Touchstone: A CEO's Life-Saving Heart Surgery Leads to Gratitude

Touchstone: A CEO's Life-Saving Heart Surgery Leads to Gratitude

It hasn’t been an easy road for Derek Block.

Block is an entrepreneur, as well as the founder and CEO of Touchstone, a distributor in the promotional product and branded merchandise industry. He launched the company in 1996 and has grown the business to include large clients like Pure Romance, Progressive, Barstool Sports and Kroger. Touchstone was recently ranked as a Top 25 distributor in the country.

A cancer scare in 2016 rattled Block, but he threw his energy into work. “Speed bumps slow you down, but then you go back to living life at full speed,” he says.

But there would be a significant hurdle ahead — heart surgery.

In 2021, Block was prompted by his primary care doctor to get his heart murmur checked out. He hadn’t thought much about the murmur in the past 30 years. While playing hockey at Miami University, he found he had a bicuspid aortic valve, which affects just 2% of the population. Some people need to have it operated on and others don’t.

When a heart specialist at Christ Hospital told Block that he would need to get his valve replaced within the next decade, he thought, “Okay, I’ve got time.”

Six months later, however, Block learned that his valve’s diameter had shrunk from 1.3 centimeters to 1 centimeter. There was more stenosis and buildup, which meant that the buzzer on his ten-year time clock was now sounding nine years earlier than expected.

“It’s crazy the way cosmic dots connect in life because there was a series of events that got me referred to my primary care physician, Dr. Lisa Larkin,” says Block. “If Dr. Larkin hadn’t pushed me to see a cardiologist, I may have been out for a jog and found myself lying in someone’s yard from a heart attack.”

Surgery was set for September 2022.

“Going into surgery, I was scared,” recalls Block. “Here I am, 51 years old, proactively having open heart surgery. I thought I was going to die. I told my wife, Missy, ‘When I wake up, tell me I’m alive.’”

Missy did just that. She also told him that he had the Ozaki procedure, with Dr. Ozaki himself in the operating room!

The Ozaki procedure is when a doctor harvests tissue from the heart wall, constructing a valve to replace the bicuspid valve.

Recovery post-surgery was a rough road. Block had four IV lines, a PICC line in his neck, a catheter, plus tape everywhere to hold down the tubes monitoring his heart function. After settling in back home, he felt weak and perpetually cold.

“I was wearing a sweatsuit and parka, sitting in the sun on an 80-degree day and still freezing!” he says.

Block started tackling the 2.5-mile jogging route adjacent to his house a week and a half post-surgery. The first five weeks postoperative, he could only go 100 yards before needing a breather.

“I said, ‘I’m walking that 2.5 miles no matter how long it takes!’” Block says. After plenty of hard work, he was finally able to do so. In fact, he’s walked the route every day since, while still doing his cardiac rehabilitation.

Block feels fortunate to be alive and is grateful to have built a leadership team that he could trust to continue to operate the business for four months as he recuperated, as they do every day.

“It was a blessing not to have to worry about anything other than a full recovery,” says Block, who is thankful to his partner, Larry Sheakley, and the rest of his colleagues. “Touchstone has a great team who all have a ton of confidence in one another.”

It was a good thing too, since in addition to having open heart surgery, Block’s business separated the design studio operations from the business operations this past year. They moved from a 40,000-square-foot building into their BrandEQ design studio, as well as a new 400,000-square-foot warehouse.

But Block never felt anything other than calm and confidence.

“I’m grateful and humbled for the perspective I have,” he says. “That’s thanks to all the people who have woven into my life, or I’ve woven into theirs. It’s given me a great appreciation for

getting through what could have been a totally different experience.”

Relationships are what make Block’s world go round. When he turned his phone back on a week after surgery, he had 286 text messages waiting for him.

“I was blown away,” says Block. “When times are tough, you find out what really matters and how much people care.”

Want to learn more about Touchstone? Visit for more information.

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