Isn’t it funny how, when big life events occur one seemingly small moment etched into our memories can seem to define it all?
A blazing hot Sunday in July sitting on a friend’s back porch, watching her daughter melt popsicles on the cement, is that moment for me. I was sharing about a silent, invisible health battle I’ve fought for years with no diagnosis; that most people had no (nor have any) idea about.
In 2016, I dealt with a health emergency that nearly took my life; the result of my unexpected healing was the audacity to leave the traditional firm life and start a firm of my own. However, on this day in 2018, it was back- just as unexpectedly as before.
On this day, I was there to say goodbye before heading to Cleveland Clinic in search of a diagnosis for this health condition that had not just plagued, but had dictated the last few years of my life. Except this time, it was different.
The reality was, I didn’t know what would happen with my business. I didn’t know if I’d see my friend again. I didn’t want to tell her that, so instead we spent hours talking about the trials and tribulations we’d endured over the last year; the false accusations, defamation, stolen business ideas. Throughout the course of the conversation it felt as if the chains of bondage of those stressors seemed to just drop away from me.
I want you to know that this is a long post, but not due to a selfish desire. Coming from my profession, I strongly believe it’s wisest not to share everything online, unless you have a purpose. My purpose with sharing is threefold:
Trials have a way of distinguishing between the things that matter, and the things that don’t. The unexpected, such as a health trial like mine have a way of putting our lives into perspective immediately. The seemingly insignificant things that may be slowing you down, limiting productivity, or hindering your growth- trials, in whatever form they take, may serve to just shine a light on what matters, and what doesn’t. And when that happens, your business will be better for it. I’m most grateful for the hardest things I’ve endured in my life.
Many people who have known me or followed my practice since law school have openly wondered why I went from practicing oil and gas litigation at a traditional firm to doing what seems to be the exact opposite- starting my own firm to work with creative entrepreneurs.
My story began on August 5, 2016. I remember the date specifically because it was a big day for my sister and brother in law, and I had woken up so excited and expectant for what the day held, so I treated myself to some Starbucks for breakfast. Less than 30 minutes after eating, I was on my knees in my bathroom due to sheer pain. What I’m talking about isn’t what most people automatically assume when they think of “stomach pain”- this was pain so bad it took every ounce of energy in my body to get up. This was the type of pain that usually leaves you unconscious. The worst part, though, wasn’t the pain at at all. It was that I knew I was staring what had been the hardest experience of my life, that was supposed to happen again….until all the sudden it was here again.
Throughout college, I suffered intermittent bouts of not being able to eat. It would be indescribable and come with no warning, I would wake up one day and literally lose the ability. The pain of any food was so bad, eating anything would make me lose consciousness. Usually, after a few months, the pain all together would disappear inexplicably. It’s worth mentioning, I have a dangerously high pain tolerance. I ran a full track season with a broken spine, and the week after I graduated high school, when having a spinal fusion, my doctors commented that it was a “medical mystery” that I was able to walk, as I should’ve been paralyzed.
My senior year of college however, another stomach episode didn’t go away, and the longer it went on the worse it got. It got so bad that by Christmas day of that year, the only thing I could eat were individual pieces of dry rice krispy cereal, just letting them dissolve in my mouth. Then my gallbladder inexplicably died. Then late that December, doctors found something (then) rare- a condition called MALS (Median Arcuate Ligament Syndrome). In short, this is a condition where a ligament becomes tied around your celiac artery (the artery that feeds blood to your GI) system, leaving you with no blood supply to your digestive system.
I was immediately sent to Baylor clinic in Dallas for an open MALS surgery. This part of the story is important: for an open MALS surgery, multiple surgeons are required to lift all of the organs from your body to cut the ligament. I’ll never forgot, going back for a post-op appointment and running into a surgeon who jokingly said “I’m the doctor that held your liver over your head”.
The MALS surgery feels like a miracle (it’s actually the worst pain I have ever endured)….but two days after the surgery, I ate a whole pizza in the hospital bed. I had a 9 inch scar from rib to rib and sternum to belly button, so while the physical recovery was horrible; from a symptoms perspective, it was like a miracle recovery.
From 2012- 2016, I was “healed”, until August 5th. That day will forever be etched in my memory. Every day after that got significantly worse, and by the end of the month, I knew it was serious. My doctors couldn’t figure out anything wrong with me, and I knew in my gut that this was different. I was in and out of doctors’ appointments literally every single day, and had a firm that became very forgiving once they saw the weight drop off so rapidly. I lost about 20 pounds in less than 20 days.
In September of 2016, my family banded together and sent my husband and I to Mayo Clinic in search of answers (where we were to celebrate our first wedding anniversary). Mayo was hell; not because of anything in particular, but the opposite. I’m convinced that for me, at least, the worst kind of pain you can endure is that with no diagnosis. It’s not just pain to endure; its exhausting, its draining, and it brings you to a point where you either have to fight, or sink into complacency.
After a few days at Mayo Clinic, I was losing on average a pound a day. That creates a type of frustration that is hard to put into words; and in a desperate search for some sort of stress relief: I did something a little uncharacteristic. I started an Instagram account from the bed of one of the Mayo clinic hospital beds- something I hadn’t put thought into ahead of time, but something I felt an odd tug to do. I had begun practicing calligraphy as a stress relief/creative outlet a year before, but I thought that this Instagram account would be a way to learn from other calligraphers/network and learn.
My last day at Mayo Clinic was a distinctive days that defined my life. The head of the GI department at Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with something called “Sphincter of Oddi” disorder. In short, it’s a condition where the sphincter that operates the duct between your liver and your pancreas malfunctions, causing pain and/or long term, to the point of fatal issues with both organs. Symptoms mimic pancreatitis.
I had another conversation with that doctor, close-doored, because he didn’t want Matt to hear what he had to say. To fix this condition, I would have to have a surgery- hardly invasive, but incredibly dangerous. Dangerous enough that it can cause your liver and pancreas to “reset”; sometimes they don’t turn back on. The vast majority of patients spend a month or so in the ICU with pancreatitis, and a for a decent percentage of patients, it’s fatal. He wanted me to come back home for the procedure, so that I would be close to family and get my trust in order for that procedure. I was thrilled with this news- I finally, finally had my diagnosis. I didn’t quite tell Matt or my family the part about the risk of fatality, etc, because I didn’t want to unduly worry them. Even though my option wasn’t great, I had what I needed to go on: hope.
Instead of feeling any sense of fear, I remember spending that evening sitting on the porch of the hotel, watching the sun go down, filled with peace as I mulled through my diagnosis. To occupy my mind, I had my calligraphy pen and some ink with me, and that evening, I decided to be grateful for whatever was to come, and promised myself to use my story for good when the opportunity arose.
Unfortunately, I came home to worse news. My doctors in Tulsa; then in the state of Oklahoma, then in Texas, and all of the surrounding states deemed the procedure ethically too risky. Even though I finally had my answer, no one would do anything for it. I asked for an elective exploratory surgery, as a last ditch effort. Nothing was found.
Something else significant happened on my last day at Mayo: I was called back early for an emergency hearing. My firm had missed a deadline, and I had to come back and answer to the judge. Standing in front of that man changed my life, although not in the way he expected, I’m sure. By this point I’d lost so much weight, my suit was 4 sizes too big. I looked like a child playing dress up. I still had a picc line in my arm, but had to switch from patient to lawyer in an instant.
The judge specifically asked to go on the record, and proceeded to berate me for the missed deadline. On the record, he decided that I was “one of those millennials who created health excuses to get out of work.” I stood in front of him without saying a word, adjusted the only part of my suit that was tight (the part of my arm over my picc line). I knew in that moment that this type of life was not what I chose for myself. And on a guttural level, I knew that no matter the circumstances, even if I didn’t know how many days or how much time I have, I would always have the choice to decide how I’d spend those days. That wasn’t it.
Days later, I hit what I consider rock bottom. First, my doctor in Tulsa called me in for one more appointment. I will never forget that appointment – my doctor, whom I still respect, offered me a feeding tube and “lifelong prescription” of antidepressants. I refused, and the next thing he handed me was a piece of paper, with all of the tests that had been performed on me “for my next doctor”. He was giving up on me.
At that point I knew my fight was my own.
I decided to take advantage of the time and energy I had. I booked family photos for my husband and I, so I could preserve the happy memories I still had from this season (I forgot to mention, our sweet little Koda joined our family one week before this all began).
The second reason: my little sister was marrying one of my best friends from college in December, and my singular goal during that period became to get to (and through) their wedding.
My mantra during that time was that I’d just “think about it all tomorrow”, a la Scarlett O’Hara
Dec. 16 came and went, and my sister had a beautiful wedding. My goal had been to get to my sister’s wedding, so I didn’t really have a plan past that, except that on Christmas, I had to have screws from a spinal fusion in my back removed because I had lost too much weight to keep them in.
On New Years Eve of 2016, one of my best friends came to spend some time with me, and asked me to see a naturopath in our town. I did so and that wonderful wonderful was able to help me start to heal, or at least adapt. By January, the naturopath had me on a road toward healing, and I can’t describe what it is like to feel like you’re finally healing when you never thought that would happen. It’s like getting a breath of air in your lungs when you’ve been underwater for too long. It creates momentum– the one thing this disease steals from you. I started to heal.
One day in late January in particular I was driving across the state for a deposition, listening to a book (Garden City-read it if you haven’t). Two specific things happened on that drive: first, I had a few calligraphy prints on my dash drying in the sun as I drove. Second, his book, (in general, about the role of work in our lives- not just as jobs, but as occupations, and the origination of the idea of occupation idea throughout history- gave me the clarity I’d been looking for since that day in the courtroom standing in front of that judge. I remember exactly where I was driving, thinking about what I wanted me “occupation” to be. I looked over at the prints on the dashboard next to me, I soaked in the words from this book, and it struck me like a lightning bolt- if I had one life to live, I wanted to spend it running my own law firm.
Throughout this time, I had kept up my Instagram account and was spending hours each day on calligraphy, just as an outlet. Because of that I recognized that there was a huge gap in the creative market. It was in that moment, driving through the Oklahoma panhandle in January that I decided to start my firm. It took me a good three months to get the nerve up to tell my husband and family about my idea, and by June of 2017, I had started this law firm.
No one outside my closest circle of friends (and family) knew that in the summer of 2018, I suffered a complete relapse, and lost my ability to eat again. Imagine not being able to handle a single meal as a normal person, but also trying to pass off a normal life online, when you’re expected to share “yourself” and your life “authentically”. In July, I spent a full week at Cleveland Clinic once again on a search for answers. I went to Cleveland fully expecting to have that dangerous procedure I mentioned before. A lot of my goodbyes felt real, to say the least.
The greatest irony at this point was that my job is to help support small business owners with the unknowns that can occur when you own your own business.
By the grace of God’s timing, the great irony in all of this was that just weeks before the relapse, I was approached by an attorney who is now a partner of mine with the estate planning aspect of my firm. I do not take lightly the fact that I now get to help small business owners and families with some of the same issues that I have personally fought through.
My health trials have taught me that for me, at least, owning a business is the ultimate form of freedom; and therefore, living life to its fullest extent.
You have a choice in how you respond to the trials, no matter how large or how small, that you encounter with your life. My purpose in sharing this story today is again in hopes that it not only helps someone in a similar situation, but also to remind you that you too have a choice- always. I’ve created a “business essentials guide” for business owners which you can find here– it’s nothing flashy, but it allows you to have your essential business information in one central location if you get unexpected pulled away from business for any reason.
If you’re still here- thank you so much for reading this today. This is the most important and definitely the most personal story I’ve ever shared, but hopefully, it’s something that can somehow be a blessing to you.