Why top Creative Artists Agency agent Byrdie Lifson shelved her glamorous, lucrative career repping the likes of Brett Ratner and Callie Khouri for a job helping the critically ill—at times with no pay.
- Written byLinda Grasso
After 20 years representing some of the biggest directors and writers in the business, in 2012 Byrdie Lifson was at a career high. “I really loved my job as an agent,” the Studio City mother of two reflects. “But life got in the way.”
Her family life started unraveling six years earlier when her father was misdiagnosed with the wrong type of cancer and Byrdie became his advocate, ultimately helping get him correctly diagnosed and treated. Then her health became the issue when she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy.
“I’m sitting at Encino Little League with another parent, (plastic surgeon) Michael Persky. He said, ‘I don’t know a lot about Bell’s palsy, but I don’t think you have it. I think you should try to get in to Dr. Derald Brackmann, an expert on facial nerves.’”
Byrdie took his advice and discovered Dr. Persky was correct. “I’d been walking around misdiagnosed with a brain tumor for a year!” she exclaims. A few days after seeing Dr. Brackmann, Byrdie had the tumor removed. “I have some facial paralysis. If I’d had the tumor removed a year earlier, I wouldn’t have that.”
Next it was her mother. Byrdie wanted to get her into a world-renowned respiratory facility, but employees there kept telling her they were full. Suspicious, Byrdie showed up one day to discover several empty beds.
“Turns out they were reserving beds for cash-paying patients. My mother had Medicare.” Byrdie ended up sitting on one of the beds for a full day until they agreed to admit her mother.
Finally she advocated for her brother when he was diagnosed with a fatal cancerous brain tumor. The combined experiences gave her reason to pause.
“I had tremendous resources; I had CAA! And look how hard it was to get the right diagnoses and the best medical treatment. If this was happening to me and my family, I thought, imagine how hard it is for others.”
Today Byrdie and her partner, Valerie Ulene (daughter of Dr. Art Ulene), run Clear Health Advisors. They provide clients with comprehensive health care consulting and case management, charging clients a flat fee, but Byrdie confides, “sometimes it is pro bono.”
Valerie, a physician, handles the medical end—collecting recommendations, doing summaries and research, and reviewing clinical trials. Byrdie deals directly with the client and the medical community.
“I’m basically a bull in a china shop. I don’t adhere to rules. When the receptionist says we can see you in a week, I say we’ll be there at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning,” she quips unapologetically.
As she did in Hollywood while negotiating, she plays to strengths. “Doctors are about research and getting published. I try to get patients in their sweet spot.”
The new career has meant a big pay cut, and the diminutive, couture-clad Valley native laughs that “the perks are nonexistent.” Still, recently some Hollywood has crept back into her life. ABC just announced a pilot in the works for a medical drama inspired by Byrdie’s story.