Becoming a Healer in Midlife: Mary’s Story

After suffering from hearing and learning challenges in youth, it would take the loss of her daughter and of her father for Mary to begin her journey of healing, and wake up to her life’s mission.

Tell us about your background.
My family life was somewhat typical of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We lived in Glenview, IL. My mother and father met on a blind date when they were in their early 20s and were married one year later. They showered us, their seven children, with unconditional love.

I was a happy baby, a curious observer of life, and early on believed that all things were somehow connected. My mom says that I was always talking to spirits and trees and bugs, and playing with imaginary friends. But I was also born a “blue baby.” I didn’t breathe for six minutes, and my mother was always convinced that those six minutes caused my hearing loss. (Little did we know that I would one day devote my life to transformation through breathwork and become the founder of a modality called Whalebreathing!)

When I was almost three, my mom became aware that my speech was not developing as it had in my older siblings. I was frustrated and angry when people could not understand what I was trying to communicate. In addition to hearing loss, I was diagnosed with a “perceptual language disorder.” When speech therapy did not provide the expected improvement, I continued to get more and more frustrated, feeling increasingly disconnected from the outer world, having more temper tantrums, and still not able to talk clearly. I know there were probably days my mom was stretched to her limit, but she never treated me as someone broken or disabled.

Family photo in my youth (I’m on the left, standing next to my dad)

At age five, I was diagnosed with a high-frequency hearing loss—when people talked to me, I could hear them, but not hear many of the consonants, only vowels. Trying to understand speech was exhausting and learning to speak was also challenging. I got hearing aids and continued with speech therapy.

In 1964, with the blessing of my mom, my father decided to join a troubled business (Edlong Dairy Technologies) that was going bankrupt. That decision changed all of our lives. By 1970, the company, which produces flavors for the dairy industry, was doing great and my father was part owner; he would eventually become sole owner. The company continues to thrive.

My parents’ marriage ultimately ended and my mother launched her own business as a Jung therapist.

I started school in 1966 when there were far fewer resources for a person with special needs. I always felt like some kind of experiment, as professionals would try this or that in an attempt to see what would work. I really disliked school because I never seemed to grasp what they were trying to teach me. I withdrew into myself, which was easier to do once I chose not to wear the hearing aids—they overwhelmed my sensory world. I had a lot of siblings, and it was very noisy at home. I didn’t realize that not wearing them was allowing me to connect more to my intuition and now wonder if I was supposed to develop that other part of me.

Because I was always in the lowest groups in reading, math, and science, I decided early on that I was stupid and felt a great deal of shame and self-pity. At 10 years old, my parents became concerned because I was not keeping up in school and had me tested again. Because I tested so poorly, the school district recommended I be sent to a school where there was a specialist who worked with the hearing impaired. The school was located about 45 minutes from my home and required me to ride a special bus.

While at first, I was excited about this change, this did not last. Riding the special bus made me feel abnormal and ashamed. My new classmates were mean and made fun of the way I talked. I stayed in that school for three years and became very depressed and introverted.

When I started high school and reconnected with my old neighborhood friends, my social life became more important than the academics. I decided that there was no one who could help me to learn and dreamed of living with animals, ideally whales and dolphins.

My high school graduation photo

Everyone expected me to go to college but I did not believe in myself so I found a residential two-year college where I mostly learned how to party and have fun; I barely got my associate degree. When I transferred to a four-year college, I ended up at a huge university and, at 21, decided to quit school.

I went home and worked at a bagel restaurant, where I had a terrible experience. Sometimes it would get crowded and loud. I had a regular customer who came in daily, and I always made mistakes on his order. One day, he started yelling at me and said, “What is wrong with you, are you stupid?” I was shocked and said, “No, I am hearing impaired.” He said, “Why don’t you wear a sign and warn people?” and stormed away. I felt ashamed and angry, but I also felt a new determination to get an education and change my life.

My younger sister, Paula, who is learning disabled, was at Barat College (now closed), where they had special help for people with learning disabilities. She was aware of my frustration with school and encouraged me to enroll in her program. I was scared and felt like I was too stupid to learn but, as she encouraged me and shared her pain, it helped me to understand my own. She got me to take the next step by acknowledging my talent and strength and believing in me.

At 22, I applied and took three days of testing to help the school determine my learning challenges. When the results came back, the specialist said, “You have a severe learning disability and our goal will be to get your development up to date. Your whole life, they treated you as hearing impaired but did not address the LD issues, which explains your frustration in school. It’s not that you cannot learn; it’s how you learn, which is primarily visually.” The specialist explained that my reading level was at grade two and my reading comprehension was at grade three. I sat there stunned and hurt, but I was also angry and wondered what people had been doing for the past 15 years of my education. How did I get this far with all these challenges and not get the help that would have made such a difference in my life? I cried all the way home.

With a friend in college

Barat College did an excellent job of convincing me that I could succeed there and that they could help me to compensate for all that I had lost. They focused on my strengths. They had a note taker and tutor for me in every class and a person to read textbooks with me. I also met with an LD specialist three times a week for one hour. I was at school from 8 am to 8 or 9 pm and worked very hard.

While others’ belief in me kept me from giving up, I was also frustrated because even putting forth my best effort, I would walk away with a C+ and hear someone else had aced a test having just read the chapter the night before. My LD specialist knew I needed to be encouraged or she would lose me. In those days, very few hearing-impaired students graduated college. When I didn’t think I could make it through the final stretch, she asked me a lot of questions about how I saw myself, what my challenges had taught me, and how I could help others on similar journeys. She gave me the opportunity to see my unique strengths and new possibilities. I ended up finishing school with a 3.0 grade point average, which was wonderful for me. I never will forget what it felt like on graduation day, hearing my name and walking up to receive my diploma. My huge family was there, applauding me. My heart was filled with so much love and happiness; I had reached a goal that I truly never thought I would.

Graduating college

I graduated when I was 25 years old, started working as a lab technician, but soon developed classic symptoms of depression. I had no energy, no appetite, and had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. The transition to the work world was difficult and I sought out resources to help with the change. I, fortunately, found my way to a Jungian Analyst, where working with the unconscious and the dream world was the primary focus. My analyst also helped me identify destructive inner messages. Through this work, I realized I did not see myself working in an office environment.

I loved the idea of connecting with, and being of service to, people and animals and nature. I ended my time as a lab technician about a year later and traveled across the country by myself. My journey took me to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a retreat center in California where I lived for about a week. I meditated with the students early each morning, a difficult exercise, but one I was able to embrace. Although I cannot hear birds when I do not wear my hearing aids, during one meditation, I kept hearing the sound of an owl. Leaving the meditation hall that morning, I spotted a huge white owl in a tree, looking straight at me. When I got home, I told my analyst that I felt the owl represented wisdom and that I needed to trust the wisdom of my journey.

Interestingly, in my life today, when I get off track, an owl frequently appears in my path. That initial experience happened about 18 years ago, and in the interim, five more owls have appeared. It seems to me that guidance is present in our lives if we are open to seeing it.

There were times when I desperately needed that guidance. I married in 2002 and my husband and I lost our first baby, whom I had named Catherine Rose. I’ll never forget the night my milk came in and the grief that engulfed me knowing my child was really gone. My husband was very present with me that night and supported me in a way that helped me see what a good man he was. Then I lost my dad in 2007 and went through a frightening time, certain that I had lost the one human being who would love me no matter what. My husband and I had a second child, a daughter we named Elyse, but the losses I’d experienced took a toll on us. We grew more and more emotionally distant from one another, and our marriage ended in 2009.

With Catherine Rose

I had to reflect on a new career that would support my child and allow me the freedom to explore my calling. Working at my family’s business gave me that freedom. I had many jobs there, from scraping paint off the floor, then working in production, operations, marketing, sales, and eventually in Human Resources doing staff development, orientation, and recruiting.

When did you start to think about making a change?
The loss of my daughter, Catherine Rose, in 2003, woke me up to my life’s work. Through my grief, I found a strength and courage I never realized I had. This lesson from my daughter was a gift—I can share strength and courage as I walk beside others and be a companion to their grief. I became whole again, yet I was not the same.

When I was pregnant with my second baby, I was aware of how much I needed to connect with my unresolved grief. I had come to a roadblock in my life after losing my dog and best friend and father all in 18 months. I was also overwhelmed with grief about the baby I lost. I was so afraid and I did not want my second child to feel this.

After my second daughter, Elyse, was born in 2004, I felt somewhat depressed and wondered what to do with my life. I still worked at the family business yet didn’t feel it was my passion. I picked up a book called The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox, that asked me to think about when I felt at my best and most excited about life. I realized that I was my happiest when I taught others about their own lessons and that healing my own grief could allow me to help others.

With Elyse, as a young mom

In 2008, I experienced energy work for the first time. After one session, I felt clear and more present than I had in years and knew I wanted to integrate this work into my practice. As I continued my own healing, I discovered energy work and the power of breath. I thought about how I started life without breath, and how that lead to my deafness and my relationship with silence, and would ultimately lead me to become a breath coach. I started to embrace my challenges as gifts, and my path became very clear as I just kept following the passion.

I stayed at my family’s business until its 100th-anniversary party in December 2014. I was 52 years old. By then it was clear to me that my work was meant to be about supporting women to find their true, authentic selves. I knew it was time for me to make a positive change, and even though I was petrified, my spirit was calling and I had no choice but to follow it.

What is your next act?
I am a life coach and founder of an energy modality called Whalebreathing. I established Blooming Rose Healing (the name honors the memory of my daughter Catherine Rose) in 2013 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, at age 51. I created this center to support women through the process of transformation, especially those challenged by stress, anxiety, or disease. I help them see the gift of their own personal story and use that knowledge to more fully embrace the authentic person they are becoming.

As a healer, I share the gift of my own story as well. My deafness taught me to be present and intuitive and communicate on many non-verbal levels. These skills benefit my healing work because I have to be completely present in order to hear my clients. By doing this, I teach my clients how to do it. Instead of trying to meet the hearing world, my job is to teach the hearing world to meet me in my presence and focus.


How do you work with clients?
I first do an assessment and watch their breathing patterns to get a sense where their body is. Once I understand that, we decide together on a plan to help them become more centered and grounded. My work is about educating people on how to align on three levels: mental, emotional, and spiritual.

As an example, I had a client with lung cancer. She was very distressed with the diagnosis. I did an assessment and we decided on six sessions to help her go through this process. As we connected to her body, we entered a world of deep grief for her father and also a fear of dying. She had been affected by the Holocaust and had lost her father. She’d also been taken from her family at age five, lived in many counties, and didn’t reconnect to her mom until age 18. As I helped her reconnect to her trauma and loss, her cancer went into remission. She told me her diagnosis had felt like a death sentence until she realized it was a gift. We allowed her body to communicate to her, which led to her reclaiming her well-being. She continues to be well.

A client in a Whalebreathing session

How did you go from your vision to making your goals a reality?
First I had to heal the old wounds I still carried as a result of my deafness. People who are deaf struggle with isolation. It’s so frustrating and exhausting to stay connected to others. I was constantly trying to be in a world that was impossible for me. It was like trying to make a monkey into a dog.

One day I heard an inner voice telling me to listen to the lyrics of a song called White Bird. It’s about a white bird who sits in her cage all alone, who must fly or she will die. My deafness and isolation have been that cage, and I knew I had to find a way to free myself. I could only do this by finding the gift in it.

I began my exploration by training for three years in with the Energy Touch School, founded by Tricia Eldridge, eventually earning a certification. During this time, I noticed that when I hit upon areas of trauma when working with clients, they would stop breathing. This increased my interest in breath work and led me to study Transformational Breath Foundation, launched by Judith Kravitz. I’m now working toward a certification in this modality as well.

I pursued my childhood interest in dolphins and whales and marine life by taking whale watching trips and eventually attended a Cetacean Summit in Hawaii. That really ignited my passion and I began volunteering for these retreats.

All of this led to the creation of my practice as the “whale whisperer of the Midwest” and my mission to bring whale energy to landlocked areas.

Petting a gray whale on my retreat

How did you set up and promote your new business?
I started by listening to my own inner voice and trusting, which was not always easy. I did a lot of my own breathing and connecting to myself so I could stay grounded and integrated through my own fears. I believe once we take that leap we also say ourselves, “I am truly ready to meet my fears around worthiness, financial fears, and my authentic self.” I came across amazing people who understand the work involved in creating a business around a vision. I worked with people from Just In Time Direction and One Complete Business who helped me execute my dream. My first client came when I was in training. I still have many clients from those early days and appreciate their dedication to themselves and their growth.

I promote my work through my WhaleBreathing workshops, which are based on Transformational Breath and Energy Touch. I do classes all around the Chicagoland area, blog, write newsletters, and hold events to give people the sense of just being.

What challenges did you encounter?
My biggest challenge was myself. Thankfully, I had people who saw my gifts before I was able to and believed in me before I did. My first encounter with a humpback whale taught me so much about the power of being. Before that trip, I was working with my mentor, who was an Energy Touch Practitioner. She told me to visualize a whale in front of me. She pointed out how much energy this whale had to have in order to hold his body together and swim. She asked me to claim that energy within myself and allow myself to be as powerful. Then I went to Fiji and met my first whale in the water. I was petrified! I jumped on my guide’s back and almost drowned him. That experience was challenging, but today I jump in the waters and dance with these amazing gentle beings, who teach me what it is we need to walk this journey called life.

In the water with whales

Figuring out my pricing was also tricky for me because of my big heart, but I realized this is my work; I have to put food on the table and feed my family. So I researched others who do similar work and came up with packages and a plan.

How supportive were your friends and family?  
I realized I could only surround myself with people who believed in me and in my vision. I was scared and had the voice of “You will never pull this off.” And it would have been very easy to turn back and not do this, but it also would have been more painful. Somewhere in me, I knew it was time to make the change and once I decided, all the love and support fell into place. I could not have done this without the love and support, and for that, I am so grateful.

Current photo with my mother and siblings

What have you learned about yourself in this process?
I learned that it takes a huge amount of courage to walk through fear. I learned that even if I have voices in my head that do not believe in me, I can honor those voices without giving them power. I learned how to become the witness of my own life and watch it unfold. I learned how to breathe and how to heal through transition. It’s not about the goal, but about the journey. That’s where you learn the great lessons in life. I learned that it is ok to be afraid and that it too will pass.

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Surround yourself with love and knowledge and support. We are all powerful beings who deserve to be happy and embrace our gifts.

For those who do not know their gifts or goals, just go back to your own story and remember when you shone, remember when life just felt great, and recall what it was you were doing that made you so happy.

When I was young and innocent, my love was about connecting to the earth and its animals. I wanted to be in the water with whales and be a part of their life. I never in my dreams thought it would be about being a breathwork practitioner, founder of Whalebreathing, supporting others in achieving their own dreams and change. Believe in your dreams, and allow them to direct you to your authentic self.

When you make the decision to change your life, know that it is normal to feel resistance and negativity. Find a great mentor to walk this path with you, one who can be completely honest with where you are. I work with people all the time who have made huge changes in their life, and no one yet has died from it.

I remember an idea that resonated with me. It went something like this, “When we start to experience boredom, the soul life is ready for a change, so be the change you want to be in the world.” I continue to work toward finding my authentic self and allowing that change in my life.  My work is all about that process, and grief lets us know what we need to let go of in order to take the next step on our own beautiful and unique journey.

Going to meet the whales

What advice do you have for women interested in becoming energy practitioners?
Whatever path you are guided to take, you’ll be required to look at yourself and walk through your blockages. People who really want to help others need to start from within and be brutally honest with themselves. The interesting part of my life was that I was a victim first because of my deafness, yet when I chose to see that as a gift, my life changed drastically and I started doing the work I am here to do. Trust your own healing first.

What resources do you recommend?
The books I recommend are:
Bruce Lipton, The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles
Carolyn Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing
Rudolf Steiner, How to Know Higher Worlds: A Modern Path of Initiation
Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

What’s next for you?
I’m always open to what’s next. I’m traveling a lot and studying and watching the whales as they teach me more about breath and the energy field. I’m also feeling a strong pull toward researching the soul and what it really is in the human being. I’m writing and will probably publish a book from this journey. I’m also getting out in the world more, speaking about the importance of harmony and how to access it.


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Becoming a Physician Assistant in Midlife: Michelle’s Story

After 16 years of teaching high school wellness, Michelle felt ready for a greater challenge to leverage her interest in health. After much planning and preparation, she is now studying to become a Physician Assistant, and loving the journey.

Tell us a little about your background…

I am a married, 41-year-old mother of two boys, ages 6 and 8. I received my BA in health and physical education in 1996 from Ohio Northern University (Ada, Ohio) and taught in the greater Cincinnati area for four years before moving to Chicago.

I finished my Master’s in Education in 2002 and taught at New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL for 12 years. I taught in the Kinetic Wellness department, which, in most schools, is better known as health and physical education. My primary teaching assignment was health education (sex education and personal fitness) but I also taught team sports and women’s health and fitness. In addition, I was very active in departmental activities: I was the sophomore health course coordinator, sat on the hiring committee and the policies and procedures committee, and more.

My boys

When did you start to think about making a change?

When each of my sons was born, I took a leave of absence from my job to spend time with them in their infancy months. With my second child, I did not feel that magical “pull” to return to work. Teaching had started to feel like Groundhog Day, every day; I could do pretty much anything and everything on autopilot. While this made work very easy, it also made it exceptionally boring.

Compounding this issue, I often felt like a second-class citizen at my high school because I did not teach what they considered a “solid” class, like English or math.

I am very curious about health, wellness, and disease, and if I couldn’t use my skills and talents in the classroom, I felt I should find other avenues where I could make a difference. It doesn’t help that I don’t have a lot of confidence in our state and federal government when it comes to public education—be it classroom funding, standardized assessments, or funding pensions. It was clearly time for me to leave teaching.

What is your next act?

I am a member of the 2017 Rush University Physician Assistant Studies cohort. Upon completion of the program and after passing the licensing exam, I will be certified as a Physician Assistant (PA) and will be able to practice medicine as a member of a collaborative team of healthcare providers.

I will become a PA-C, which stands for Physician Assistant – Certified. In every state, in order to practice as a PA, one must take and pass the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam) for initial certification and also take and pass the PANRE (Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam) every 10 years. Additionally, in order to maintain their license, a PA must accumulate a specified number of continuing education hours each year, as defined by their state licensing board.

Rush’s program is 30 months to complete as it has the unique 6-month advanced practice rotation. Participating in a program structured like this, the graduate is prepared with both strong generalist skills and proficiency in an area of advanced practice. Most other PA programs are 24-27 months (Northwestern is 24, Midwestern is 27, Rosalind Franklin is 24 months).

Despite having very intense academic demands, I can honestly say that I am so happy I made this decision. I love studying medicine and science, learning how disease processes work, using critical thinking and reasoning to arrive at potential diagnoses, and beginning to formulate treatment plans. On the downside, there are days where all I feel I do is study, go to class, eat, study, then pass out from exhaustion – but I realize that this stage is temporary and so worth it! The volume of information and the speed at which it is disseminated is completely unreal; for example, our dermatology unit lasted one week where we spent five days in the classroom, had six Powerpoint sessions with over 650 slides, then had our exam. And, keep in mind that was only for one course! The volume and pacing is just brutal and, at times, I think to myself “how on earth am I going to remember all this?” but then I do review sessions for my certifying exam (two years down the road) and surprise myself with how much I actually know!

Study Carrel at Rush

There has been a huge growth in demand for PAs and in applications to PA schools. Why is that?

Implementing team-based, collaborative care coupled with the influx of more patients to the health care system (likely due to the Affordable Care Act) has emphasized the need for flexibility in care delivery to best meet the needs of patients. PAs are utilized in many areas of healthcare: seeing patients in clinic for routine or acute needs, rounding on patients in hospitals, assisting in surgery, performing various procedures, and providing patient education – often autonomously, but with collaboration from their partner physician.

Becoming a physician assistant, versus an MD, requires fewer years of study while still allowing you to assume a lot of responsibility in the field of medicine and rewarding you with an attractive salary. In addition, job opportunities are plentiful. According to a recent Forbes article, physician assistant studies is ranked the number one best master’s degree for finding a job. Here is a link to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding PA salaries, requirements, outlook, etc. While I can’t speak for other institutions, the program director at Rush did tell us she typically receives six job inquiries from potential employers per student. Currently, 100% of Rush graduates are employed within six months of graduation. Many secure jobs even before they graduate.

With PA Students, in the ER department at Rush

Why did you choose this next act?  What other options did you consider?  

I knew I wanted to do something in medicine, so I initially considered medical school to become a physician. After doing some research and talking to MDs and PAs, it became quite clear to me that the role of a PA was best suited for me. Knowing I would want to start school when I was 41, had I gone the MD route, I would not have begun practicing medicine until I was 50 and then I would have spent the next decade (or more!) paying off medical school debt.

Also, having had the opportunity to gain work experience and learn about the roles various individuals play in team settings, I am very comfortable with assuming a great deal of autonomy within the medical setting but am also comfortable serving as an adjunct in various settings.

Knowing that admission to PA school would be extremely competitive, I had to consider backup options. In the event I did not get into PA school, I also applied (and was accepted) to the Generalist Entry Master’s (GEM) program at Rush University, which would have awarded me a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) and allowed me to sit for the registered nurse (RN) licensure test. I could then choose to complete further studies to become a nurse practitioner (NP), an RN with advanced training in diagnosing and treating illness.

For me, there were three main drawbacks to this backup route. First, the didactic and clinical preparation for PAs and RNs is pretty different: PA school follows a medical model and approaches medicine as an organ-disease system, whereas RNs are trained under a nursing model and approach medicine as more of a lifespan issue. For the most part it means that PAs are trained like doctors and use basic sciences as a foundation for their diagnostic reasoning in the care of patients: They determine the workup, analyze how the patient presents (signs/symptoms), order and interpret various tests (labs, imaging, etc), create a differential diagnosis list (possible underlying causes for the chief complaint), then formulate a treatment plan. I mean no disrespect when I say this next part, but nurses are trained to care for the patients they receive while in the hospital. A patient is admitted to their unit and assigned to them. The nurse follows the orders as prescribed by the MD/PA/NP and takes care of the patient on a moment-to-moment basis.

Second, after completing the MSN program and becoming an RN, I would have to spend a bit of time as a floor/shift nurse before I could work toward becoming an NP. I was not so keen on this work. As a floor nurse, you work three shifts a week for 12 hours at a time and every other weekend. While the responsibility is great, the opportunity to actually make decisions regarding the care of the patient is pretty low. As a physician or a PA, you look at the data given and use your physical/mental assessments to make decisions about the workup and treatment plan. The nurse follows your orders/plans. If something should change in the patient’s status, you have to call the provider and await his or her decision to modify care plans, and sometimes they’re not so nice about this—especially when you’re calling them at 3 am! When I became a Certified Nursing Assistant to get the required patient experience, I learned that while the majority of the providers who saw patients on our unit were tremendously kind, there were some that were just rude and condescending.

The job of floor/shift nurse can be exceptionally grueling, both physically and mentally. I think nurses must possess a very special skill set of caring and compassion, above and beyond what is typically provided by the MD/PA. Nurses are absolutely brilliant caregivers and the best ones have a knack for knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. I know, this sounds really “intangible” if you will. From my experience as a nursing assistant, I saw so many wonderful nurses be able to provide such wonderful care to patients and their families in this manner. I also realize that they do it so much better than I could ever do it!

All in all, in order to work in the capacity that I wanted to, PA school would ultimately be less expensive and take less time, not to mention give me the intensity and focus I was seeking.

Studying in our driveway, while watching our boys

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?

By nature, I am a planner. I need to understand processes, chart a course to arrive at my destination, and do lots of preparation to stave off disaster or failure. Once I made the decision to go for it, I began researching, first figuring out which schools in the Chicago area offered PA studies and then learning what I would need to do to present a competitive application.

I had to retake some courses (anatomy and physiology, psychology) and take several for the first time (general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, probability, and statistics). I completed these at City Colleges of Chicago and College of DuPage. Since I hadn’t touched most of these subjects in 20 years, I didn’t mind having to do all this work. Furthermore, my undergraduate GPA was a 3.0 so these additional undergraduate hours (with straight As) would significantly strengthen the academic portion of my resume for my application. Because I had to fit these prerequisites into my schedule, which also included working full-time and being a wife and mom, I took these courses part-time. It took me from spring 2012 through fall 2014 to complete all these class requirements.

As part of the PA application, I also had to gain direct patient contact experience. While there are many ways to do this, I chose to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and work at a hospital. Knowing that, I decided to leave teaching in the spring of 2013 so I could acquire as many hours as possible, since most schools really like to see 1,000 hours on the resume.

Shadowing physicians or PAs was another required activity for application. I was able to shadow in internal medicine, infectious diseases, obstetrics and gynecology, and interventional radiology. It was easy to find MDs to shadow but PAs were virtually impossible, as most of the PAs with whom I am acquainted work for medical groups that do not allow shadowing. Ideally, one of the MDs/PAs you shadow should write one of your letters of recommendation. In any event, the experience should shed light on the role that the PA plays in the healthcare team.

Finally, I had to take the GRE, a graduate admissions test, which is basically a math and English test. I had to prepare intensively for the GRE because it had been decades (literally!) since I had done many of the math problems I would be required to solve. I spent 6-8 weeks with a Princeton Review manual to ready myself.

Medical volunteers at Chicago’s Rock’n Roll Half Marathon

What was it like to go back to school to get your prerequisites?

Rarely did I have same-age peers in my classes. I think my background in teaching was exceptionally helpful in forming connections with my classmates. I was often the one organizing study groups outside of class. Also, since many of my peers were taking these classes for the first time, I was able to help them begin to develop good study habits such as creating/using mnemonics and making effective flashcards. I have kept in touch with several of my lab partners and study buddies from my courses.

The other students and my professors were very welcoming. Again, after being on the other side of the lectern, I understand the importance of building good (yet genuine) relationships with my professors. I’m still in contact with two of my instructors, and one even wrote my letter of recommendation.

With other Second Years

When did you possibly find time to become a certified nursing assistant too? Are there other ways to get the patient experience that’s required to apply to PA school?

I took an 8-week course in spring 2013 while I was still teaching AND taking anatomy and physiology 2 as well as organic chemistry. I’m not going to lie—it was BRUTAL. Fortunately, the CNA course wasn’t difficult at all; it was just time I had to spend to get it done and take the state certifying exam. Basically, you pay your $960 fee, buy your blood pressure cuff and stethoscope, pay for your background check, and state exam fee, and you’re done. It was super easy.

Some people come to PA school from another health field, such as being a registered dietitian, physical therapist, pharmacist. In those cases, the individual has earned at least a BS and has had acceptable patient contact. Most people, however, take the “entry level route” and pursue employment as an EMT or paramedic, phlebotomist, scribe, transporter, physical or occupational therapy aide, pharmacy tech, x-ray tech, etc.  Each individual school has their own idea as to what they deem acceptable; it is certainly not uniform across the board.

Practicing casting and splinting (my leg is NOT broken)

Letting a fellow student practice her phlebotomy skills on me



Tell us more about the application process.

Currently, there are 217 programs that offer academic training to become a PA. I applied to four schools (Rush, Northwestern, Midwestern, and Rosalind Franklin). This is a small number when compared to other students in pursuit of the same degree; because of the competition for admissions, many students apply to 10-20 programs. For example, Rush received 1,200 applications, invited 200 to interview, and offered admissions to 30 (in other words, a 2.5% admit rate). Midwestern, based on what I heard at open houses, receives about 3,000 applications for 86 spots.

All applications must be sent through CASPA.

It’s pretty easy – demographic information, enter ALL your coursework (so your overall and science GPA can be calculated), enter your direct patient contact hours, your shadowing experiences, GRE scores, former work experience, etc. The application fee was about $290.

You must include at least two recommendations but no more than three. Most programs want one from an instructor who can speak to your academic abilities and one from a PA/MD. I got my first recommendation from the infectious diseases physician I shadowed. My second one came from my Anatomy and Physiology instructor who had previously worked in ultrasound/radiology and used to be the director of the radiology tech certification program at her school. My third one came from my manager at the hospital where I worked as a nursing assistant.

The CASPA has one general essay: “Why do you want to be a physician assistant?” I hated it because it was so general and so totally open-ended. I also knew that initially, it would get about 2 minutes of eye-time, so I had to make sure my essay grabbed the reader immediately. Some schools require supplemental questions, like Rush and Northwestern. Basically, for Rush, it was asking, “Are you really serious about our school?”

Whiteboard wall in study lounge at Rush, preparing for an anatomy exam

You were called in for an interview at Rush. What was that like?

The interview went from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The initial session was informational, with the program director. The 20 of us who had been called in were split into four groups, where our activities rotated. My group started with a tour of the facilities, hosted by a first-year student. Next, we had a paperwork session where we had to submit a photo, unofficial transcripts of any outstanding coursework, and fill out a sheet indicating any change in our direct patient contact hours and shadowing since our application submission. Following that was a 30-minute one-on-one interview. After the interview, we all reassembled for a Q&A session with students in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years. Next up was a 60-minute time slot allotted for a 70-question medical terminology exam. Finally, we had a 60-minute time slot to type responses to two essay questions that we had received upon our arrival.

Observing orthopedic surgery

What kinds of things did they seem to be evaluating?

It seemed to be a little bit of everything. Even though the formal interview was only 30 minutes, I’m not naïve to think that the other parts of the day didn’t matter. Here is my take on what they were looking for during each part of our visit:

Arrival and opening session: How comfortable are you socializing with strangers who are all in the same boat as you? Do you seem like the type who might be a good fit for cohort work?

Three-on-one interview: I interviewed with the director of clinical education, a third-year PA student who was currently in her advanced practice rotation, and a second-year PA student who was doing her clinical rotations. All three of them had laptops and took turns asking questions, then immediately started typing once I began to speak.

Medical terminology test: I purposely took a medical terminology class so I could ace this. Luckily, I passed it. If you do not pass it but matriculate at Rush, you have to retake it.

Essay: We had two essays and were given the prompts at the beginning of the day. They were both scenarios one might come across, one while in PA school, another once a practicing PA. During the breaks in the day, I started brainstorming and putting together my ideas. I believe they are evaluating one’s ability to think critically about a complex problem and convey a thoughtful, coherent solution in a concise manner (considering we only had 60 minutes to write both essays).

After our white coat ceremony

Can you tell us more about the three-on-one interview? What kinds of questions did they ask?

Here are the questions anyone interviewing with a PA school should expect:

  • Why do you want to be a PA?
  • What do you think a PA does?
  • Why do you want to study here?
  • How have you prepared to deal with the rigors of this program (academically, emotionally, and do you have a support system in place)?
  • What unique experiences have you had that you can apply to being a PA?
  • The requisite ethical question (mine was: you believe your attending/supervising physician is under the influence of alcohol, what do you do?)
  • Why should we pick you?

I was not terribly stressed out about this interview. In my role as high school teacher, I was on the hiring committee so I spent a good four years on the other side of the interviewing table. I remember what I liked (and didn’t like) to hear and see and could tailor my approach to better read the needs of my interviewers and give them what they wanted. For example, I’d look at their body language: Are they looking away/yawning as if bored or disinterested or are they leaning forward in their chairs, nodding along with me?

I also made a playlist for my iPod and listened to music on the drive to Rush that morning; it really set the mood for me and got me pumped up.  I also spent a great deal of time preparing for the interview by reading through the college catalog. I knew that I could drop keywords that demonstrated my knowledge of the school’s mission, tell stories that illustrated my skills using “their language,” and show enthusiasm. I wanted to be a good “match” for the school, so I made sure to speak to their mission, values, and vision, all of which were clearly defined over and over throughout the catalog. I wanted to leave no doubt that I a) knew what a PA was, b) knew that I wanted to be a PA, c) knew that I wanted to matriculate at Rush, and d) knew that I would be both a great student and alumni.

Our white coat group

How supportive were your family and friends?

I would never be able to do this without the unconditional support of my husband. He is my biggest cheerleader in this endeavor. When I was still teaching full-time AND taking my prerequisites prior to application, he assumed the bulk of the family responsibilities—sometimes four months would go by and I wouldn’t have done a single load of laundry. As a result, I was able to focus on my job and my studies without having to stress about the house or the family.

My boys were two and five when I started doing prerequisites and are five and eight now, as I’m starting PA school. This is “normal” for them. What I like the most is that I get to model hard work, focus, and perseverance in an academic pursuit; I hope they adopt my work ethic and drive. Although I was fortunate to have done well, this was NOT easy, and I’m proud of what I accomplished. I hope they can see that hard work can take you very far in life.

My friends have been very supportive of my desire for change and, I’ll be honest, it is exhilarating to share with my former colleagues that I indeed DID achieve my goal of getting into PA school!

With my husband

What challenges did you encounter?

I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and was unwilling to accept anything but an outstanding academic resume to present for admissions, so I probably put myself under a greater amount of stress than was necessary. In fact, now that I am in the didactic year of my program, I am finding that I am LESS stressed than when I was taking my prerequisites!

Another challenge was planning for a decrease in our family income. Rush’s program costs approximately $100,000. All the programs in the Chicago area are private institutions, so costs would be similar but lower due to the fact that they are shorter in duration. I have taken out student loans to cover the cost of tuition. While they may seem daunting, I am in the fortunate position of having a spouse who works full-time (which means I don’t have to take out loans for housing or living expenses, etc.).  This has meant that we had to modify how we live and how we spend, but the impact hasn’t been too great. It makes me feel a little better about paying them back, knowing that we’ve been able to keep the family afloat while I’ve had no income.

Studying at the pool

Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

I’ll share a funny story here. Typically most PA schools have wrapped up their interview and offer process around the beginning of the year. On January 5, 2015, when I hadn’t heard from the PA schools where I’d applied, I decided that I would contact the GEM nursing coordinator and let them know I’d like to matriculate in the fall. I felt as if I had gone through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and decided I needed to begin moving forward with Plan B, nursing. I accepted that I could be happy with this decision knowing that I had done everything to try to pursue PA school. The very next day, I was invited to interview at Rush for a spot on the waitlist. Of course, I jumped at it—what did I have to lose? I interviewed on February 6, learned I was on the waitlist on February 17, and got the call from the director on February 19 with the invitation to join their program.


What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Spending 16 years teaching has made me a better student than I ever could have imagined. I understand learning and how to learn, and it’s been a huge help.

I’ve also learned just how supportive my husband is. He is a great partner, father, and my biggest cheerleader.


Celebrating the end of a quarter with friends at Coopers Hawk

What words of advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

It can be very scary and risky, so be sure to have backup or contingency plans. That being said, don’t let your fear of the unknown stop you from pursuing something when you know it is the right decision. Before making the leap, grab lunch or coffee with people in the profession to learn as much as you can. Don’t be shy asking them about the grades, experiences, and finances involved. Put together a reasonable plan to accomplish your goals—many of you might have a family that also needs you.  Build a solid support network around you that includes people who are enthusiastic about your choices.


What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?

Get good grades, pursue interesting and appropriate clinical experiences to earn the hours needed for application, start networking with physicians and PAs who will let you shadow and perhaps eventually write your recommendations.  Get into a hospital and make sure you see some of the most disturbing things: newly amputated limbs, trauma sites, infected wounds, gushing blood – these are all things that will be commonplace in your future career so get used to them now.  I’m at the point where NOTHING surprises me anymore!

Find the right PA program for you. Currently, there are 217 programs that offer academic training to become a PA. A list can be found here. Clearly, some programs are stronger than others. Interested students should look for ones that offer a masters level of education, as opposed to bachelors or associates. Also, the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam) first-time pass rate should be strongly considered as it sheds light on the rigor of the program.

Be absolutely certain to attend any open houses provided by the schools you wish to attend. Take your spouse or partner with you so they, too, know what you may be getting into.

My final project for my mental health rotation

What resources do you recommend?

­ PA Education Association

CAPSA or Central Application Service for Pas: This is where prospective students apply plus it has a wealth of other information

Follow the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

The Ultimate Guide to Getting Into Physician Assistant School by Andrew Rodican. I bought it and read it cover to cover numerous times.


What’s next for you?

Right now I’m focused on surviving my didactic (academic/classroom) year of PA school, which means being in class from 8am to 5pm on a daily basis for the next year. Once I get through the program and settled into a career, I think my next act will be retirement (in about 25-30 years!)


Contact Michelle Roush at



Writing and Speaking After Her Cancer Recovery: Darryle’s Story

Hit with a cancer diagnosis in her 40s, Darryle found solace and healing in making mosaic art. A desire to sell her art online would lead her to write and speak about her recovery, and to co-found WHOA, an online platform for women in midlife.


Tell us a little about your background…

I make mosaics by taking a jumble of different pieces that don’t seem to fit together, and I assemble them into one beautiful whole. That’s exactly how I envision my life journey—a mosaic.

The first piece is Miami Beach, where I grew up in the sixties. It might seem like a very glamorous and glitzy hometown, but in reality, it was a safe, close-knit community. I was the oldest of three kids. We played outside in the street, we could walk or bike to public school, my mom gave us milk and cookies when we got home. My childhood sounds like a cliché of the American dream, and it really was, until one scene spoiled the pretty picture.

Family photo in Miami Beach

My incredible mom died in 1968 at 41, after my freshman year in college. She had been in the hospital for a couple of months; we kids were told it was just a back problem. Her death was a complete shock and it took five years for my father to finally tell me Mom had cancer. This truth reshaped my past and my future; cancer became my greatest fear.

Meanwhile, I transferred to Yale, graduating in the first class ever to include women. My degree was in History, and this extraordinary experience shifted my thinking—from assuming I would find a husband in college, to finding a career.

I fell into the perfect career almost by accident, becoming a TV writer, reporter, and anchorperson in Miami, working on documentaries and news. A romantic twist was added when I interviewed Mel Brooks, who played matchmaker, setting me up on a date with his manager. Four months later, we were married and I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked as a reporter and freelance writer and had two kids.

With Mel Brooks and my first husband

When did you start to think about making a change?

My early 40s brought big changes: divorce, remarriage, and moving with my children from Los Angeles to Carmel, California. Though Carmel is idyllic, my life was stressful, working full time and adjusting to a new community, new marriage, new everything. Making another change was the last thing I was thinking about.

Naturally, that’s when I got hit with my worst nightmare: cancer. I got my pathology report of stage III breast cancer on July 17, 1995, the day of my one-year anniversary with my new husband, V—definitely the most memorable anniversary ever. (We’re still married.)

I wouldn’t call this an “aha” moment; this was a nuclear bomb blast that shattered everything I thought was safe, good, or even possible.

Losing hair during chemo

I had a very bad prognosis, and I truly believed I was going to die, as my mother had, leaving my children motherless. At the start of my cancer journey, just living a little longer was my top priority, really my only priority. I was forced to shift my focus from taking care of my kids to taking care of myself. I had a full year of treatment: two chemos, five surgeries, and radiation. I tracked down every possible option to boost my odds of survival, and I write about that in my book. Today I’m very lucky, grateful, and proud to be a 22-year survivor.

One part of healing was trying to escape emotionally and mentally from the bombardment of stress. I tried everything from music to meditation to yoga but I could not get my cancer, or my fear, out of my head for even five minutes. Then one day I took my 7- year-old son into one of those little paint-it-yourself pottery studios.

I was never artistic or crafty. I had zero talent and even less confidence. It was a good diversion, and I really enjoyed it. So I went again by myself, and something kept me going back to paint at that little studio—really, my sanity. While I painted, I was so focused I didn’t think about anything else, including cancer. That realization was a revelation, one that turned into a reinvention.

My mosaic studio in Carmel

I was one of those people who never really had a passion for anything before. It was a shock to discover any interest or ability to create art. I went crazy for it—painting bowls, mugs, vases, a set of dishes, cookie jars to give everyone I knew. My addiction developed into obsession once I started making mosaics.

I developed my own art process. I would paint a group of different tiles, then break them up and rearrange them into mosaics. So many things about this appeal to me: the jumble of different shapes and sizes and colors, the mixture of patterns, the lack of order. Kind of like my personality.

My real epiphany was when I suddenly realized that mosaics are a metaphor for life. Life can break things that are most beautiful to us. To make mosaics, and to make my life work again, I was picking up broken pieces, rearranging them into something different that is beautiful in a new way. Just like we all do. This is resilience, being the artist of your own life.

I explain this in my TEDx talk and my book, I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces. That’s why my book subtitle is “Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces.”

My working life was always creative, but everything I had done before involved words. Art was a departure: using my eyes and my hands, not my brain. And I was healing myself. My series of whimsical women’s torsos called Boobalas came right out of my experience losing both breasts.

Mosaics were so therapeutic and rewarding; there was nothing else I wanted to do with my time and my life. I started selling them, making pieces by commission, and I opened my own studio. Maybe my most satisfying moment was being asked to create a piece for the same hospital where I had cancer treatment.

What is your next act?

In addition to mosaic art, my next act has been writing and speaking. Through humor and perspective, I focus on various aspects of my life experience—from resilience to parenting to loss to health to aging—that anyone can apply to his or her own life.

Honestly, this next act doesn’t fit neatly into a category or label. I’ve described it with the tagline and title I’ve used for my blog and my book: “I never signed up for this….” Because of all the times I’ve said those words.

Those words can apply to something bad, like cancer, or something good, like giving a TEDx talk. The common thread is that life takes you in directions you don’t expect, and we all can adapt. A book, speaking, social media, videos, workshops, websites—nothing about my reinvention was on my radar at first.

It started when someone suggested I try blogging to market my mosaics online. This was years ago, and I had no idea what blogging was. When I found out, it intrigued me, so I jumped right in and created my blog called “I never signed up for this….”

It had been years since I had written anything, years when I had experienced so much, and words started pouring out as art had poured out of me. In addition to my own blog, I started writing for the Huffington Post and other sites.

I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I’m still feeling it almost 10 years later. I loved the immediacy, the independence, the freedom to express myself, the wide range of creative aspects that could flow from a blog.

There’s another major reason writing felt so fresh and new, and so right. In my previous career, I was an observer. As a journalist, I told other people’s stories. Now, for the first time, I was telling my own.

What challenges did you encounter?

At first, I had no idea what I was doing. That’s typical of me. I don’t read instruction manuals. I can be impulsive. I often act or speak, and then think. There was no preparation or research; I felt that this was the next step for me, so I leaped, and trusted my instinct that it would work out.

Even so, I was intimidated by the technology and I really struggled with it. It took me weeks to learn how to post a photo on my blog; no one I knew was blogging yet and I didn’t know where or how to find help. I was entirely self-taught and just muddled through. Despite the aggravation and frustration, I loved learning a whole new world. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to figure out how to do something that scares you. Overcoming my fear of technology was a big deal.

This is a new age, the whole world has moved online, everything is evolving and changing so fast. That feeds my creative spirit and suits my sensibilities. I felt lucky to stumble into it early on. There are so many possibilities, my brain could not keep up with everything I wanted and still want to pursue. So my path has a lot of twists and turns.

Another challenge was my age. I was in my fifties. I have never felt defined or limited by my age personally, but bloggers my age were outliers. I had to put a page on my site explaining to my peers what blogging was.

I didn’t realize I wanted or needed a community and there was no community in existence for my age range. Very gradually, I started finding people, by writing for other sites, reading other bloggers, some young enough to be my children. I felt connected since we were all moms, and what might have been considered a negative became a positive.

I was living in a small town at the time and felt isolated. That changed when I attended my first event for bloggers and then my first conference, which was BlogHer 09 in Chicago; and I got to meet online friends in person.


How supportive were your family and friends?

My kids were the only people around me who knew what blogging was, and I think they were amused by the whole thing. My husband was supportive; my ex-husband was skeptical—mostly about me sharing my life, and by extension, his. My friends had no idea what this was all about but they loved reading my blog, especially when they were featured in it.

Mother’s Day with my kids

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Partly I re-learned things I already knew. I learned to appreciate my strengths and accept my weaknesses. I learned I still love to learn. I learned I still hate promoting myself. I learned that I had skills I could dust off and use. I learned that to make things happen, you need to ask, to take risks, to put yourself out there. I learned that I should take the initiative, rather than wait for someone to approach me. I’m still working on that one.

I learned to use my voice, to share experiences and perspective that could be useful to others. I’d been supporting and advising parents and women with breast cancer for years. I had lots to offer and nothing makes me happier than connecting and sharing, and hopefully changing lives for the better.

Over the years, writing brought related opportunities. As an example, a pivotal part of my next act started when I was a BlogHer Voice of the Year. I read my post on stage, about how women over 50 can feel invisible. Afterwards, a woman I didn’t know in the audience tweeted me about my talk and wanted to meet me. We met out in the hallway. Her name was Lynn Forbes; a year later, we co-founded WHOA Network. Women Honoring Our Age is an online platform for women in midlife and beyond—to support and show that we are vital, powerful, and authentic at every age.

With Lynn Forbes

In addition to the incredible, inspiring people I’ve met, and opportunities that opened up, WHOA led to me doing a TED talk when one of our advisors recommended I do it. And the success of the TEDx talk led to expanding it as a book.

In my sixties, the main limitation I feel is time. Not that I’m going anywhere! But at this point in life, I make choices based on what speaks the most to my heart and my gut, what has the most meaning, what can make the most impact. Age is an advantage in that way. You learn how to prioritize and what’s important—it’s not how many people like your Facebook page.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Funny you ask. This directly follows from my last answer about choices that matter: I would have spent less time on things that do NOT matter, such as devoting a year to my second blog Cluttercast. Don’t even ask. Related: I wish I had been more organized, especially with time management.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

I’m not sure women need to seek reinvention. Even if you don’t, it will probably find you anyway! I would say just be open and roll with it. Life is filled with challenges and change is healthy. I would embrace change and practice resilience in all ways you can. At any age, being adaptable is probably the most useful life skill anyone can have.

Our productive working lives span so many more years than they ever did, new fields and possibilities are being created by the minute. Reinvention in careers is already the new normal. And whether you succeed or fail, there’s always another opportunity to do something else.

Reinvention requires a leap of faith for most of us, and the first step is the hardest, just putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and trying something new. But without that first step, you can’t move forward.

Not to imply anything deep about reinvention here—but what just flashed into my mind is the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they jump off the cliff. Taking a leap is much easier when someone is there to hold your hand.

Looking back, I wish I had sought collaborators earlier. Aside from my husbands (and that was only 50% successful), Lynn was the first partner I ever had. Finding the right person can be dicey; it can be a risk. But if it works, having a great partner really makes a difference.

Last thing, and maybe most important: DON’T BE SO HARD ON YOURSELF. Particularly for women, striving for perfection is a prison and we should all break out of it. (This is the topic of my TEDX talk and I think most women struggle with this ) There’s a line I saw recently that I love: “If only I had the confidence of a mediocre man.”

Speaking at Hope Lodge

What resources do you recommend?

For me, Suzanne Braun Levine is the guru of women later in life, and I would recommend any of her books. For careers, I would start with Marci Alboher, The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.

WHOA Network has featured women who specialize in reinventing yourself, so I suggest checking out some of our videos and resources.

As their own second acts, my friend Ann Voorhes Baker has retreats called Women at Woodstock; and Johanna Herman Wise created Connect, Work, Thrive for women re-entering the workforce or reinventing themselves.

What inspires me most are stories of resilience. Since you contacted me, I’ve read quite a few interviews on this blog. It’s a wonderful collection of stories and a fabulous resource. I enjoyed learning more about my friend Helene Bludman and for obvious reasons I especially related to Mary Farina and her gorgeous glass art.

When it comes to cancer resources, there are so many today that it’s actually overwhelming. I think I am reading a book every week with cancer as a theme. I guess the best starting point no matter what your cancer might be is the American Cancer Society. Another resource I wish I had had is Facebook. I would suggest finding a group that fits your needs—whether you are looking for support or information.

What’s next for you? 

One reason I’m reading all these books about cancer right now is that I’m already working on my next next act. I’m deep into research on a book involving cancer.

Taking my own advice, I’m working with collaborators and loving that aspect of it. This book is very different for me, it’s intense research, an important story, and I’m incredibly excited about it. Although sometimes I can’t believe I’m taking on such a huge project at this point in life.

Plus I’m still doing speaking and freelance writing, so I’m busier than ever. I’ll always have a next next act until I stop breathing.


Contact Darryle Pollack at


WHOA Network

Twitter: @DarryleP


WHOA Facebook page

Book: I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces

Let’s Hear from an Expert: Dr. Caroline Apovian, Director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center

What unique challenges do women face related to nutrition and weight as they enter midlife?

Most women know that the ovaries produce estrogen, but many are not aware that fat cells also produce it. During menopause, the amount of estrogen produced by your ovaries decreases. Your fat cells try to compensate for the hormonal imbalance by swelling and becoming larger. These larger fat cells typically congregate around the waist, explaining some of the weight gain that accompanies menopause.

Aside from unwanted weight gain, extra fat stored in the belly increases risks for serious health problems. These include heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. Hot flashes, headaches, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disruption can also be triggered by the lower amounts of estrogen (and progesterone) produced after midlife.

Another challenge people face in midlife (not unique to women) is sarocopenia. This is the natural muscle loss that begins in our 30s and accelerates in our 40s. Our basal metabolic rate is primarily determined by the amount of lean muscle mass we have, so as we lose lean muscle mass, our metabolism slows down accordingly.

I might also add that stress and sleep deprivation significantly contribute to weight gain, and the pressures and stresses that middle-aged women face are a challenge that needs to be addressed in regards to weight and health.


Are there opportunities unique to women in midlife that they can leverage?

I would say so, yes. Women in midlife, as a general statement, tend to be wiser, more aware of their strengths and limitations, and have many years of practice balancing competing responsibilities. They also better understand their bodies and individual needs, and how caring for those needs is essential to maintain their physical and emotional health. This is also a generality, but many women in midlife who have families have children who are older, with a greater level of autonomy. This is a definite advantage when it comes to working in time for ourselves to engage in physical activity, manage stressors, and sleep 7-9 hours per night.


What are your best tips for women in midlife with respect to nutrition and weight, and living the second half with energy and health?

It’s difficult to say which aspects of nutrition and health are most important, but here are a few recommendations that patients have found helpful.

Eat a diet rich in protein. Protein is necessary to preserve, protect, and build muscle. I advise my patients to build meals around lean protein sources, such as fatty fish and poultry. As protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients, you’ll feel full longer and experience fewer energy highs and lows throughout the day. Enjoy a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with your protein sources, as well as limited amounts of whole grains.

Work out with weights a couple of times per week. In order to counteract the process of sarcopenia, work out with weights a couple of times per week. You’ll be improving your metabolic speed and your strength, lowering your stress levels, preventing bone loss, sharpening your cognitive abilities, and reducing risks for cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. If you are new to weight lifting, start with lighter weights and fewer repetitions. Build up in weight and intensity as you get stronger.

Walk whenever possible. Stay active! It helps to burn calories, manage stress, reduce pain, preserve mobility, and improve quality of life.

Sleep 7-9 hours per night, every night. Sleep is crucial for our health. Adults who sleep 5-7 hours per night (or less) are 30-80 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, or to die prematurely, as those who sleep 8 hours or more. My weight loss patients are often surprised when I ask them about their sleeping habits, but the two are closely related. A chronic lack of sleep increases cortisol (stress hormone) and ghrelin (hunger hormone) while simultaneously slowing down your metabolism and decreasing leptin (a satiety hormone). Cortisol prompts the body to replenish energy in the form of hunger pangs. This is why chronic lack of sleep is contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Try intermittent fasting. Research has revealed that intermittent fasting helps with weight loss, decreasing inflammation in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving metabolism, and decreasing risks of type 2 diabetes.  At the clinic, I combine this principle with the fact that we need to feed our muscles protein to protect them, and the fact that most people who are trying to lose weight will have difficulty sustaining a complete fast as they go about their normal schedules.

Taking a temporary break from solid foods and having high protein smoothies instead achieves many of the same health benefits while simultaneously helping people to feel full and guarding their muscles. Swap out a few meals per week for protein smoothies and try having one all-smoothie day per week. I have developed a protein powder especially for this purpose, which can be found here. It’s a mix of whey and casein protein powders, as one of them works quickly to protect muscles, and the other digests slowly, over the course of several hours, to sustain a feeling of fullness. However, any unsweetened protein powder can work for this. Combine it with water, fresh fruit, and fresh veggies for a low calorie, high protein meal replacement.


What resources do you recommend to women in midlife who wish to maintain or improve their nutrition and weight?

Building Strength & Stamina by Wayne L. Westcott. This is an excellent book about strength training for health and weight loss, with plenty of helpful routines, photos, and an included DVD.

Ellen Dolgen for menopause-related advice and articles.

Weight Watchers is a reputable program that has helped many women and men to lose weight successfully.

The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight is my latest book, and contains more information on all of the points I mentioned above. I also have a blog that features advice, articles, and recipes.


Contact Dr. Caroline Apovian at



Book: The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight


Caroline Apovian, MD, FACN, has worked as a leading researcher, treatment provider, and professor in the field of weight management and nutrition for over 25 years.  She is the director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center, a professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, and the vice president of The Obesity Society.  Her federal government positions include acting as a nutrition consultant to NASA and an appointed member of the federal government’s panel on the evaluation and treatment of overweight adults.  She is the author of The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight, in addition to hundreds of papers, reviews, and book chapters on obesity and nutrition.  Her publications appear in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Women’s Health, International Journal of Obesity, Obesity Research, Digestive and Liver Disease, and Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, amongst others.  She has also co-founded the company Science-Smart, a provider of scientifically-supported products manufactured under strict laboratory conditions to facilitate healthy weight loss and sound sleep.

Advocating for Mesothelioma Awareness: Heather’s Story

Shortly after her daughter was born, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Now 11 years cancer-free, she has made it her mission to raise awareness of this deadly disease.


Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a small town in The Black Hills of South Dakota called Spearfish, which has a population of about 8000 people and is home to a small liberal arts university. My mom and dad moved us there when I was in kindergarten, so I don’t remember much before that. I have only one sister who is 4 ½ years older than I am. I graduated high school in 1987, took a year off and was a nanny on the east coast before I decided to go back home and give college a try. After a few years, I decided a regular college was not for me and enrolled in cosmetology school.

Our wedding day, 1999

I loved doing hair. I not only worked in a salon but was an educator for Redken, a color and product company. That job was what brought me to Minneapolis/St Paul, where I still live today. I met my husband, Cameron, shortly after moving here and we got married a short 10 months after. We knew it was right the first night we met. We decided to hold off on starting a family while I pursued my career; I eventually became part owner of the salon I worked in. After two years, we decided it was time to try and get pregnant, after all, I wasn’t getting any younger! Lily was born a little over a year later, on August 5, 2006. I was 36 years old.

After I had Lily, I started to experience some puzzling symptoms. I was losing an extreme amount of weight, and looking back, I had only gained 5 pounds during the whole pregnancy, so that was concerning. I had a low-grade fever that lasted a few hours every evening and I was beyond tired. I was bone weary, that is the only way I can explain it. I was also anemic and had been since my release from the hospital when I had given birth to Lily.

Then in mid-October, it felt like a truck was parked on my chest, I was having trouble breathing and would get out of breath after the smallest of exertions. Many of the symptoms I had were chalked up to being postpartum; I never dreamt it could be anything worse. Only after a very frightening incident—I had gotten a load of laundry up from our basement after I had put Lily in her swing, then sat on the couch and passed out for over an hour—that I knew something was seriously wrong.

Baby Lily

 When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

November 21, 2005 is the day the bottom dropped out of my world. I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. I was exposed to asbestos as a child when my father worked with it and brought it home on his clothing. I remember wearing his dust-covered jacket to do my outside chores. I would grab his dirty coat to go feed our rabbits, rake leaves, or even just to go grab the mail. His coat always hung on the doorknob in our entry. I’d also run errand with him in his car, which was just as dusty as his coat.

My dad did construction, drywall sanding and clean up, and that joint compound had asbestos in it. He also did a lot of demolition, tearing apart old boilers that were covered in asbestos insulation, which meant he worked with a lot of it. Sadly, he died almost three years ago due to renal carcinoma, which can also be caused by asbestos exposure.

When I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, I was given just 15 months to live if I didn’t do anything. My baby was just 3½ months old and now I may not live to see her second birthday, my doctor told me with tears in his eyes. But he was prepared with a list of options for us. I could do chemotherapy and radiation, hope it would halt the cancer, and maybe give me five years, or try an experimental surgery, assuming I was a candidate, that consisted of removing my entire left lung where the cancer was. It would be performed by the best pleural mesothelioma surgeon in the world, Dr. David Sugarbaker, located in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Without hesitation, my husband said “Get us to Boston.”

After surgery, Feb 2, 2006

Facing a potentially life-ending diagnosis and dangerous treatment will change you on a foundational level. I lost my career, my salon, and many people who I thought were friends. The early days of my cancer battle were incredibly isolating, terrifying, but at the same time, life altering.

When I was diagnosed, I did what anyone would do. I went online and read up on what I was up against. Boy was that a bad idea. In all my reading, I learned that most mesothelioma patients didn’t make it past 18 months and that the 5-year survival rate was less than 2%.

Just let that sink in for a minute. You have a new baby. You just found out you probably won’t make it to see her second birthday, and the chances of seeing her turn five and go to Kindergarten are even worse.

I had to put everything I’d read aside and get it into my head that these are just statistics and that from the minute I was diagnosed I skewed the statistics. For one, I was about 35-40 years YOUNGER than the average mesothelioma patient. Second, I was otherwise healthy. I HAD to beat it.

Cancer in and of itself is isolating. People don’t know how to act around you. The people I had worked with all but pushed me out the door. I felt very little support from those who I thought would help me the most. Instead, I felt like a burden and a pariah.

After my diagnosis, I went into the salon that I had been part-owner of to gather my belongings and tools that I had bought throughout the years, only to discover they had cleaned out my station and let everyone claim them. I had to go around to everyone’s station and get back the hundreds of dollars of tools that people had claimed. I felt not only unwanted, but as thought they’d already written me off for dead. Who does that to someone? I quickly sold off my share in the salon and have not had contact with many people from there since.

To be honest, having the people I thought were friends turn their backs on me hurt more than getting diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t have many friends outside of my work friends, so I felt really alone. Thankfully, my clients stepped up. I had the best clients in the world. One of them paid my car payments for two months; another came over every week and cleaned my house. I found out who my true friends were and who really cared about me.

in ICU after the surgery

On the other hand, support from my husband and my families could not have been better. I have two sisters-in-law who live nearby in the Minneapolis metro area and they were there for us at a moment’s notice. My mother-in-law, Lois, would make meals and bring them over to us. My sister-in-law Debbie, who’s also Lily’s Godmother, would take Lily overnight every Friday or Saturday while I was going through treatment, to give my husband a break from his caregiving duties. My sister-in-law Karen was always available during the day to watch Lily when urgent medical issues came up, like the time I needed a transfusion.

Our families also banded together with my clients to put on a benefit for us. They all worked to make things easier for us during a tumultuous time. My cancer diagnosis brought us all closer together as a family, both on my and on Cameron’s side. We know what is important, and we are there for each other when it matters. It’s so good to know I can count on them when I need them and I’m happy to help them too, as the need arises.

My husband was my rock through this whole thing. Even though the possibility of losing his wife and being a single parent was very real, he never let that grief take over. I was pretty self-sufficient during treatment and could take care of myself ok, but where he was invaluable was his help with Lily. There were times during chemo when I literally could not get out of bed, so tending to an 8-month old was nearly impossible.

Cam, my rock

When I was done with treatment, Cameron when back to school to get his degree so he could get a better job, knowing full well I would not be able to return back to work. He worked full time while also going to school full time for two years, and graduated with honors. His schedule was brutal. He would get up at 6am, drive a delivery truck all day, go to school at night, study until 1 or 2am, then wake up and do it all over again. He got a job working in IT at US Bank before he even graduated and has been there for six years now and loves his career. So my diagnosis was not only the catalyst for my next act, but for his as well.

I decided not to concentrate on the hurt. I had a much bigger battle on my hands. I had no time for petty people or people who would not support me. I held my head high and put my energy into what mattered, my health and my daughter. My daughter is what got me through the really hard times. Just looking at this sweet innocent baby who was born into this mess and didn’t deserve any of this was my entire reason to fight and rise above. I refuse to play the victim.

My “aha moment” came when I realized I didn’t want anyone to feel the way I felt. If it meant personally reaching out to every newly diagnosed mesothelioma patient, then so be it. I NEEDED people to know they were not in this alone.

With Lily during recovery


What is your next act?

I am an advocate for the prevention and treatment of mesothelioma cancer.

I am a patient advocate: a mentor, sounding board, supporter. When someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, they usually go online and find, like I did, all bad things and very little hope. I wanted to be that beacon of hope in a sea of despair.

It started simply with talking to other patients every time I returned to Boston to see my surgeon for checkups, a trip that will take place regularly twice a year for the rest of my life. After Dr Sugarbaker started telling journalists who reached out to him about me, news stories started cropping up on Reuters and the local newspaper.

However, what really launched my advocacy was meeting a woman by the name of Linda Reinstein at a mesothelioma conference, about four years after my diagnosis. She and I clicked right away. She had lost her husband to mesothelioma a couple of years earlier. They had started a nonprofit called The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. She invited me to speak at their annual conference the next year.

Speaking at Senator Franken 2016 event to raise awareness about asbestos

After that, things just started to roll. I was approached by The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to be an advocate and blogger for them and I couldn’t say no. The blog has been hugely successful and reaches far and wide. The blogging community has been instrumental in getting the word out and helping me raise awareness. It’s been an amazing journey and my life has been enriched by the incredible people I’ve been able to meet as a result of this.

By sharing my story, blogging, and telling patients and their families that there are treatments that are helping patients with mesothelioma live longer, I give them that bit of hope that they so desperately need. I am available to talk to anyone and help anyone who finds themselves facing a mesothelioma diagnosis. There aren’t many people who are willing to put themselves out there for that purpose. I also serve as a conduit for information; I’ve learned a thing or two in the 11 years since my diagnosis and if my experience can help someone, then I’m doing the right thing.

I help point people to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation so they can understand all their options. I DON’T offer medical advice as I am not medically trained, but advice from someone who’s been through something similar always helps.

Speaking at the 2016 ADAO conference


Can you tell us more about mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the organs, of the mesothelium. There are three types: pleural (my diagnosis) which affects the lung; peritoneal, which affects the abdomen; and pericardial, which affects the heart. There is even a rarer subtype that affects only men and is found in the testicles.

Mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure and has a latency period anywhere between 10 and 50 years. It’s a very rare cancer, with only about 3,000 people a year diagnosed in the US. Most people, upon diagnosis, are given mere months to live and are told to go home and get their affairs in order. The prognosis is poor, with most patients not making it past 18 months, or certainly beyond 5 years.

Many doctors don’t understand mesothelioma and therefore don’t know how to treat it. The best thing to do is seek out a specialist who knows how to treat the disease. That is who I credit with saving my life, my surgeon, mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker, who’s now at The Lung Institute at Baylor in Houston, TX.

Treatment varies depending on the type, but surgery is the main way people usually deal with it, along with chemotherapy and sometimes radiation. Treatments vary depending on the severity of the disease and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread to other places in the body). Immunotherapy is now being used as well in many clinical trials. Different treatment centers will gear treatment for each specific case; it is not a one-size-fits-all treatment plan.


Why did you choose this next act?

I’d say it chose me. I knew I wanted to help people, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. Situations presented themselves to me and I jumped at them every time they came my way. It has not always been easy. I have to constantly relive those days of my diagnosis and the most uncertain time of my life, but when I do, it empowers me and takes the fear away. I didn’t know that this is what I was going to do—it was not a conscious decision to take it as far as I have—but I feel like there is so much more to do. I would love to do more public speaking and more fundraising. So many things to do! 

Kayaking for Meso, 2016


How hard was it to take the plunge?

Taking the plunge into advocacy and being an activist just feels RIGHT. A person’s story is powerful, especially stories of overcoming obstacles. I feel that my story can inspire others to think “If she could do it, I can too.”  I didn’t prepare for it; as I said before, the opportunities presented themselves and I took them. I still feel like there is so much more to do. I just know how I felt in those early years after my diagnosis and how I felt during treatment, I don’t want anyone to feel that loneliness and abandonment that I felt. Nothing like personally living it to prepare you for something!


Tell us about your challenges.

I try not to dwell on those. I have health challenges. Cancer treatment changes you. I don’t have the stamina I used to have. Chemo affected my brain in a way I never thought. I tend to be forgetful and have a hard time staying on task. It’s very similar to ADD and I recently started taking Adderall to help with the “chemo brain.”

I have to be careful of what I eat, how I eat, and when I eat because of stomach and esophageal issues due to my radiation treatments. I’ve lost most of the feeling in my left hand and don’t sweat on my left side anymore due to the surgery. There are all minor inconveniences, though, because I am still alive and well!

When you are involved in the cancer community, you are immediately thrust into a world of uncertainty and constant reminders of how fragile life is. People die. Sometime I lose three or four people I know in a week. Some hit me hard, but it doesn’t change the fact that cancer is an ugly ugly disease.

With Lily during my treatment

I lost my own dad to cancer. I watched him change from a health vibrant man to a mere shell. I held his hand as he passed, after we told him it was ok to go. It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever been through. That is the ultimate in trust, to let another human take care of you in your most vulnerable state. I’ve been fortunate to be there for a few people near the end of their lives and it is something that changes you on a visceral level. I have a very different relationship with death than I did 10 years ago. It used to scare me, now I see it as part of the circle of life, something greater than you or me.

There are times when it gets to be so incredibly overwhelming. The stories are heartbreaking and the stark reality of being a patient advocate is that people die. Mesothelioma is particularly brutal; this cancer wreaks havoc on your body and you are a shadow of your former self.

I’ve lost more friends than I can count. There are weeks when our mesothelioma community loses 3-5 people. It’s devastating and my heart just shatters every time it happens. I’ve had to take time to take a step back, mourn my losses and recover. But I get up, dust myself off, dry my tears and jump back in. It is those losses that keep me going, as strange as it sounds. I feel like I need to be their voice.

With fellow advocates and women who’ve lost family members to mesothelioma, 2016

The patients’ loved ones are the biggest supporters I have. It’s incredible, really, when you think about it. These people have lost someone so dear to them, whether it be a husband, wife, mother, sister, or brother, but they tell me that they are proud of me. I love to hear the stories of their loved ones, who they were, what they were like. See, I only get to know the people when crisis strikes, after the diagnosis and not before. They are more than a cancer diagnosis. They lived full lives and now we are left with their memories.

The mesothelioma community is incredible and it is those relationships that I’ve built in my 11 years that keep me fighting. In the beginning, though, it was all about my baby girl and my husband. I was not going to give up for them, but the emotions got pretty raw in those dark hours in the middle of the night after I was diagnosed. I couldn’t sleep so I would get out of bed and go into my baby’s nursery. I would watch her sleeping by the glow of the nightlight and vow to fight for her. The tears would silently fall as I thought how unfair it was to her. She didn’t deserve to have a sick mommy; she needed me. That right there was 100% my reason to keep going. She just turned 11 this last August, and I am just in awe of the person she is becoming.

My family, 2016


What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Wow, where do I start? I learned I was stronger than I ever thought I could be. So many people tell me how brave I am, and I sometimes don’t know how to take that. I don’t think I was brave. I didn’t choose to get cancer. I had to fight, I had to live to raise my daughter. I don’t know if that is bravery or just stubbornness.

I learned that the desire to help people feel good about themselves when I was doing hair, crossed over into my advocacy work and that desire is even more ingrained than before. I learned that I have a voice and that I can use it to bring about change. I’ve learned that having faith is instrumental. For me, it is faith in God, faith in my medical team and most of all, faith in myself. I love that.


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Honestly? No. Being diagnosed with cancer was all at once the worst thing that ever happened to me, and the best. It made me who I am today. The people I’ve met since are some of the most amazing people and we connect on a deeper level because of what I’ve been through. There is so much more I want to do that I don’t waste my time thinking of the “what ifs.”  My life is what it is because of what happened to me and the way I chose to react to it. I’ve never played the victim, and never asked “Why Me?” Instead, I took the position of why NOT me? I’m a fighter, I come from a long line of strong, independent women and I draw on that strength to move forward.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? In my case, quite honestly, the answer was that I could die. I thought long and hard about that. So, if I do die, I want to leave a legacy. That gave me the courage to pursue this. For most people, reinvention is something incredibly scary. Find people who inspire you, people who have done something you admire, or have taken something awful and turned it around.

There is an author and speaker whom I admire greatly; her name is Glennon Doyle Melton. I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio and she was talking about her life and series of choices and circumstances that brought her to where she is. She says to run TO that which frightens you. Embrace it. I LOVE that! How often do we let our fears take hold and blow things out of proportion? If you face those fears it takes their power away, and lets you conquer them!

This is the whole premise behind our Lung Leavin’ Day celebration we have every year near the anniversary of my surgery, when I lost my lung on February 2, 2006. We write our fears on a plate in sharpie marker and smash those plates in a bonfire in our back yard. In Minnesota. In February! It’s a tradition shared by 100 or so of our closest friends. So, run TO that which scares you and conquer it.

Lung Leavin’ Day, 2013


What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing advocacy?

Draw on your personal experience. Speak from the heart and take chances. Advocacy is an intensely personal journey. It is born out of a desire to right that which is wrong, or to help others. It is incredibly rewarding but at the same time really hard. You need to be prepared to have your heart broken and to celebrate. Blogging? Well that is pretty easy, sit and write! Ok, easy may be pushing it. Having a love of writing helps, as does a topic or lifestyle that you want to share. Many blogs have started out simply as a way to document a journey for their kid and it grows into something much larger. That choice is up to you, as to how much time and energy you want to commit to it.

With Dr. Sugarbaker, 2015


If someone wants to learn more about mesothelioma, how would she do that?

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

My blog on that same site:

The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization

Imerman Angels (a cancer patient mentoring organization)

I Had Cancer


What other resources would you like to share?

I like inspirational women. Women who overcome, who do things on their terms, despite what people say. These women are strong beyond what they imagined.

Jill Smokler of Scary Mommy: She took a funny web page and turned it into a movement.

Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery and her new book, Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, who speaks often about mental illness—bravo! She has three books out: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, and You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds.

Jo Hilder, a friend and author from Australia, who is a cancer survivor as well. She has written two books about cancer: Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner and Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer.

Luvvie Ajayi, who started The Red Pump Project, a nonprofit raising awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls.


What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I hope to write a book about my journey. We shall see if that comes to fruition. I would also love to be an inspirational or motivational speaker. TEDX! That is my bliss.


Contact Heather Von St. James at


Twitter: @HeatherVSJ

Main Blog Page

10 Year Blog Series with my entire story


Helping dogs with water therapy: Laurie’s Story

With Gunny

After a demanding legal career, Laurie followed her heart to open a business offering healing water therapy for elderly and ailing dogs. She’d go on to write a memoir of her adventures with her beloved dog Gunny.


Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Port Arthur, TX, which is a small town on the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana border. I have a brother and a sister. We raised horses when I was young, and I showed my horse competitively until I was about 13. The first time my parents let me out of the yard, I came home with a puppy from the neighbor’s house, who I named Bandit. My current immediate family consists of me and my husband, Juan Carlos Duperier, and our chocolate Labrador retriever Dino.

I went to college in San Angelo, TX at Angelo State University and received a BA in French and English. I then completed a joint degree in law and a Masters in Foreign Service (JD/MSFS) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, in 1990.

I started practicing law when I graduated from law school, and began my career in Los Angeles, CA for a big New York law firm (Shearman & Sterling) in the litigation department. I wanted to leave DC, because, honestly, there were just too many lawyers and it seemed that everyone I met and spoke to was a lawyer and wanted to talk about their work more than anything else. (In LA, everyone wants to talk about the entertainment industry, but that was more interesting for me because it was not an industry that I was working in.)

When I lived in LA, I spent most of my free time with my cousin Brian, who is like a brother to me. We decided to go to Madrid, Spain one winter on a “two for one” special with American Airlines, and that turned out to be a life-changing trip. A couple of days after we arrived in Madrid, we went to a little tavern near the Plaza Mayor called the Meson de la Guitara, hoping to hear some Spanish guitar music. Sitting at the bar that night, clapping to the Flamenco music, was Juan Carlos, who later became my husband. We struck up a conversation with him and ended up spending a lot of our vacation time with him. This was 1995, not long after Terry McMillan published her book How Stella Got Her Groove Back about falling in love with a guy in Jamaica when she was on vacation. When I returned home, I got teased a lot about how I got my groove back in Spain! Juan Carlos and I literally mailed letters back and forth for over a year, talked on the phone, and saw each other every 3 or 4 months, at which point I decided to move back to Washington, DC because it was a much shorter trip to/from Spain. Two years later, in 1997, he moved to the United States and we married.


We had discussed what to do about wedding presents, and decided that his present to me would be a puppy. I had not had a dog since college because my long work hours just didn’t permit me to care for another being, so I was pretty excited about the thought of a puppy. We agreed we would get a chocolate Labrador retriever, and he went alone to the breeder to pick out our dog. Although we did not know it at the time, he found my long lost soul mate for me—Gunny—and nothing was ever the same again.

After about five years in Los Angeles, I decided to move back to Washington, DC. By then, I was working for a Washington, DC based law firm (Arnold & Porter) in their Los Angeles office, so it was relatively easy to transfer to their DC office.  Eventually, I became an in-house lawyer at The Philip Morris Companies, now known as Altria. I was posted to Hong Kong, then Lausanne, Switzerland, to the headquarters of Philip Morris International, where I became Vice President of Compliance Systems, overseeing world-wide compliance for the company.

In 1995, I came back to Washington, DC to work for Altria as Vice President and Associate General Counsel, supporting the government affairs, trademark, and corporate affairs groups. I did a variety of things in my legal career—litigation, regulation, corporate affairs support, and compliance—and it was all interesting.

In total, I practiced law for 18 years, most of it quite happily. My work was challenging and I worked with incredibly smart and talented people throughout. But, as often happens, the further up the ladder you go, the further away you get from doing what you were trained to do (and love to do)—and the more time you spend on HR issues, conflict resolution, internal politics, and managing lots of people. Those aspects of the job I found draining and much less rewarding.

Living in Switzerland


When did you start to think about making a change?

I had a low level of dissatisfaction for a couple of years, whereas previously I really had loved my jobs and the people that I worked with. I was losing my passion for what I did, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do or could do—and what I was doing was quite lucrative and made for an easy life financially. So, while I thought about quitting and doing something else, I also told myself that I could keep doing what I was doing for a while longer and figure it out later. After all, I was in my mid-40s and had a lot of life left ahead of me.

And I thought that by sticking it out for several more years, I would be more financially settled and better able to transition to whatever the next something was going to be. That said, the phrase that was always humming in my head was, “How long am I going to wait to start living my life?” I worked incredibly long hours, traveled frequently, and didn’t feel that I had much of a life outside my job.

Then, a really crazy thing happened. I was laying in my hammock in the back yard reading the Sunday Washington Post when the base of the hammock suddenly broke and the giant 4×6 piece of wood from which the hammock hung catapulted into my head. It knocked me unconscious and tore a big gash in my forehead, barely missing my eye and resulting in extensive stitches. Luckily, there was no concussion or bleeding on the brain, proof of just how hard my head is!

But for a couple of inches, I could have lost my life rather than have a scar on my forehead, and that is when I decided that the answer to my question about how long I was going to wait to start living my life was “not long”. I couldn’t wait to start living my life because, as I was reminded so jarringly on a regular Sunday afternoon, none of us knows how long our life will be. So, it was time to get moving and figure out what to do.

Lucky for me, my chocolate Labrador retriever, Gunny, had been working on a plan for me, and he led me to my next act.

What is your next act?

I own Gunny’s Rainbow, LLC, a warm water swimming pool for dogs. I focus mainly on rehabilitating geriatric dogs suffering from arthritis and dogs recovering from various orthopedic surgeries. I also am a Reiki master and incorporate that healing energy into my practice with many of the dogs.

The first thing I did after I quit my job in 2008, at 44 years old, was sell my house, buy a new house about a mile away from my perfectly good house in Bethesda, MD right outside Washington, DC, and build an indoor swimming pool to open Gunny’s Rainbow. Gunny was my heart dog, my soul mate, and the guiding light of my life. He needed a lot of physical therapy, including swimming, in order to maintain his mobility and his quality of life, so from his need sprung the idea for the next chapter in my life: I was going to build and run a dog swimming pool. Gunny knew that I needed a change from my legal career, and I think he knew that I could care for other dogs with the same compassion and love that I cared for him. He knew that I would do anything to help him, and if that meant that I needed to stop practicing law and build a pool for him and other old dogs, then that was what I was going to do.

There are many things to love about working with dogs all day, especially geriatric dogs. For starters, they are always honest and most always very kind. They take their aging in stride, much more so than people do, despite often suffering greatly from arthritis and other degenerative diseases in their later years. So, they are incredibly happy and grateful to have the chance to swim and float in warm water, which enables them to move without pain. It also helps to ease their pain as the warm water soothes their joints and allows them to float, weightless for a time, in the water.

What I love most about swimming with old dogs is the relationship of trust that develops between us, and knowing that I have brought comfort to them in their last years. By helping the dogs, I am also helping their people who so often feel helpless in the face of their dog’s physical decline. As one client said to me, “swimming at Gunny’s Rainbow makes an old dog feel young again.” And often, it really does!

Gunny lived for several years after I built the pool, and he was really happy that the other dogs had a place to swim and heal, although as it turns out, he had zero interest in swimming. Too bad! After getting me to quit my job, buy a house, and build a pool, he swam twice a week whether he liked it or not! It really was an important part of maintaining his quality of life. Unfortunately, he continued to fight various diseases along with his orthopedic problems, and when he turned 14, we knew there was not a lot of time left.

Gunny at the pool


You have gone on to write a book. How did this come about?

As Gunny’s health declined, and our inevitable parting loomed, another evolution began to materialize. We were two souls that had become one: I no longer knew where I ended and where he began. Soul mates. And for years, people who knew of our crazy adventures around the world and all of the life-or-death moments we experienced, had said to me, “You should write a book!”

I thought that WE should write a book. So I asked a friend who was an animal communicator to interview Gunny on about 20 topics or so, and over the course of about six months, she did. I incorporated the thoughts and feelings that he expressed into our memoir, The Endless Path: A Memoir. It is a story about love, loss, courage, and what it means to walk through life with a soul mate that you have known over lifetimes.

In many ways, publishing the book was actually much more difficult for me than opening the pool. I found it terrifying to share my intimate thoughts and feelings publicly, and I was concerned that people would think that I had totally lost my mind. As if opening a dog pool wasn’t enough, now I was publishing a book sharing my innermost thoughts and feelings about my dog, our immeasurable love for each other, and worst of all, the depth of my grief when he died. It was truly unnerving. But I promised him before he died that I would tell our story, so there was never any question that I had to see it through. And I did. The Endless Path: A Memoir was published in September 2015.

Much to my delight, I have had nothing but lovely reviews and messages from people about the book. Many people have taken the time to review it on Amazon—all 5-star reviews so far. Other people have reached out to me to tell me what the book meant to them and how they completely understand loving a dog so much; they shared with me the depth of their grief when they lost their heart dog. It turns out a lot of the world feels the same way I did. Like me, they just never felt comfortable talking to people about it because it didn’t seem “normal.” Several of my clients at Gunny’s Rainbow are therapists and they recommend the book to their clients who lose a companion. I did not set out to write a self-help book. Gunny and I just wanted to tell our story. But we are certainly happy if in fact our book—and me “going public with my crazy” as I call it—gives others comfort.


Why did you choose this next act

I really never considered doing anything other than opening Gunny’s Rainbow when I quit my corporate legal job. I was motivated by love for Gunny and wanting to help him and other dogs, and it coincided with my need to find a new career path for myself.

Early on, I toyed with the idea of maybe looking for a position on a Board of Directors for a company to earn some money and keep one toe in the legal/corporate world, but I quickly became immersed (pun intended) in doing water therapy and the two things did not seem compatible. One reason I say that is because I went from a job where I de facto put on body armor every day to withstand the conflicts and ordeals of corporate life, to a job with dogs where I really was able to work with an open heart and total vulnerability. A dog is not going to hurt you emotionally. Pretty much ever. And there are no hidden agendas and politics to manage. So, I felt like it would be Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde to try to do both well and I preferred to just be one person—the nice, open-hearted one.

Because I was totally “done” with practicing law, I have not missed it at all. I loved it almost all the years that I did it, but I did not want to do it anymore. So in that sense, it was not hard to quit. Financially it was very scary, however. I had always drawn a paycheck every two weeks, had paid vacations, and had good health insurance. Those days were over the moment that I quit my job. Under the best of circumstances, working in the pool I would be able to make no more than 1/10th the amount I had made as a lawyer, and likely a lot less. Plus I had the added expenses of building and running the pool. So, while I had enough savings to ride it out for a while, it was a plunge into the unknown in terms of financial security.

I wish that I could say I did a lot of thoughtful preparation, but I didn’t. I looked at the numbers to see how long I could last running the pool in the best and worst cases, and then I just did it. Because I was motivated by love and a deep desire to make this change, I did not do a lot of the financial due diligence that one frankly should do. I did take classes on how to swim/rehabilitate dogs, so I made sure that I knew what I was doing in my new chosen profession, even if I did not exercise as much financial diligence as I should have. The reality is that I was going to open the pool and give it a shot even it did not work financially in the long run.



How supportive were your family and friends?

It was a mixed bag. I think most everyone understood my desire to quit my job—they knew that I had worked awfully hard for almost two decades and how little free time I had in my life to do fun things. It was a great run, but it came at a cost to my personal life.

However, quitting a high profile lucrative job to open a dog pool was a bridge too far for many of them. Had I quit to do consulting, or work in a law firm, or practice law and use my degree in some way, I think it would have been more understandable for them. For starters, swimming dogs is not really a “profession” in anyone’s mind. Second, it is not anything that I had any background or training in, so it just seemed weird to people. Third, and very importantly, they did not see how I was going to ever have a client or make a living since most of them had never heard of a dog therapy pool.

In a nutshell, I don’t think anyone was against me quitting, they were just baffled by what I was going to do in my “new life.” They saw, I think, little chance of success. And for many, they also saw little value in it. That always amused me because why would I have more value to society as a tobacco lawyer than as a dog water therapist?

My husband was supportive of me quitting my job and opening the pool, even though it meant big changes to our lifestyle because I had been the main breadwinner in our family. We did not have a safety net other than our savings. No wealthy family members and no lottery winnings! No one knew better than Juan Carlos how stressed out I was, and I was often in a really bad mood. I worked late every night and many weekends, and was exhausted a lot of the time. That said, we had a nice standard of living and took great vacations and had all that we needed. They say that once you have enough money to cover the essentials in life of food and shelter, having more money does not correlate to happiness and I think my experience proves that rule. I did not need more stuff. I needed to be happy and have time to enjoy my life. The Spanish are expert at enjoying life so that was a concept that Juan Carlos was 100% in agreement with!


With Juan Carlos and Gunny


What challenges did you encounter?

Regarding the dog pool, the first challenge was actually constructing the pool room and getting all the equipment that I needed. It was also a huge challenge to run the business out of my home because of all the regulations on home businesses where I live.

Once I tackled all of that, the next challenge was to get clients and build a business. Serendipity found me when the first person who called to bring her dog to swim happened to be a website designer and she wanted to barter swims for website design! It was perfect because a real client, who really knew what I did, designed my website. I hoped that “build it and they will come” would be enough, and in a way, it was. Clients found me on an Internet search, and I really have not had to do any paid advertising at all. That website, a good reputation, and word of mouth have kept the pool full of clients for 7½ years now.

The third challenge was a physical one. It is very difficult to lift 80 to 120 pound dogs in and out of the pool, and tough to be submerged in water for 5 hours a day. I had sat at a desk for most of my life, and this was physically demanding work even if it was not mentally demanding the way my legal job had been.


We had to expand our home to build the pool

Lastly, there was a huge emotional challenge that I had not really properly anticipated—dealing with loss and grief. In many ways, what I am doing is hospice work. I am absolutely improving the quality of the life of the elderly dogs and their people, and bringing them joy and relief from pain, but the personal loss that I suffer with so many of them dying has been emotionally very difficult.

Regarding writing and publishing The Endless Path: A Memoir, there were innumerable obstacles.

The first obstacle was having the time to really concentrate on writing while running the pool. I had the person who was working with me work an extra day of the week so I could have that time to write. It is very difficult to write a memoir for half a day and then go socialize and swim dogs in the other half.

Book signing

Secondly, it was very challenging to confront all of the emotions that came up writing the book. The writing itself was not difficult—I had been writing my whole life, albeit in the legal world—but I am a natural writer so it comes easy for me. Gunny and I had made a promise that we were going to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, regardless of whether it reflected poorly on one or both of us, and some of those truths were hard to tell.

Third, I had to decide between self-publishing and trying to get an agent/publisher. I made a small attempt to find representation and ultimately decided that I would rather have complete control over how our story was presented, so I went the self-publishing route.

Lastly, the skills and tasks involved in actually publishing the book and marketing it are things that I could NOT do alone, so I hired some very competent people to help me and that is how I resolved those challenges. I found the perfect website designer to design the book’s website; found a professional proofreader; started publishing at the famous local bookstore here in Washington, DC (Politics & Prose); and, with patience, found someone to help me with a marketing plan to sell my book.



Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Although it sounds trite, failure was not an option. In terms of the dog pool, I believed that the business could work and it does. Dogs get better and live longer, people are happy, and new clients come to fill in the spots of the old dogs when they pass away. So honestly, no, I never thought about giving up. The closest I came to giving up was when the expense and stress of leaks and equipment failures overwhelmed me. Once I got those resolved, I did not look back.

In terms of writing The Endless Path, I would not say that I thought of giving up, but there were times when it was really quite emotionally difficult to keep writing. I did not really have a choice, however, because I made a promise to Gunny that I would tell the world his/our story, and I always keep my promises.

I guess through it all, the truth is that Gunny kept me going on both fronts. Both the pool and the book were his legacy and I did not want to let him down. Had I done this only for myself, I don’t know if I would have a different answer. But I wasn’t doing it just for me, so I was highly motivated to see it all through and to succeed. I was also fortunate to have a husband who really wanted me to be happy, and who was willing to make changes in his own life to help me make changes in mine.



What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that there is nothing more powerful than the power of love. So now, when faced with a challenge or negativity, I throw love at it. I did not know that I was capable of loving so deeply, and did not anticipate the strength that I would find in loving and being loved with such intensity.

I also learned that I can do more than one thing in life well. We always hope that we are good at more than one thing, but now I know that I can practice law and argue with the best of them; I can run a business; I can write a book; and I also can go to the most quiet and tender part of my being and just “be” with a dog who is hurting and bring him comfort. Those are wildly different things, and I am surprised to find that I am able to do all of them pretty well. I already knew a lot about what I did not do well—such as accounting or sports, it is a long list—so it was nice to have a longer list of things that I can do. And hopefully I will discover some new things in the coming years!


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

I honestly don’t think so. I think I did what I needed to do at the time I needed to do it. I could not have written the book earlier. I could not have opened the pool later. And I could not have kept working in my lawyer role for much longer or I would have become physically ill. I feel that I listened to my heart rather than my head when there was a decision-making moment, and that my heart kept me on course.



What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Listen to your heart/your gut/the “knowing” place inside of you. If you feel you need to make a change or you feel an internal dissonance in what you are doing and what you want to do, value that and listen to it. I am not saying that your good brain has no role to play, but I think if you try to be only logical, only rational, or listen to others, you may not end up in the best place for you. I think we all know on some level what we are here to do and it is not necessarily just one thing in our life! So let yourself realize the full expression of your unique self and don’t let others who are timid or afraid hold you back or make you doubt yourself.

I think changing what you do for a living often involves getting in touch with parts of yourself that you may not have really been well-acquainted with before the change. So it is hard—on you, your family, and your friends. And I think it always brings change to your life in a variety of aspects from your friends to your finances. But it is your life, and I think it is important not to sit back when you are old and ask “I wonder what would have happened if I had . . .?” Better to know the answer to the question, and follow your heart and your inner desire, come what may.

Book club!


What advice do you have for those interested in working with animals?

If you think that you want to work with animals, fantastic! But don’t think that working with animals means you avoid working with people; the people are the ones who bring you the animals, love them, and are involved in their care. So you have to interact with and love people, too. And, know that there is almost nothing that you can do in terms of working with animals that pays much money, other than being a vet. It doesn’t matter how good you are. There is a ceiling on the amount of money that you can make unless you start to franchise and expand. And then guess what? You aren’t working with animals any more, just lots and lots of employees. That is fine; but just know, that’s how it goes!

For those thinking about writing a book, I would say that you need to remember that the book process has three distinct and totally unrelated parts: writing it, publishing it, and marketing it. It requires three different skill sets and it takes a really long time. So, if you have a story to tell, tell it! Hire good people in each of those three areas to help you as necessary. And persevere in the face of a rejection.



What resources do you recommend?

With regard to running the dog pool:

La Paw Spa in Sequim, WA teaches dog water therapy to adults, most of whom are looking to change careers.

Kathleen Prasad at Animal Reiki Source is a resource for people who want to learn reiki for animals.

For certain swim equipment for the dogs: Dog Leggs, Critter’s Inflatable, Ruffwear.

With regard to writing my book:

Teresa Spencer provides a variety of services to assist authors, from ghost writing to, as in my case, helping me outline the book before starting to write it.

Jo Spring for proofreading services and other author publishing assistance.

Politics & Prose was instrumental in handholding through the publishing process.

I ultimately published with Ingram Spark. They have drawbacks, but are the biggest book distributor in the world so the book is easily available on Amazon, B&N, etc.

Leigh Kramer at Helicopter Marketing, for assistance in marketing the book.



What’s next for you?

I think my next transition is to slowly move from working with dogs in the water to writing full time. As I age, it is harder and harder to do the physical work required in the water, and it is harder and harder to deal with death on a constant basis.

Having told my story in The Endless Path: A Memoir, I would like to keep writing to tell other people’s and dogs’ stories who are unable to tell them for themselves. Everyone has a story and, to me, they are all fascinating. So, I would like to help give voice to those stories, much as you do here on your blog!


Contact Laurie Plessala Duperier at


Twitter: @lduperier

Websites: and


Let’s Hear From an Expert: Walker Thornton, Sex Educator

151106_walker_t_0412-1You write and speak about sex in the hopes of educating your audiences. You also counsel midlife women (and men) about sexual issues. What have you found are the most common challenges when it comes to sex for women in midlife?

The biggest challenge I see for women, partnered or single, is adjusting to their aging bodies—menopause, body image, life stressors and their impact on our bodies and our sexual desire. I speak to women who seem to have shut down at some point and they want to figure out a way to enjoy sex again but often don’t know how to begin. How do women find the answers to deeply personal questions? I think that’s one of the biggest challenges given our reluctance to talk about female sexuality in an open and positive way.


On the flip side, are there opportunities related to sex that are unique to women in midlife?

Oh, absolutely. Post-menopause, there is tremendous freedom once we’re past that phase of monthly periods and worries about pregnancy. As women become more confident in themselves, it’s a time when sexual expression can be a lot of fun.


What messages do you seek to share with women in midlife about their sexuality?

I want women to feel they can talk about their sexuality comfortably, without feelings of shame or awkwardness. We’re not given many positive messages about female sexuality or aging and I want to change that.

We can admit that we don’t know how things will change as we age and that’s OK, as long as there are resources designed for this demographic. That’s part of why I wrote my book—to help women explore and embrace their sexuality.


You have just released your new book, Inviting Desire. Tell us more about this book and how it helps women in midlife.

Inviting Desire: A guide for women who want to enhance their sex life was written for those midlife women who want a better sex life, a better understanding of their sexuality. As I say in the intro, it is a book about self-love and self-respect. It is about finding enjoyment in your body—physically and emotionally. Inviting Desire is not about reversing the aging process, dieting, or getting a new makeup regime. No need to ‘reinvent’ yourself or contemplate plastic surgery to become more in touch with your sexuality; you already have the necessary ingredients—a rich map of your abundant life of gifts and talents. We will explore and discover those as we begin this journey together.

This is a time when many women find themselves in a tired, stale relationship, or maybe struggling with menopause and life stress. And many of these women want sex; they want to feel sexual desire but don’t know how to go about figuring it out. So I wrote the book based on my work with women and my own experiences. I use a series of approaches—writings, images, exercises, and other resources—to deepen awareness of the body and senses and teach women how to embrace themselves as sexual individuals.

This is a quote from the book:  “To think of yourself as a sexual being is first and foremost a state of mind. At any age and at any point in our lives we can become, we are, sexual beings. We do not need a partner to make us sexual. Learning to awaken your sexual desire is about you as an individual. “



Besides your own writing, what resources do you recommend to women in midlife who wish to become better educated about their sexual wellbeing?

  • Middlesex MD is a great resource for women, written by a gynecologist. “We believe that as we age, women, whatever their lifestyle or preferences, have the right to fully enjoy their sexuality.”
  • Our Better Half is a podcast hosted by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensch, a writer and public speaker, who decided to learn more about sexuality during midlife. She interviews a wide range of individuals with grace and humor.
  • Lauren Streicher is a gynecologist with a focus on female sexuality. She writes a regular column for Everyday Health on women’s health.
  • Em and Lo, two women who offer sex advice and curated content about sexuality offer a reasonably mild portrayal of sex in our culture.
  • Books: Joan Price, is a speaker and author with a focus on aging sexuality—while her target audience is slightly older, her book, Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex, and blog of the same name, offer information of benefit to women and men of all a
  • Healthy Sex Drive, Healthy You : What Your Libido Reveals about Your Life by Diana Hoppe, M.D.
  • There is a new The Joy of Sex, by Alex Comfort—always a good standard and enhanced with nice pictures.


Contact Walker Thornton at


Inviting Desire: A guide for women who want to enhance their sex life


Twitter:  @WalkerThornton



Walker Thornton is a sex educator, speaker, and sexual health writer. A former executive director of sexual assault crisis centers, in Alabama and Virginia, with many years of nonprofit board experience at the local and state level, Walker now works to educate and support older women with sexuality-related issues. 

Walker offers straight-talk about sex, occasionally mixing in personal stories to emphasize her point. Her mission is to help women embrace their sexuality in a way that feels comfortable at each stage of life. Her writing has appeared on the American Sexual Health Association website, Huffington Post, Better After 50, Senior Planet, and other sites. She is the Sexual Health Columnist for Midlife Boulevard and writes about midlife sexuality at Walker currently serves on the Sexuality and Aging Consortium of Widener University’s Leadership Committee. She has presented at the Sexuality and Aging Symposium, CatalystCon, and in other venues across the country.

Becoming a Triathlete in Midlife: Lisa’s Story

profileA difficult breakup at age 50 led Lisa to take a hard look at herself and her life and start a serious workout regimen then challenge herself further by signing up for triathlon training. She’s now a competitive triathlete with aspirations to combine this passion with her love of travel and her desire to support women.


Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in a New Jersey suburb called Totowa, about 20 miles west of Manhattan. I am Italian American and the eldest of two. My sister and I were athletes with my sport being softball. I learned how to pitch at a very young age and continued playing softball through college. My dad was one of my coaches up until high school and both parents were actively involved in my sports/athletic life.



I graduated with a BA in Psychology from Rider College in Lawrenceville, NJ and thought I would continue down the path of becoming a Psychologist. That never happened yet I did land a job in the Human Resources department which, looking back, at times had similar roles and requirements. I decided I wanted to continue my career in this field so I enrolled in the masters program at The Milano School, which is part of the New School for Social Research in New York City.

I graduated with an MS in Human Resources Management and continued my career within the human resources field. After a few years in HR, my career took a turn to the world of software application implementation and business process work. My various jobs led me to Minneapolis for 18 months, then to Boston for another 18 months, then back home to Manhattan, where I stayed until I was 41.

After realizing that I wanted to make a difference in the world, and that living in Manhattan was not for me, I quit my job at age 42, traveled solo for six weeks, and ended up in Portland, Oregon. I began graduate school in 2004, two months after arriving, and proceeded to work in a volunteer capacity for a non-profit organization called Children’s Justice Alliance. I became immersed in the world of children whose parents are incarcerated and consider this to be one pivotal point in my life.

Upon graduating with my Masters in Public Administration degree in 2009, I researched working at non-profit organizations and talked with employees who worked at non-profits and determined that I couldn’t make ends meet. So I decided to return to the world of systems implementation and analyst work for one primary reason: the salary. During my time in Portland, I became involved in community work as a volunteer with a few organizations while earning my salary in the world of business analysis and software implementation.

Graduating with my Master's in Public Administration

Graduating with my Master’s in Public Administration, with my dear friend Jane


When did you start to think about making a change?

After an emotionally challenging break-up at age 50, I took a step back and looked at myself; I didn’t like what I saw. After some intense self-reflection work, I joined a gym and was given my free personal training session with a trainer who also was a triathlete. After hearing myself say I have always wanted to do triathlon races and giving him excuse after excuse about why I haven’t and why I can’t, I paused and said screw it, sign me up for training sessions for the summer 2012 tri season. My 50th year on this earth was one of the two most liberating years for me.

This “aha” moment seemed as if it just happened. However, as I write this in hindsight, it becomes clear that the break-up was the final straw to the culmination of a few years of not living my authentic self.

I had a second “aha” moment two years later, at 52, when I realized that for all of my career life I did work that society expected of me and which I thought I was meant to do. I was good at my job, liked my work, but a big part of me was missing. Somehow I had lost myself along the way and was able to find myself and my courage through the triathlons.

During this reflective “aha” period, a friend mentioned a friend of hers who had quit her job and completed one year of travel around the world. I read and reread her blog. I sought out other women who traveled solo, checked my finances, and researched parts of the world I wanted to visit. I also enrolled with a volunteer organization where I planned to take an assignment somewhere outside the US (Vietnam was my first choice) and help teach English. I connected with friends living in Europe and started to plan potential visits.

In Kakku, Burma

In Kakku, Burma

After nine months of planning, I gave notice and left my job in January 2014. I traveled for seven months, four of them solo. I can’t begin to tell you the excitement and liberation I felt when I clicked ‘Book ticket’ on the United Airlines website for my one-way ticket to Thailand. I had no idea where I was going except to volunteer upon arrival at a post detox center in northern Thailand for two weeks, possibly do a one-week retreat at Plum Village in France, and maybe teach English in Vietnam through a volunteer organization. For the first time in my life, I had no clear path and couldn’t wait for this next act of my life to start.

But when I returned home after seven months, I felt I did not belong. After struggling to adjust to being back in the place I’d called home, I reached out to a friend of mine who recently became a life coach and whose focus was on people who were thinking of a career change or who had quit their jobs and were wondering ‘now what’. She too had left her career and traveled solo; I decided to reach out to her because she understood some of the feelings, emotions, pains, and joys I was experiencing.



What is your next act?

I am a competitive triathlete (competitive with myself!). I love the sense of accomplishment I get after completing a race. I love the camaraderie with the people I work out with; I love how I feel after a bike ride, swim, or run. My first trainer told me I’m an endorphin junky and he was so right! I love the sense of accomplishment after finishing a workout or race. I love the act of commitment and dedication I show towards myself.

What I love the most is that I don’t even think about training; I just do it (no Nike pun intended). The mindset around training has become a part of my day. I don’t even think about it. It goes without saying, however, that there are some days when my body and mind are just so tired that I can’t work out; thankfully this isn’t the norm.

The race season officially starts in June and ends in September, at least here in Oregon. I have competed the Sprint distance race (1/2 mile swim, 20k bike and 5k run) and one Olympic distance race (0.9 mile swim, 40k bike, and 10k run) have stayed within the Portland metro area. I start the season by doing a practice triathlon, called the Mock Tri with the Portland Triathlon Club. It is a great way to get myself acclimated to racing again.


After my first triathlon, June 2012

After my first triathlon, June 2012

Races are categorized by age and the age is determined by how old one will be in the year of the race. For the 2016 season, I race in the 55-59 age category as I turn 55 in 2016. For the 2012 season, I came in 3rd place in all races I did (and in my age category). I took 1st in my division in the Sprint race and 2nd in my age category for the Olympic distance this season.

I work individually with a strength coach and also take his group strength training classes in Portland.  I recently started taking swimming lessons, which allows me to swim in open water (in a lake and river) and helps me swim better when alone during my pool swims. As an aside, I don’t swim enough in open water and for those of you training for your first or 100th race, swim in open water as much as you can. I try to work out five to six days a week; that can include any combination of activities.

I have always eaten healthy, so eating for the race season is no different. I don’t eat processed foods or fried foods much, but I do find that when I exercise hard and often, my body craves protein and carbs. I try not to eat much meat but haven’t kicked the habit completely. Eating during training is a funny thing—you need to eat a lot of carbs to keep the fuel going yet it feels counter-intuitive to be that hungry all the time and ingest more food than you thought you would ever eat in a day.


Post race rewards!

As far as my support system, I look to my coach during the sessions and to my training mates when I bike with a group or another friend. However, I am a loner in the sense that I feel more comfortable running, swimming, and cycling by myself. I do find that training with others is a great motivator for me and I am learning to do more of that.

Off season, I keep up with running outside whenever I can; Portland’s weather is favorable for that. I do have to say that time on my bike either stops or dramatically decreases off-season. If I have the money, I’ll keep up with my gym membership and swim indoors once a week. My friends and family are super supportive; they know that I have a lot of energy and they love what this training and racing has done and continues to do for me. While they aren’t usually present at the races, I always feel their support.

I played competitive softball since I was in grade school through my freshman year in college. I’ve always had a competitive edge and find that this endorphin junkie side helps me moving forward. Training is hard work and it takes a lot of time and effort. It also can be draining at times so having this innate sense of competitiveness and experience participating in a sport most of my life has truly helped me at this phase (next act) in my life.
My favorite part of the race is the reaching the finish line! My second favorite part of the race is the cycling portion.

I have found a supportive and fun community within this sport. I work out, and have met, people who are training for ironman and ½ ironman races, all levels of the multi-race sport (duathalon, tri, aqua/bike race) and those who aren’t racing yet love the sport of cycling or keeping in fitness shape.


With my girlfriends at the end of the first annual Cycle Oregon women’s ride earlier this year


Why did you choose this next act?  

The triathlon training and racing picked me. I never gave it a thought as to why I chose this next act. Looking back, I realize that my love for competition and commitment to sports was something that had always been a part of my life, and that part had been missing for a very, very long time.

I was sick of hearing myself give excuses and when I said out loud that I was going to train for the 2012 season, it all just happened. I realized that my life for a while was one big excuse and I did not want to live like that any longer.


What challenges are you encountering?

When it comes to maintaining my training regimen, I have to be diligent at working out in the morning before work and in the evenings after work (or during work hours if I have evening plans). I’m a social being and when I don’t get the right combination of friend/community time along with my training time, I feel a bit “off.”

During the triathlon training and season, one challenge is keeping my promise to continue racing to the last race in September. It is a long season and it takes a lot of time, energy, commitment and dedication to continue. After a race, I find I stop doing most of my training for at least a week. I lose the motivation post-race for some reason. I get my motivation back when I realize that I start to fall into old patterns of giving excuses to myself about why I am not exercising, which then leads to decreased brain energy both at work and at home. It is a wake-up call to me not wanting to fall into old patterns.

The most challenging part of the completing a race for me is the open water swim. I wouldn’t say I’ve gained the confidence of swimming in open water as of yet but I do it anyway. I recently chose to not sign up for a race because of my fear that I couldn’t finish the swimming part. Whether that is grounded in truth or not, I chose to listen to my self-doubt and fear—or was it my realistic voice telling me the truth, I’ll never know, will I? I have learned however to get in the open water as much as possible and started to take swimming lessons this season. The instructor owns a home on a lake and our lessons are there. It has helped me tremendously and I will continue taking those lessons as it definitely boosts my confidence.

I also have to keep my energy level up and be able to focus on my work. I am grateful to have a job I like with a livable wage, which helps to allow me to purchase individual training sessions and group trainings most of the times when I need them. I do not have the financial means however to buy all the gear and a new bike so I learn to use what I have. Being a triathlete can be a costly venture as there are race fees and membership costs along with the cost of the gear. To help defray the costs, one can purchase used gear such as a bike or wetsuit. One doesn’t have to work out with a trainer or join group strength classes or a gym as you can work out on your own.

There are times when I think of giving up, when I become unsure of my swimming in open water ability. But then, I wake up the next day and realize how good racing makes me feel and what it does for my body and mind.


After training swim in Williamette River, Portland, OR


What did you learn about yourself through this process?

That I can do anything I set my mind to. That I have the courage and determination to follow through with something. That there are other people like me who have insecurities and force themselves at times to keep going. That having a healthy body is a big part in what makes me have a healthy mind.


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

I would have tried to do an Olympic distance tri race in 2012, which leads to the bigger item of having more faith in myself that I could do it. I took the plunge and did an Olympic distance race this season. While I knew intellectually that I could do it, psychologically I held myself back. Finishing that race (and coming in 2nd in my age category) was such an amazing feeling. I would not have waited so long to challenge myself.

I have committed to more individual training sessions with my strength training coach (Shawn Bostad with Steelhead Coaching) and have asked for workouts that concentrate on getting me stronger to do the longer swim distance, and with having the strength to continue on to finish. (My body is getting tired thinking and writing about it!)

With my

With Shawn, my strength training coach


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you are having a midlife crisis. Follow the voice of your soul; she will never steer you wrong. It isn’t easy reinventing yourself after so many years of living in the shell—one you were never meant to live in. You will get pushback and negative energy and comments from some of the people whose support you yearn for. Push through it because your own support and words of encouragement are enough. The reinvented you always existed; she was living in the shadow of the public you, waiting for the right moment to show herself.


What advice and resources can you give those interested in starting triathlons in midlife?

Be committed to the workouts. Recognize that your body will hurt and your mind will tell you to stop. Listen to your body as long as it isn’t your mind telling you to stop.

Join a triathlon club. Find running groups with runners both at your level and more advanced. Do group bike rides. Get in as much open water swimming as you can.

Do yoga – you will need that sense of fluidity and balance.  Follow your heart and passion and add to your life that which gives you joy.

For professional life coaching, Lisa Hoashi helps people get unstuck so they can move courageously toward a life and work they truly love.

Triathlete website for beginners and seasoned triathletes.

Runners World website and magazine.

For personal and group training in the Portland OR metro area, I highly recommend Shawn Bostad of Steelhead Coaching.

Race Center for PNW race schedules and related information.


I took second in my age group!


What advice and resources do you have for those interested in traveling solo for months at a time?

Regardless of whether you are a planner or not, look into countries that hold some points of interest, throw a pin to a map, and book a flight!

Read blog posts by people who have traveled solo. As a woman traveling solo, one has to be super diligent yet the hype and fear instilled in us about violence abroad is not always accurate. Those of us who live in the US face more violence than in many parts of the world.

One’s finances do play a role in the choices you make about where and for how long you can stay yet it should not be a deterrent from making the decision to travel. Staying in hostels, pensiones, home stays, and other community type of environments helps to make the travel affordable (if money is an issue).

Volunteer with organizations or within communities as much as you can; your skills and desire to contribute will be met with open arms if presented properly.

Buy travel insurance; it is even required before entering some countries.

Read up on the country’s traditions, cultures and norms. Do not assume that what you know to be acceptable behavior as an American (or whatever country you call home) will be acceptable in the country to which you visit. And please be respectful to the country’s cultures and traditions. Always remember you are a visitor in another land.

Be prepared for culture shock and to unlearn things you were taught. Traveling solo is an amazing experience and you will learn so much about yourself and the world around you.

For access to the solo travel community, I love Solo Travel Society on Facebook and I follow Jodi Ettenberg and continue to read about her adventures on her blog Legal Nomads. World Nomads is another blog I follow.

In Cusco, Peru

In Cusco, Peru

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I want to travel again and this time my next act will be taking the racing and all that goes with it on the road. I have an idea that I want to turn into a tangible pursuit, where I combine my project management experience, networking aptitude, triathlon training, and race experience to help support women in midlife who want to do multi-sport races (whether racing or training for one)—preferably outside of the US.

I want my next phase of life to be meaningful to and for me, where I can take everything I have experienced and learned over the years and live and work outside the US participating in the multi-sport race in whatever capacity I find myself. My goal is to make a salary to help sustain my being abroad for a bit, while working in communities who need or want an extra pair of hands.


Contact Lisa Alfano at


Instagram: travelingalfano

Blogging About Believing in Yourself: Margaret’s Story

margaret-rutherfordAfter switching careers from music to psychology, Dr. Margaret was seeking a new creative outlet. She found it in her blog, where she writes about mental health (especially what she terms “Perfectly Hidden Depression”), midlife, and relationships.


Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in the Delta region of southern Arkansas, in the little town of Pine Bluff. My father was a funeral director and bank director, and very loved within the community. My mother was a heels-and-hose, beautifully mannered and kind woman, who cared for me and my two older brothers. I took etiquette lessons, learned to walk with a book on my head, and read Shakespearean verse. I was supposed to come out as a debutante at around 16, but I informed my mom I was already “out.”

Me with my mom, aunt, grandmother and brother (photobombing)

Me with my mom, aunt, grandmother and brother (photobombing)

I have always rebelled against following rules – sometimes a strength, and sometimes a weakness.

I originally graduated from Southwestern At Memphis (now Rhodes College) with a degree in French. I went on to become a professional vocalist in Dallas (music had always been my first love). I sang jingles during the day and jazz at night. But I wasn’t very happy personally—the lifestyle didn’t fit me. I had grown up in a very stable environment, and it was hard to constantly look for gigs or always be selling your talent to jingle producers. Plus, the jingle business was constantly searching for fresh, new voices. It was very easy to get replaced, and get replaced quickly.

Singing in a nightclub in Dallas

Singing in a nightclub in Dallas

I changed my career to something I knew would be more stable. I wanted to use my mind more – and I wanted to help others. I learned this when I volunteered at Dallas’ Battered Women’s Shelter. That was a life-altering experience. I had never felt better as a person than when I ended my shift there at the shelter. So I used all my savings to go to Southern Methodist University and study Music Therapy, then applied to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I did get in, but was told years later that it had been due more to curiosity than much else: They’d never had a singer want to become a psychologist. I was granted my Ph.D. at the age of 38.

I have been married 25 years to a wonderful guy, and we were lucky enough to have a son through in vitro fertilization. That son just graduated from Vanderbilt and is headed to California to work. I was in practice in Dallas for a short period of time, but have been in private practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas, since 1993, where I see mostly adults and families. I specialize in depression, trauma, and marital work.



When did you start to think about making a change?

After 20 years in private practice, in 2012, I decided that I wanted to extend the walls of my practice to try to reach more people. I loved being a therapist. I wasn’t burned out at all, but I thought writing would give me another outlet to share some of the wisdom I had learned from the patients I had seen. I had time on my hands, since our son had left for college. And I needed a new creative venture.


What is your next act?

I am a writer. My blog, Dr. Margaret Rutherford, which I launched at age 58, has turned into another job. Posts vary from giving advice on depression to helping build skills in relationships to how to handle grief—basically the things that I do in my practice. Popular posts have included my work on a particular presentation of depression (Perfectly Hidden Depression), articles on sexual abuse, and my musings on marriage after 24 years.

My two criteria for continuing to write are: I am getting feedback that my posts are helpful, and I am having fun. Those remain my guideposts. Sometimes, when the cart gets before the horse, or I take on too much, I stop having fun. That’s when I have to breathe and sort out what’s causing the tension.

I’m still seeing between 30 and 35 patients a week, and have been since the beginning. But I also spend at least 20 hours a week writing. I have contributed my writing to two books, Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor (A. Herzig), and The Stigma Fighters Anthology (Volume 2) (S. Fader) and have my own eBook, Seven Commandments of Good Therapy available for free download on my website.


I’m the mental health featured writer for Midlife Boulevard, and you can find my work on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Better After 50, Vibrant Nation, The Mighty, and Arkansas Women Bloggers. I’ve guest-posted on Psychology Today, and my opinions on depression and relationships can be found on Readers Digest, The Cheat Sheet, and Huffington Post Divorce.

I’m now researching and writing my own book on a syndrome I call “Perfectly Hidden Depression.” PHD is depression gone underground, so to speak. There are people who may or may not realize they’re depressed, but actively hide their sadness and loneliness by erecting a perfect façade of happiness or contentment. They’ve learned that it’s weak or not acceptable to express pain.


Why did you choose this next act?  

I knew I wanted to do something creative. I had done a fair amount of acting and singing in the community in my 40s and even early 50s, and had really enjoyed it. So I tried to go back to theatre, but it didn’t work for me as well. Singing is something you have to work hard on every day, and I hadn’t had time to practice, or even sing, in years. When writing was suggested, I had to stop and think. “Me? A writer?” And then, I thought, “Well, if nobody reads it, I guess that will give me the information I need. And I’ll try something else.”

I love writing. I had always loved to write funny emails, or actual letters (If anyone reading remembers letters…). But other than that, after my dissertation, I had sworn I would never write another word. There was a steep learning curve in the first year, and my writing changed drastically. Now I’m trying to learn to switch from the kind of writing that fits a blog, and the kind that works in a book.



How hard was it to take the plunge?

As far as blogging is concerned, I actually worried about the ethicality of writing more than anything else. Therapists don’t talk about themselves with their patients, or only when it might be clinically helpful. Would me writing about my own life, or my experiences and thoughts as a therapist, somehow muddle or harm my work with patients? What if they read it? How would we talk about it?

I saw, however, that many mental health professionals were on social media like Facebook or Instagram. And since I live in a smaller town, it’s not at all difficult to find out things about me. I’m a very open, direct therapist—if it became a problem for someone, we would talk about it. It did one time. I had written a post about my empty nest feelings. One person said, “I know you’ve been upset, I feel funny talking about my problems.” I asked her to quit reading the blog, and she agreed. In many ways, my posts are a good litmus test to see if you’d enjoy working with me. So the benefits outweighed the concern.

I don’t think I prepared at all. I read a few blogs, but quickly realized I didn’t want to be overly influenced by the writing style of others. I dove in, head first!


How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband has been tremendously supportive. I don’t think I’ve done more than two loads of laundry in the past two years. My son only reads my blog occasionally, but that’s as it should be. He’s always asking about how “the writing” is going, however, and has cheered me on.

Some friends were a bit dubious, mainly wondering why I wanted to add to an already busy schedule. But they’re now very supportive.


My book club

My book club


What challenges have you encountered?

Time. There’s not enough of it. I’ve had to practice time management, even more than normal. And I know I have, at times, pushed myself way too hard. I’ve maintained a full patient load (that’s seeing around 35 patients a week) and blogged regularly. It’s been a challenge, to say the least. I’m now taking a day off every week, but that only began in May of this year.


Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I’ve not thought about giving up blogging. But it’s difficult occasionally not to compare my life with others. Keeping my eye, and my spirit, focused on my purpose, has been vital to maintaining my joy in the process. The hours it takes to write cut into my time with family and friends. But it’s worth it.

Every time I have thought about stopping, I’ll get an email, or a comment, thanking me for touching their life. That’s all the motivation I need.

The same goes, actually, for becoming a psychologist. It can take several years to get all the training, and I remember thinking about what my other friends were doing with their life – buying homes, having children. In midlife, the equivalent might be early retirement or traveling. It takes sacrificing some things to reach your own goal. At times, it can be lonely.

With my husband and son in Puerto Rico - we love to travel!

With my husband and son in Puerto Rico – we love to travel!


What are you learning about yourself through this process?

My friends tell me I’ve emotionally opened myself up more, and I think they’re right. I’ve risked stating my experience, my opinion, and my ideas over social media. That changes you.

I’ve learned that 5:00 in the morning is a great time for self-reflection.

And I’ve learned (again in some ways) that risking is worth it. You’re never too old to learn something new.


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

This is a loaded question! Lol… I have regrets in my life, mostly about being divorced twice. But in some ways, those failures caused me to be even more driven to change in a positive direction. I had had enough of chaos. I know those painful experiences give me empathy for others.

As far as becoming a psychologist, there are programs out there that don’t include writing a dissertation. It’s called a Psy.D. I might have done that instead, since I wasn’t all that interested in clinical research.

My blogging venture? I would’ve reached out more, early on, to other bloggers. I didn’t realize how much support was available from blogging colleagues.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

When I hear anyone say that they’re too old to try something, I ask this question. “Do you believe you have a reasonable chance of living for another decade or two?” The answer is usually yes. “Then why wouldn’t you want to spend that time doing something that intrigues or challenges you, rather than not?”

Yes, it’s true that the dreams we might have had in our twenties cannot practically happen now. But you can get close to the feelings and experiences you once might have treasured. If you wanted to be a ballerina, take dance classes. If you wanted to travel the world, pick somewhere you’d like to go, and go. If you wanted to teach, get back in a classroom, or volunteer to help someone learn to read. You can honor that part of you that wants expression. As long as you have your health and your mind, it’s all possible.

I still perform: Playing Cookie Cusack in "Rumors" in 2013

I still perform: Playing Cookie Cusack in “Rumors” in 2013


What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?

If you want to become a therapist, realize there are many different ways of doing that. Some take longer than others. You need to look into social work, licensed professional counseling, as well as psychology.

As far as blogging is concerned, it’s important to know what you want to create, and stay true to your own writing voice. Comparison with others will kill the joy in it. I also think it’s very helpful, if not vital, to have someone who will be honest about your writing, and make editorial suggestions. That person can also act as a cheerleader!

At the Great Wall in China

At the Great Wall in China


What resources do you recommend?

This is a very practical article about becoming a psychologist.

Here’s a great article about the many sorts of helping professionals.

Here are some great blogging start-up suggestions.

The best help for bloggers who want to make money blogging? Susan Maccarelli’s website Beyond Your Blog.

We love our Arkansa Razorbacks!

We love our Arkansas Razorbacks!


What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

Currently, I’m writing a book on a topic that has gone viral on my site, Perfectly Hidden Depression. I have a literary agent, and am learning all about proposals and trying to get the attention of an acquiring editor. I’ve worked on it for a year already, and there’s a steep learning curve!

As far as the next few years…

I’ve advised others – if it doesn’t exist, create it.

I imagine that if I’m disappointed in where my life is going, or frustrated about finding purpose, I will continue looking for opportunity to create what I need. It’s probable others would enjoy or need it as well!


Contact Dr. Margaret Rutherford at


Twitter: @doctor_margaret





Creating a Community for Caregivers: Carole’s Story

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.35.40 PMCaring for her mother in her final years helped Carole find her mission later in life. She is helping others in the Sandwich Generation cope with the challenges of caring for their loved ones, while celebrating the privilege of being a Caregiver to her elderly parents.


Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and still live in the same neighborhood. I was raised by wonderful, loving parents and am the third of four kids. I have fond memories from my childhood. My parents created a warm and loving home and exposed us to the arts and cultural district early on.

My mom was a creative genius: a great seamstress, knitter, crocheter, designer; a creative cook and baker; a writer and lyricist, writing jingles back in the day. She also became a prolific painter in her 60s. She enjoyed using collage in her paintings and her designs were always unique. She loved to dance and was always taking educational classes. She was full of life and love and was a dedicated homemaker, wife, and mother.


At 10, in one of the many outfits my mom made for me

My dad was an engineer and worked at Westinghouse until he got his law degree while we were in grade school. He went on to have a long, thriving law career, not retiring until the age of 85! He had his own practice and taught us much about reaching for your dreams, following your heart and passion, and never giving up. Both my folks set stellar examples of what a fine human being is. They were married for 65 years and showed us what a good marriage is too.

I went to Ivy School of Professional Art after high school and graduated a two-year program in Fine Arts with a focus on fabric art, including batik. I have a varied work history. I was in the restaurant business for ten years in a variety of capacities. I owned a soda pop vending machine company for eight years. I worked in customer service. I also owned a custom frame shop/art gallery with my sister, Jan Steinle, for five years.

Our shop and gallery was a beautiful, creative place to work in daily. We became a leader in the frame industry, in large part thanks to our efforts to market our business online via elaborate e-newsletters. The industry was behind the times digitally and we understood the power of the net to generate business. As a result of my e-newsletters, I was hired by a leading editorial in the art and framing business to write a five-page, feature article on e-Marketing. It was an exciting offer. That was a defining moment in my life. I had a strong love for writing that I didn’t know about until I hit my 40s.

I was married at 23. I have four children: a daughter Katie (33) and three sons Thomas (29), James (28), and Steven (26). We’re a close-knit family and we all live in Pittsburgh except for Thomas, who lives in Boston. I divorced in 1995 and remain friends my ex.


In our frame shop, 2005


When did you think about making a change?

When the store closed in 2009, I became my mom’s Caregiver for the next several years, while managing a small professional organizing business. My mom died on November 23, 2014 and, since then, I have been my dad’s Caregiver during the workweek.

When I took on the role of Caregiver for my mom, it was because I was unemployed after closing my art gallery; I stepped up as “the daughter.” Jan helped on a part-time basis and was also caring for her mother-in-law. My other siblings worked full time and were unavailable during the workweek. I fully expected to get another job, but this was 2009 and the marketplace was tight. I applied to many companies and had a couple of interviews, but nothing was gelling. I was searching for my calling, but finally understood that my calling was to care for Mom. There were times I was very at peace doing the Caregiver gig and other times I felt a need to move on due to Caregiver burnout and emotional turmoil during the duration of my Caregiver role.

There were moments during my Caregiver journey when I believed that I was right where I was meant to be. Still, I was squirming about what my lifetime calling was because I knew my role with my mother wouldn’t last, for obvious reasons. I didn’t know until late in my journey with Mom that I was a Caregiver; I didn’t know that terminology. Caregiving was not my career path. I didn’t know anything about the industry. I stepped up as the daughter because my parents needed help. They had been my best cheerleaders, always very generous and loving over the years, and it seemed the right thing to do was to come to their aid when they needed me most.

I shared my mom’s last years in the best way, the most loving way I knew possible. I would do it all over again. It was a privilege, in my opinion, to care for her. It was an extremely difficult journey. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after my store closed; it was devastating news. We didn’t know about the disease, but we certainly knew it was not good news. My dad was still working full time and needed help. Her diagnosis came almost a year later after we were suspicious of her peculiar behavior and oddball memory loss.

My parents, 25 years ago

My parents, 25 years ago

During the time I cared for my mother, I felt withdrawn, isolated, and overwhelmed by sorrow and loss long before my mother died. It was an excruciating process. I am typically a social person, but my world was rocked hard, and my personality deeply affected. There are no words to describe how deep down inside this impacted my life, still to this day. What I witnessed in my mom’s personality changes was intense and extremely sad. I felt the overwhelming sorrow of anticipatory grief. I had a broken heart. My best friend was dying and I was losing her long before she died. My learning curve was huge. The role changes that took place were monumental.

A purpose-driven life is a powerful thing. It’s all encompassing when you can wake up and know you have a voice in your destiny. Pursuing my life’s path has been a rocky road. How could it not be? I was caring for my mom when she needed me most and reevaluating my own life and career path. I can’t think of anything more important that I could have done at the time. She loved me and our journey early on was meaningful when she knew changes were coming her way. It was a tender time.

I’m so grateful I have discovered my purpose-driven life. I took three different seminars with John Stanko (Purpose Quest) in a classroom setting in 2014, with the aim to understand my purpose in life, and each one helped me greatly. I was hungry and longing for answers and I knew it required work to pinpoint what I was meant to do. There were workbooks and class participation to help me to discover my calling. I knew I needed to find a way to help Caregivers connect and find comfort in their shared journeys.

All I could think about was that there must be thousands, if not millions, of people who were going through something like I was. I longed to rise above the pain and make friends with others who, like me, were giving their best, giving their life, to save a life. Caregivers all around the world are my heroes!



What is your next act

I have a created a community for the Sandwich Generation and for Caregivers, SanGenWoman: The Heart of the Sandwich Generation (formerly known as The Sandwich Woman).

The statistics regarding Caregivers are truly mind-boggling, with an estimated 43.5 million adult family caregivers caring for someone aged 50 or older, in the US alone. Read more here. We learn at a very young age how to love and nurture others; we are groomed from the time we are toddlers to show love and taught to care for others. Caregiving is not a new concept. In this modern day society, support groups are popping up everywhere for Caregivers, due to the mammoth numbers of people who need help to get through their day due to aging, illness, or special needs. Caregivers and Carers (our European sisters and brothers who provide care for their loved ones) are a global, diverse population growing by leaps and bounds as medicine prolongs our life to a ripe old age.

I launched my Facebook community page, San-Gen-Woman: the Heart of the Sandwich Generation, in February 2015; we are now a community approaching 4,000 and are represented by 45 countries. The need for Caregiver support truly is global. I added Twitter and Instagram in May 2015. I publish a blog every other Wednesday too. My sister Jan and I have an online retail store we launched in August 2015,, that houses Zentangle® Inspired Art (ZIA) we create ourselves. You don’t have to be an artist to make a Zentangle; the beautiful images are created by drawing structured patterns. The Zen, or meditative aspect of the art form, is the best part. I’m in a peaceful place when I create my Zentangle Inspired Art.

We also house a special gallery of designs to affirm and support Caregivers that includes several gift lines including tote bags, cell phone cases, and greeting cards. It’s a fun store to shop in with all the customization features. I don’t know of a Caregiver gift line like ours; the designs are quite unique. There are 140+ designs to choose from.


My first book, The Artistry of Caregiving: Letters to Inspire Your Caregiver Journey, is now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. A unique format, this is truly a book of inspiration, art, and 33 letters — affirmations and imagery to express my deepest love and gratitude to those who are living the life, traveling down the slippery slope of caring for someone who relies on them wholly. My book does not focus on any particular illness. It is meant to help others, of all ages, who are navigating the emotional journey of Caregiving. The Artistry of Caregiving: where words soothe and ideas & art delight. If you don’t have the time or focus to read, you can look at all the dynamic Zentangles in the book to feel affirmed and supported. It’s a book that can be referred to over a lifetime.

Out of something so dark as witnessing my mom’s very serious, extreme memory loss and death, came something beautiful and supportive to the Sandwich Generation – SanGenWoman: the Heart of the Sandwich Generation social media platform. This is my passion, my calling, my mission. My grief could have taken me down, but in fact, it’s my inspiration.

My goal is all encompassing. I want to impart peace, healing, recovery, education, and inspiration, as well as offer gift lines, to those who supply and support the Caregiving industry.

Fruit of the Spirit wth Border1


Tell us more about the challenges you see in midlife and in the field of Caregiving.

There is a lack of praise, value, appreciation, support systems, and financial reward for a Caregiver. We are in a major crisis with more of us living longer and the rise of chronic illness and dementia unlike ever before. The projections are staggering for millions of people, worldwide, who will be affected by Alzheimer’s/dementia. We need more funds for research to stop this life-stealing disease.

Our healthcare system is not easy to navigate. It costs a huge amount of money to save a life if you need aides or need to hire people to care for your loved one. Many family members are taking on the role of caring for another and trying to juggle their personal and professional life too, while keeping their sanity. It’s no small feat to be able to do everything and do it well. Caring for someone else is a big responsibility and a huge job that requires energy, stamina, a strong voice of reason, and patience.

Aside from support groups, we need trained professional counselors who can advise us in all areas of life, dealing with the stress and pressure to meet all of the demands. We need someone to talk to who can advise us, put things in perspective, and help us to nurture ourselves and make ourselves a top priority so we remain healthy, able and strong.


With my dad, one of my very best friends


How did you get started creating your community?

I had never written a blog, didn’t know the first thing about it, but I jumped in with both feet. I didn’t worry about having my ducks in a row because my desire and passion to help others superseded my grief and lack of knowledge. All I could think about was helping others because my Caregiver journey was so isolating and emotionally tumultuous.

When I launched my Facebook page and blog, I sent out a questionnaire to 150 women in midlife, asking them to respond to 33 questions about how they dealt with being the in The Sandwich Generation. The questions were very personal and somewhat invasive, but I made it clear they could reply anonymously and answer as many or as few questions as they wanted. The responses I received were interesting to read: how everyone was dealing with being part of The Sandwich Generation. I heard many common themes, for example, financial concerns: how these women would maintain jobs and income while caring for both children and elders, as well as how they’d plan for their own long term care.

My Twitter community now has 1,000+ followers and my Instagram account 700+ followers, with a strong momentum. Each of my social media platforms has generated important contacts for me in my industry and has opened many doors for me. I have made personal friends and business associates with my audience, including people in other countries such as Indonesia, Switzerland, and Europe. These connections make my heart beat a little swifter, enjoying every moment. I love it.


How supportive are your family and friends?

My dad and sister Jan have been a big support system for me, along with my children and close circle of friends. My dad is the editor for my blog; he’s a wonderful teacher and I have learned a lot in my writing journey with him. My parents have always been my biggest cheerleaders over the years.


What challenges are you encountering?

It has been a challenge to find a nice, sweet way to blog about what I have learned without it being a total bummer or upsetting someone. I’m discovering all the time what it is that I truly want to do with the knowledge gained from my experience caring for my parents. Some of my posts were tear jerkers to write, but mostly it’s been a positive experience and certainly has helped me adjust to the new normal.

Life is good and I’m in a peaceful place. I’m happy to be able to profess that. With great love comes great loss. I am full of gratitude to have been raised by my parents. Good memories throughout my whole life. What more can one ask for?


My kids

My kids


What are you learning about yourself through this process?

I have what it takes to overcome my emotions and think with my voice of reason. If I set my mind to it, I can accomplish many things I never dreamed of. I have something to offer to others – hope, comfort, affirmation, support and love. And, lastly, I have what it takes to create a book and have it come to fruition! That was a very large undertaking, but written with love for my readers.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Take some classes to find your passion. What makes you happy and excited? What brings you joy? If you’re unsure, I’d suggest reading about finding your purpose in life via books and on the Internet, finding programs to take, getting support from your place of worship, and surrounding yourself with people you admire and respect in life and in business.

I am always making lists for a variety of things. I suggest writing a list of what is a positive in your life. That is a good starting place. It wasn’t long ago someone said the same thing to me. It sounded so cliché. When you’re reflecting on what matters most, it can open many doors in unexpected ways. I am currently seeing this in my life. All the connections I’m making now via social media are a direct result of that lifestyle.

Don’t wait to have it all figured out before you take the leap. I didn’t know how to create a blog, Twitter, Instagram, or an online store. I didn’t have all my ducks in a row. I didn’t take classes on social media or how to craft a message on any of these platforms—I jumped in with both feet and didn’t care about anything except getting my voice heard. I didn’t get bogged down in the “how to” and just figured it out as I went. I had a calling and my calling was to write a book and to help others who are doing what I did. Emotional support is so important to everyone in general, and certainly in a crisis situation when a loved one is suffering, for the person dispensing care. I cannot overstate this point. Emotional support is a must so that the person who is caring for another can do a job well done.

I heard something recently from a senior woman on the radio talking about her lifetime of success and she said when you have a passion about something it borderlines “obsession”… I can attest to that. Most days I eat, sleep, breathe SanGenWoman. It’s not something I work at – It just IS.

With my sister Jan

With my sister Jan


What advice do you have for those interested in sharing their own journeys to help others?

Decide whether your journey is something you want to continue talking about in your life. I do have some limitations about what I’m willing to share and how much I’m willing to talk about my mom and her illness. It was a very personal time in my life—not a fun one to talk about either.

There are a lot of really good people all over the world who are making large strides for senior care, health care, special needs, medical research, writing, and blogging about Caregivers and midlife.

The Sandwich Generation is full of responsibility in all areas of life, and there is plenty of room for anyone who would like to focus on this subject. If you’re driven to share your story, find the means to do so. If you don’t want to write about it, how will you manifest it? Only you will learn the answer to that, if you don’t know already, through your passion and pursuing of your purpose and dreams.

My purpose driven life didn’t come easy. It’s been an oh so long journey of trials and tribulations. We are created to solve problems and find resolutions to situations that arise. To manage a life well lived is a goal I aspire to, daily.



What resources do you recommend?

I think it is vital and critical to anyone who is in the role of Caregiver to ask for help, anywhere you can get it. Agencies, nonprofits, and community colleges are a huge resource to support Caregivers. I never even thought to go there during my years of caring for Mom. I had too many pressing, daily duties to even think about reading anything.

Looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t connect online early on because that can potentially be a saving grace to find a community that understands your pain and role in the caring of someone else’s life. One site I did find and recommend is The Caregiver Space. It’s a great resource and inspired me to forge ahead in developing my own platform. I also recommend the National Alliance for Caregiving for up-to-date information on the subject.

According to my grief counselor, Barbara Coyne, grief is a gift. She is wise about processing grief and embracing it as a gift. I went to one of her support group meetings and it changed my life. I learned how to live with loss and grief from Barbara. She is one of the most peaceful persons I’ve ever met.

Pastor John Stanko, is my advisor, mentor, counselor, spiritual leader, good friend, and the editor of my book. He published the first edition of the Kindle version of my book. Dr John’s mission is living a purposeful life and teaching others how to do that. Purpose Quest is his calling. Read his information and the free assessment survey. It’s one of the most unique and life changing courses out there that I’ve come across and taken. A combination of heart, soul, mission, and spiritual calling to formulate what is going to define the meaning of my experience as a Caregiver.

Finally, for those interested in selling your art as part of your mission, I recommend our boutique supplier, Fine Art America.



What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I haven’t had much time to think about this because publishing my book was all consuming for the last couple years. I also care for my dad during the week and write a blog and spend time on social media and that is all very time consuming. I’d like to spend more time creating my art. That brings me so much peace and satisfaction. My creative juices are at an all time high and I’m always in the mode of what’s next to post or write about. As for another next act, I am not really looking at the future in that way. I’d like to keep writing and see what doors open now that I have published my book.


With my kids, in the photo booth at my niece’s wedding


Contact Carole Brecht at

The Artistry of Caregiving: Letters to Inspire Your Caregiver Journey



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Twitter: @SanGenWoman