someone telling a story to a child might pantomime the scurry of a spider.

Kim said doctors recently told him he could make a complete recovery by next February, a year from the incident. At times, he seems precocious and buoyant at the prospect. He was attempting to book gigs before he was out of the hospital, and on Oct. 22, he’ll be playing bass in Journeyman, an Eric Clapton tribute band, at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. At others he betrays doubt: whether the recovery will actually come to pass, or perhaps more accurately, whether his idea of “complete” is the same as that of his physicians.

“I don’t know if I’m actually going to make a 100 percent recovery playing music, if I’m going to be able to play all of the pieces I used to be able to play,” Kim said. “I can play over 90 percent of the pieces I used to play. But I’m going to be focused on getting that 10 percent back. It bums me out that my right hand doesn’t move as smoothly, or as musically as it did. If I were to sit there and play music, you couldn’t tell that that 10 percent wasn’t there. But I could,” Kim said.

Several months ago, Kim was at an appointment with one of his doctors, who suggested that, given all he had been through, he should not be overly concerned about the slow return of his eyesight. Kim’s sister Arlene took Albert to the appointment, but did not realize how much it had upset him until she overheard him talking about it a week later.

Albert had taken the doctor’s words as a recommendation that he lower his expectations. Arlene, who left her home in Las Vegas and is currently living with her brother to aid in his recovery, tried to get him to see it as one of the outcomes he had avoided. Along with the considerable risk of death, when a hemorrhage damages certain nerves on the brain stem, as was initially feared with Kim, patients may suffer “locked in syndrome,” in which their cognitive function remains, but they are unable to move any muscles, apart from those in their eyes.

Kim is grateful, but the sense of perspective his sister suggested can be difficult to maintain. At times his recitations of the odds he has beaten sound more dutiful than heartfelt; at one point he told me, “I will probably be frustrated for the rest of my life.” He is proud of what he was able to do before his injury, and can seem resentful of the idea that it may not always be a useful point of comparison.

“I don’t know: Am I supposed to feel good about what happened? Or am I supposed to feel bad about what happened?” he said.

***

Albert Kim (second from right) playing at the Hermosa Beach Tree Lighting on Pier Plaza in 2017. Kim has played many of the South Bay’s most prestigious gigs. Photo by Erin & Jake photography

Albert, Arlene, and their older brother Arthur grew up in San Fernando Valley. Their father left when they were young, heading to New York City to make money to send to the family. But mostly it was their mother who cared for, and supported the children. 

Money was always an issue. Arthur described the siblings as “latchkey kids, but without the financial resources.” Arlene, a year older than Albert, clashed with their mother and left home when she was 13. Arthur, three years older than Albert, left for college on the East Coast when he was 17. Albert was mostly alone for his formative high school years.

Arlene reconnected with Albert while he was at UCLA. By that point, Albert had taken up the bass. Although their mother had forced her children to take piano lessons, that experience bore little resemblance to the person she saw on stage. Watching her brother perform, she “just saw it was his passion.”

“I saw how into it he was, how he felt it. He seemed happy when he was playing,” she said.

Kim graduated from UCLA with a political science degree, and was thinking about going to law school, but decided to hold off, and continue playing music, and began working at the Islands restaurant in Manhattan Village. The job appealed to a part of Kim that thrives on order and attention to detail. Kim recalled there was an entire paragraph in the employee manual devoted to cleaning out an ashtray. He moved on to Rock and Fish, and Manhattan Beach Brewing Company, and then took a general manager position at Trio by the Bay, on 12th Street, where Sugarfish is now. He left that job to tour with singer-songwriter Samantha Stollenwerk, which included gigs opening for the Dave Matthews Band.

Kim had just returned from touring when he got a call from the person who replaced him at Trio by the Bay. It was Saturday, and the restaurant’s head chef had just walked out: Did Kim know anyone who could help? Kim volunteered himself. His first shift in his first chef job was at a full restaurant on a Saturday night.

Kim found himself enthralled not only by cooking in the abstract, by the contemplative search for flavor, but by the speedy thrill of satisfying dozens or even hundreds of diners in an evening — what Anthony Bourdain refers to as a kitchen’s “mix of unwavering order, and nerve-shattering chaos.” As with music, Kim’s love of cooking looks less like a childhood dream than an obsession developed by someone old enough to have a sense of what that word means.

“What makes me a good chef … I just have this ability … it’s the same thing with music: I have an ability to catalog failures and successes. I don’t repeat failures. I learn how to do something the right way, and continue to do something the right way,” Kim said.

One night, Kim stopped into an acoustic jam night at Sharks Cove in Manhattan Beach, a sports bar and restaurant with a stage big enough to host a full band. Scott Whyte was performing, and Kim asked if he could sit in. They bonded quickly, and together with Todd McLeod, drummer Steve DeBoard, and a rotating cast of other musicians, would play at Sharks Cove every Friday night for more than a decade.

Whyte recalled gatherings where Kim would prepare elaborate meals for himself and other friends, and move among them to make sure everyone was enjoying themselves. Kim has a knack, Whyte said, for being the underlying reason that people come together without making himself the center of attention.

Whyte’s comments reminded me of what several of Kim’s fellow musicians pointed to as his strength as a bass player: his excellent sense of “pocket,” the way a band’s rhythm section locks in to a groove, and frees up other musicians to do things that may be more apparent to the casual listener — a singer belting out a rangy verse, or a guitarist performing a scorching solo.  

“Bass is the glue that connects the drums to the guitar. It’s the essential element that you build everything off of. You have the drum beat, and then you have the bass that kind of is the notes that you build everything else off of. That’s very much how Al is,” Whyte said.

I became friends with Kim at Sharks Cove, where I worked for years as a bartender and manager. As I helped clean after busy nights and the band packed up their gear, he would offer a random compliment, or ask an insightful question. I quickly got the sense that he cared about me.

“He was always the musician who would stay after the gig, hang at the bar, chat with the bartenders, talk with the servers when they came by. Al always took a genuine interest in people’s lives,” said Chris Hannah, a South Bay guitarist, and singer who has played hundreds of gigs with Kim, and was also his roommate for years.

In 2012, Kim helped open the first Rock & Brews, in El Segundo, and designed some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, including their signature Asian wings. The experience boosted his confidence, and was the first time he “really looked at restaurants as a career,” he said.

Kim found a niche as a restaurant consultant, advising on both front- and back-of-the-house matters. In September 2019, Kim and a partner opened a ramen restaurant in the Inland Empire city of Redlands. It was profitable until March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic halted indoor dining across the state, and eventually closed for good. 

The closure of restaurants and cancellation of live music took away the two things that consumed most of Kim’s hours. He found a way to keep himself busy in a partnership with Dave Rohrbacher, owner of the 900 Club in Manhattan Beach, who was trying to launch a to-go dining operation to keep his business afloat. Kim cooked a different, sometimes wildly ambitious meal each day. One of those to take notice was Ron Kripalani, a Manhattan Beach resident and member of the 900 Club. He and Kim became friends, and he learned of Kim’s ambitions during occasional rounds of golf.

Together with Kirk Kim, another 900 Club member and Pa-Do investor, the three began talking about starting a food truck. (Kirk Kim is not related to Albert.) But with the closure of Costa, an upscale seafood restaurant located where Pa-Do is now, they decided to go for a brick-and-mortar business. 

Kripalani has invested in half a dozen restaurants in both New York and Southern California. After a year-and-a-half in which indoor dining was such an uncertain venture, the decision to invest in Pa-Do, he said, was largely a reflection of his confidence in Kim.

“With Al, it was clearly a partnership where he could do it all,” Kripalani said, alluding to the relatively unusual arrangement in which Kim was both an executive chef, and a cook working the line every night. “Quite simply, Kirk and I, we’re partners with the guy who makes all the difference in the world.”

During Pa-Do’s soft opening, on the night before Thanksgiving, I sat at the bar with a friend and sipped a Japanese whisky. Kim was busy in the kitchen, but he emerged periodically to present the dishes we’d ordered. He’d beam with pride for a moment then swiftly return, asking about some other dish before the kitchen doors shut behind him. When the dinner rush subsided, he took a brief break, and leaned against the bar to talk. He was wiping sweat from his brow, but seemed energized and focused. Gesturing toward the streets of downtown Manhattan Beach, a block from the ocean and packed with dining destinations, he remarked that most chefs “spend their whole lives waiting for a location like this.” 

***

Although not back to full strength, Albert Kim often comes by Pa-Do to fold dumplings, delicate work that he finds cognitively therapeutic. He has also devised new additions to the restaurant’s menu, including braised short ribs. Photo by JP Cordero

On the morning of Feb. 7, Arthur Kim was in the middle of a faculty meeting on Zoom when he received a call from his brother. Arthur is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and given the time difference between Boston and Los Angeles, he thought it was unusual for his brother to be calling at that hour. Albert said he was experiencing an intense headache.

Although the brothers remained close, in the weeks leading up to Albert’s brain injury, each had been too busy to talk much: Arthur at Mass General, which was packed with COVID-19 patients amid the Omicron wave, and Albert at Pa-Do. 

As he listened to his brother describe the headache, and weighed how unlikely it was that Albert would call about something that did not feel deeply wrong, Arthur suggested visiting an emergency room. Albert was in the midst of responding that that was unnecessary when he began slurring his words, and then lost consciousness.  

Albert was at home in his room at the time. Paul Noh, Pa-Do’s general manager, and one of Albert’s roommates, heard a commotion from a friend of Albert’s, who was in his room at the time. Albert, Noh recalled, was lying on his bed with his eyes open, struggling to breathe.

“It was very obvious that there was something extremely wrong,” Noh said.

The friend called 911, and Albert was at Providence within 10 minutes. Arthur got in touch with one of the emergency room doctors, who sent him the CT scan of his brother’s brain. He began thinking of friends of his with neurology expertise who might be able to help.

One of those was Dr. Ajay Ananda, chief of neurosurgery at Kaiser-Permanente in Los Angeles.

Ananda went to high school with Arthur, and worked with him for time at a Korean take-out restaurant run by the Kims’ mother. Arthur was on his way to Los Angeles, and called Ananda from the airport.

Shortly after arriving at Providence Little Company, Kim underwent two procedures: one to drain fluid that had accumulated around the brain, and another that removed a piece of his skull to allow his brain to swell without pushing against it. These are delicate procedures, but the surgeon’s role is ultimately to help the body get out of the brain’s way.

“The sad part about neurosurgery is that we’re here to fix the brain, but nobody knows how to fix the brain. Basically, you give the body support to maximize Al’s chance that his brain would essentially heal itself,” Ananda said.

Arthur had initially assumed his brother would have to be air-lifted to Cedars-Sinai or another large hospital. A subarachnoid hemorrhage like the one Kim arrived with is a “very difficult, multi-disciplinary condition to treat,” Guan said. But over the years, Providence had assembled a team of neurosurgeons, neurocritical care doctors, neurologists, interventional radiologists, nurses and therapists who have helped the hospital earn the highest level certification for stroke treatment. Even in a region like Southern California with many well-resourced hospitals, Guan said Providence had been mindful of the fact that “the farther away you are from these sort of specialty resources, the worse the outcomes are.”

“The adage is, time is brain” he said.

Kim was hospitalized not long after the peak of the Omicron wave, and visitations at Providence were limited to one person per day. These slots were filled exclusively by his brother Arthur and sister Arlene, who flew in from Las Vegas the day Kim entered the hospital.

Initially Arthur took the bulk of them. Although Arthur is an infectious disease specialist, not a neurologist, having a doctor as a family member made a significant difference in Albert’s treatment.

“I can’t even imagine how someone who doesn’t have a doctor in the family would handle this. Arthur had to make some tough calls. He didn’t always go into all the details, and I was in such a daze in the beginning,” Arlene said.

Albert himself has no memory of more than a month of his time in the hospital. His first recollection after passing out on Feb. 7 is a hazy celebration of a UCLA win in the early rounds of the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, which puts it somewhere in mid-March.

A couple weeks later, Kim was returning to his room after a brief jaunt outside when he passed a piano in the hospital lobby. A nurse suggested he play something. He sat down, and gave the staff a rendition of the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Cell phone pictures from the moment show Kim’s hands on the keys, a medical information bracelet on his wrist, and an oxygen tank next to the piano bench.

Guan said the long odds of surviving a subarachnoid hemorrhage, and the complexity of treating one, can overshadow the way neurological issues threaten the very fabric of a patient’s identity.

“It’s almost like they’re a collection of lab images and problems. The person is almost obscured by all of those things,” Guan said. He recalled that once Kim was no longer hovering near death, his brother and sister began commenting on things like their brother’s difficulty focusing, or the ways his speech had changed — how his affect had become flat, and lost some of of its humor. “But every time we see Al in follow-up, and meet with him again, that person is coming to the fore.” 

Guan said this matches what he usually sees in recoveries from serious neurological conditions. In the beginning, the brain has to devote its energy to basic functions, like breathing. As the brain heals, these are allowed to return to the background, and the intricacies and complexities we take for someone’s identity emerge. But the relationship between this process and what is physically happening inside someone’s skull is not well understood.

“There are parts of the brain, certain areas, that we think are involved in personality and executive function, but it’s still very ill-defined and nebulous,” Guan said.

Noh previously had a family member who, as a result of a brain tumor, underwent a “massive change in personality.”

“It was really difficult, and having gone through that, that was in the back of my head with Al. That was one of my biggest fears,” Noh said.

Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Arthur began a blog that tracked Kim’s progress. It provided an invaluable source of news for people who cared about Kim at a time when COVID protocols made visiting impossible. Kim’s friends and co-workers recall dutifully following the blog, weighed down with a nervousness relieved only by the difficult-to-name sensation of recognizing the person they knew and loved — a sense that, as several put it, “it’s Al.”

Arthur said the fact that his brother came so close to dying, and remained in limbo for so long, gave his brother a rare chance to see the depth of caring others have for him.

“I hope he comes out of it with a deep appreciation of the number of people but also the depth of how much people appreciate who he is, and love him. Not a lot of people get to hear that stuff,” he said.

***

Kim inside Pa-Do with his sister Arlene, who is helping her brother recover. On her shoulder is a tattoo of a bass clef, which she got after Kim’s brain injury. Photo by JP Cordero

It remains unclear what caused Kim’s brain injury. Subarachnoid hemorrhages are most commonly caused by an aneurysm, a weakness in blood vessels that causes them to leak or burst. But it’s also possible, Ananda said, that it was caused by a vertebral artery dissection, a tear in an artery that runs up the back of the neck, and carries blood to the brain, where it can clot and pool.

Neither explanation reveals why it happened in the first place.

Many suspect it may have been from Kim pushing himself too hard at Pa-Do. By his own account, Kim worked every day from Nov. 1 until the day of the accident. A typical day involved getting up in the morning and scouring Asian markets for supplies. Then he would head to Pa-Do and prep: broths to simmer, dumplings to fold. Then he would work on the line with other cooks for the evening service. He estimates that on a given night he touched roughly 80 percent of the meals that came out of the kitchen.

The night before Kim’s accident, his sister Arlene stopped by Pa-Do with two close friends. They had just come from a music competition that her son, Elijah, had participated in. Albert had been planning to come as well, but had to cancel to work at the restaurant.

“He’s saying, I’m not supposed to be here, this sucks. I should have been with you guys, with Elijah,” Arlene recalled. When Kim returned to the kitchen, Arlene turned to one of her friends, an ER nurse, and said she worried something was wrong with her brother. “He just kept saying how tired he was, how overworked. That was the Sunday before. I kind of feel like there might have been a build up before it burst.” 

Ananda said that, medically speaking, such explanations are often oversimplifications.   

“People always say that, but the truth is we’ll never know,” Ananda said. Stress can cause a lot of bad things in the body, he acknowledged, but it’s very challenging to connect the conditions of someone’s life, and the physical manifestation of a brain injury like Kim’s. He noted that he had treated many patients who have an aneurysm during sex. (Such cases are especially awkward, he said, when they occur in someone having an illicit affair.) “Anything that causes blood pressure to spike could cause an aneurysmal rupture, but it doesn’t cause the aneurysm” itself. 

Guan agreed that it would be difficult to find evidence linking a stressful job to risk for an aneurysm of the sort that exists for, say, smoking or hypertension. But that may be due to the fact that stress is not a clearly defined medical concept. 

“I think the problem with answering that question scientifically is, how do you measure stress?” Guan said.

At the time Kim suffered the hemorrhage, Pa-Do was succeeding. Easy Reader restaurant critic Richard Foss named it one of the 10 best new South Bay  restaurants of 2021, lauding the “springy” dough of the dumplings and the depth of flavor in the broths. Three-and-a-half weeks before Kim was hospitalized he wrote that although Pa-Do had not been open long, “the food, beverages, and service are already as steady as restaurants that have been open much longer.”

Kim’s contributions were not easy to replicate. Noh, Kim’s roommate and Pa-Do’s general manager, recalled that, in the early days of Kim’s absence, the staff had to reverse-engineer some of the restaurant’s dishes.

“Al has pretty much a photographic memory, so some of the recipes we were working on were basically just Al going, ‘Okay we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, we’re going to do this…’” Noh said.

The restaurant’s other cooks were able to piece together the dishes, and once they were told what had happened, the employees rallied behind their ailing co-worker. But even before Kim’s absence, Pa-Do was affected by the restaurant industry’s staffing shortage, and Noh has had to shoulder many of the tasks Kim once handled.

One benefit of constantly being at Pa-Do, Noh said, is that it allowed him to give updates on Kim’s condition to the many people who asked. Some were long-time friends, while others had only met Kim since the restaurant had opened.

“It was emotional being able to tell people he’s awake, he’s walking around, he’s doing this. It was uplifting, all this concern for Al,” No said.

Back at home, Kim has been playing the keyboard more than he has in years. The loss of dexterity in his right hand that makes it harder to pluck or slap the strings of a bass has not limited his ability to push the keys of a piano. Playing piano, he said, “feels like a release,” because there is less distance between the music in his head and the music his body can make.

“What’s good about playing keyboard is feeling and hearing the improvements that happen from playing more. It was getting better at it, but it also just allowed me to follow my instincts as a musician to just make music as well,” Kim said.

I began to sense that the injury was making Kim think about how music fit into the mind. Did the connection he felt reside outside the physical realm, part of some internal essence that no wound or sickness could alter? Or did music’s mystical properties make regaining mastery less a problem than a mystery, the type of thing no amount of effort could bring back?

Kim had already begun to adjust his thinking about music before the injury. The pandemic made him understand what it felt like to have the chance to play music taken away, and reinforced how precious it was to him; opening Pa-Do, and having music no longer be his primary source of income, made him focus more on opportunities that are fun and musically interesting. He is, as he put it, “itching to play, but my focus has changed.”

“If Scott [Whyte] called me to play, in the past I would say, ‘What’s the gig, how much does it pay?’ Now I probably wouldn’t ask that at all,” Kim said.

In June, Kim Ryan got engaged at Pa-Do. She and her fiance Barney are good friends with Kim, and they shared the moment with him on FaceTime. The next day, Kim called them on FaceTime and played the Dave Matthews Band song “Tripping Billies.” He had been unable to play the song a week before. Performing it gave him greater confidence in his recovery.

When Ryan and her fiance first saw Kim in person, she wasn’t sure what to expect. She was instantly impressed with how far he had come in his recovery, but also found him struggling with his own expectations. 

“It was just incredible. It made me so happy. And the funny thing is, he’s a perfectionist, so he was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m not fully functioning,” she said. She recalls thinking “You have a few hurdles. Don’t get down on yourself.”

For a person who can be so hard on himself, Kim has a “long wick” when it comes to helping other musicians, said Steve “Shag” Aguilar, a keyboardist who has played with Kim in several outfits. He recalled doing a residency in Macau with Kim and several other South Bay musicians. After the first couple shows, it became apparent the drummer they had brought along was struggling to keep up. Kim was initially angry, but then decided to spend extra time helping the drummer rehearse each morning.

Arlene recently overheard her brother retelling the story. In the latest version, it became a story of the importance of patience and empathy — of how hard it can be to see the struggles that another person might be going through. 

“He’s realized he does have a second chance in life,” she said.

Kim is unlikely to accept that coming so close to death means he cannot reach the standards he once held himself to. He may, however, come to see that not every stricture he once followed was entirely necessary.

“I have to be satisfied with good results,” he told me. “It makes me happy that, even though I was sick, you went to Pa-Do with your girlfriend and had a good meal. That’s a win. I have to be happy with that, and not get pissed off if, say, you didn’t get enough sesame seeds on your noodles. Old Al would,” Kim said. ER

To contribute to a GoFundMe set up to help Kim’s family, click here.

 

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