BY VAL SCHOGER PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE FENDER
Northwest Florida is a beautiful place and locals are quick to say, “We live in paradise.” Is our paradise perfect? Well, of course not. There are countless opportunities to shape our community, pay it forward, and make it a better place. With endless challenges in the Hurricane Michael aftermath, life will never be the same for the generation that has lived through the storm. In many ways, it feels like being a passenger on an airplane, caught in a storm at high altitude. The best thing to do is not to panic, and when the oxygen masks are deployed, follow the advice given by pilots and attendants; put on your mask first before helping others.
A few months after Hurricane Michael, we published an article by local emergency room physician Dr. Frank Merritt, “10 Simple Steps to Happiness,” garnering overwhelming positive feedback from our readers. Local government offices and companies asked us for permission to re-publish the article and readers called us to let us know how Dr. Merritt’s advice had helped them. His down-to-earth, non-preachy introduction of simple truths that he and his family live by every day is Dr. Merritt’s approach to breathe-and-help-yourself-so-that-you-can-help-others.
Of course, the article also sparked questions and curiosity. Does he live by his own advice? How does he balance his career as a physician with family life? He has authored a book at the same time? When we called him to find out, Dr. Merritt’s response was prompt: “Come over for dinner and see for yourself. We will pick peaches from our tree this week.” With his soft-spoken Alabama accent, he announced that dinner would include fresh eggs from their chickens and freshly picked vegetables that he and wife Regina are growing in their backyard, with their two boys Samuel and Levi as avid helpers. It is not every day that we receive an invitation to a family dinner. And just like that, we had our first clues about Dr. Merritt’s personality, generosity, and mindset of sharing.
The Merritt residence is a three-level building a stone’s throw from Panama City Beach’s sandy shoreline, offering beautiful views of the Gulf of Mexico. It has a Mediterranean flair with white walls and dark wood, and a lush green lawn that sprawls over four lots. This time of the year, the family spends a few hours in the yard every day, working on one thing or another, harvesting, or just playing ball. “We got rid of all the dollar weeds,” Dr. Merritt tells us at the gate with visible satisfaction when he sees us admire the impeccable lawn. “The boys and I must have picked 10,000 weeds over the last two days. We don’t use weed killer,” he points out and explains that there is a well on the property that supplies irrigation for the lawn and for this reason he avoids using chemicals. In the Merritt household, nothing goes to waste and everything has a purpose. In this case, the dollar weeds fed the chickens for a few days.
With dinner already on the table, Regina Merritt’s inviting smile derails any notion of intruding on the family’s privacy. Both boys leave no doubt that they are ready to eat, followed by a debate about who had done better in helping set the table, and who is oldest, and, more importantly, who is strongest. At the end of the dispute, the entertainment level is at its peak, and we are also getting a good idea which of the boys might be loudest.
We realize that raising the boys appears to be much more fun than growing vegetables as Dr. Merritt launches into describing the challenges of gardening by the beach. “The sand does not hold moisture,” he explains. “If you pour water on sand, 10 minutes later, it’s completely dry and nothing will grow, except sweet potatoes; they are doing remarkably well in sandy soil. So, for vegetables, we have to top-dress the yard every year with topsoil.” In a team effort, the family had spread more than two thousand pounds of soil and raked it around in the last few days, only a small part of the activities that contribute to the family’s active and healthy lifestyle.
A large expanse of the yard is set up to be a playing field for the boys, complete with two goals and field markers. Adjacent to their personal field of dreams, a beautiful garden boasts colorful flowers and vegetable beds. Chickens are happily rustling about in a large enclosed coop. The unique yard is complemented by a sparkling pool that serves not just for fun and relaxation, but is the training area for an exercise program that Dr. Merritt and wife Regina, a physical therapist, developed as part of an ongoing research project.
Branded “VitalityPro,” the program offers half-day training camps to people who are ready or planning to get ready for new challenges in life. From pro athlete to cancer survivor, individuals and groups from all walks of life have participated in the VitalityPro program, with eye- and mind-opening effects, all executed in the family’s expansive backyard.
To say the family is busy is certainly an understatement. Dr. Merritt published “The 17 Hour Fast,” a book that shares research and experiences derived from helping a close friend, Jason, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. He had been given only six months to live. After surgery, radiation, and chemo treatments, Jason followed a rigorous nutrition plan that Dr. Merritt helped create, and with the relentless love and support from wife Kim and their two children, Jason lived a fulfilled and happy life for seven more years after the initial diagnosis.
The last meeting with Jason will be engrained in Dr. Merritt’s mind forever. “I remember how Jason and I sat in rocking chairs on his porch, reminiscing about our lives and the success of him being alive. He suddenly looks at me and says, ‘Frank, promise me that you’ll do something with all this information.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but he insisted and made me promise.”
Jason died a month later and Regina and Frank both think that he somehow knew it would be their last time together. But Jason had planted a seed back then that finally took root years later. Frank took time off to write “The 17 Hour Fast” as a tribute to Jason and in the hope that it would help others. “The book is based on the theory that every other cell in the body except cancer cells can live on ketones,” Dr. Merritt explains. “In addition to cancer treatments, Jason fasted and dieted. Living for seven more years set records in the United States, but more importantly, he lived a great life.”
Jason’s battle would eventually lead to a turning point in the Merritts’ own lives, leading Regina and Dr. Merritt to establish VitalityPro as a business, to share and further expand their research, and help others along the way.
Perhaps the deep friendships, or perhaps his own humble upbringing as a preacher’s son in rural Alabama are the reasons why a conversation with Dr. Merritt will quickly lead to deep thought. “I sure miss Jason now, but we’ll see each other again,” he says. His faith is strong, despite having experienced deep loss and sadness. He is devoted to the cause, to his family, and his church. He has treated pro-athletes, world-famous rock stars, and entrepreneurs with worldwide impact, all while balancing his work as an ER doctor and providing charitable work for non-profits and committees close to home.
Stepping inside the Merritts’ house, the décor speaks volumes about the family and their love for each other and their passion. There are photos of the boys and places they traveled to as well as celebrities they are friends with. Alabama Football memorabilia can be seen everywhere as the entire family goes and watches the games together. Throughout the house, dozens of surfboards hang on the walls or sit ready on racks—the Merritts often walk the few steps across the road to catch waves in the Gulf, weather allowing. Dr. Merritt picked up surfing as a hobby during his time at Pepperdine University in Malibu. It became a pastime, and the ultimate reminder to find balance in life.
They smile when we ask how they measure happiness in life. What’s the recipe, we want to know? “Regina helps keep us anchored to our fundamentals, which are faith, family, friends, and sometimes football,” Dr. Merritt explains with a large smile. They then sit back, answering this and other questions in stride, with a wink, and their typical enthusiasm and warmth.
How did you and Regina meet?
Frank: We went on our first date in Birmingham, Alabama, while I was in residency. We had a great day. And I didn’t have any money back then, and only little sleep because the working hours were very long and I think I took her to someplace I could not afford, P.F. Chang’s probably.
Regina: [laughs] No, it was the restaurant right beside P.F. Chang’s, an Italian place.
Frank: Yeah, that’s right, the Italian place. Classically, I’m driving her back thinking, okay, this has been a good day.
I thought I did great, being a young eligible doctor in Birmingham. But Regina looks at me and says something completely different. “I had a great time. I wish you weren’t a doctor because I’m not going to ever marry a doctor. The professional demands of medicine can often leave little time for family.” She says this to me at the end of our first date and all I could think was, “But I’m a doctor!” [laughs with played exasperation, Regina laughs]. I spent the rest of the time we dated and courted trying to prove to her that I was an eligible potential husband.
Regina: Frank and I are different than many other people in that our parents are still married. They’ve been married more than 50 years. My parents are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in December. So, we have them as our shining examples.
Your lifestyle is extraordinary. What feedback do you usually get from other people?
Frank: Our neighbors are very happy when we bring them a carton of eggs every now and then, and some have gotten to the point of bringing by scraps to feed the chickens, or bringing by empty egg cartons because they know we can use them. People who have known us throughout life are sometimes quite shocked that we really live this. When we’ve had chances to make more money or take VitalityPro nationwide, or publicize my book nationwide, we’ve always chosen our family and our faith first. If I write a book about fasting but then have to travel the entire country, going from one airport to another and eating fast food, trying to make it big, that’s when you really don’t live it. I could not do that. [laughs] There was one incident not too long ago when a stranger hollered over the fence while I was working in the yard. He asked me, “How are the owners treating you?” He thought I was the hired help. So, I guess we are doing a good job in staying down to earth.
Regina: We grew up in a rural area of Alabama and to us, living off the land is something we grew up with and feels natural. Mom would pick peas; a lot of times my grandparents would come over and help. So, harvest and yardwork always brought the family together and it does so for us as well.
Frank: For the people who participate in our training camps, they are astounded by the holistic approach, where everything comes together in our backyard. For the social aspects, we treat them like family, and they will have a spiritual mind-body experience. They see where their food that day is grown—they see the bell peppers, how they grow in the garden, and are eating them in the evening. It’s just a very good organic experience and they are letting us know how it’s making an impact on them. Everything in our garden is edible except the citronella plants, our natural pest repellent.
Apart from your faith, what other guidelines do you live by?
Frank: Mr. Pipeline, Gerry Lopez, once said there are three types of surfers. The first one surfs his whole life, any chance he gets, and can’t keep a job or a relationship. The second type gets married and maintains a steady job and never surfs again. The third is building a house by the ocean and gets a chance to balance all of it, and still gets to surf a few minutes a day.
We are exactly where we want to be. You may have to compromise this or that part, but once we figured out we wanted to fulfill this promise to Jason and we want to pursue this life, it meant going part-time in my work in the ER; that meant half of my salary going, so there are going to be costs. But I think in the end, you’ll figure out the lifestyle you want. Our lifestyle is different than others. There are people whose dream it is to live in New York City in a high rise, but that’s not us.
So many people talk about freedom and happiness. But there is rarely someone who is truly happy. How do you measure happiness?
Regina: We probably find the most joy when we are both in tune with God. Both of our families while growing up found strength in their faith and love of the Lord. I think one of the happiest moments of our lives just happened. We had a perfect day as a family, and when the evening came, Frank had work to do in the office but made the choice to continue talking to the boys. On that particular evening the boys asked many questions about our faith and that evening our two sons accepted Jesus as their savior and made a conscious decision to be baptized. It was beautiful.
Frank: Regina always says that I need my patients as much as they need me. And like always, she is right. I enjoy my work but I know that it is even more important to spend time with my boys. They will soon get into a phase where they want to spend more time with their friends, so we want to play a very active role in their lives while we can. Believe us, we have our problems, too. But we are trying to work through them. You just get a better shot at happiness when you can work through problems together. We do not compare ourselves to others. Staying away from social media is good advice for everyone.
Regina and I, we have been together for 20 years, and while I hate to bring statistics into this, there’s a greater probability that we can make this work for life. So, you get a better shot at happiness if you can just get through the silly things that make life complicated.
We figured out a long time ago that we do not need fame, power, or riches. What I’ve got right here is as good as it’s going to get. For us, richer isn’t better or famous isn’t better. Our lifestyle and motto is: “Better is better.” One of the greatest ways of enjoying your life is just to enjoy the here and now, what you have, and understand the blessings.
“There is wisdom in waves. Some surfers see it right away, others never do. To find success in surfing, we must learn to be in harmony with nature. This will bring a sense of peace. By sharing this peace, and contributing to other people’s happiness, we can find the true meaning of life. Keep surfing . . .”
– Gerry Lopez, Mr. Pipeline
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