When the easy road is not an option.
We all change and grow at a different pace, and we process those changes in the same way we process the phases of our lives, according to what challenges and blessings we have at any particular time. My path from the girl who spent 17 days floating at sea to escape a communist country, to a primary care nurse, and eventually to healthcare executive has been propelled by a desire to survive and perpetually improve. Some steps I have chosen, and others were predetermined, but each one is a part of my story I have learned to claim unashamedly. As should we all.
I believe women have to work more intentionally to do this. I spent a great deal of my life constantly looking for someone who could point me to the right direction. Whether it was how to manage a work-related conflict, or which higher education path would offer better opportunities for me, I wanted someone else to guide me. Eventually I came to realize that some roads you have to travel by yourself. It may not be easy, but it is absolutely necessary. I also came to realize that mentors, true mentors, are rare—and will find you when you really need support. That’s because mentoring isn’t about guiding someone’s life, it’s about giving him/her the strength to be in charge of his/her own life.
“When you think you’ve been beaten, mentally and physically, find a way to apply someone else’s lesson learned to your own unique journey … then pay it forward.”
For instance, when I was attending nursing school, I had to work twice as hard to overcome the language barrier and read twice as long to achieve the same level of understanding as my peers. My favorite school book was the English dictionary I’d carried for life support since I was a teenager. I immersed myself in this challenge, because I felt helpless to another. My cultural identity chained me to a marriage of subservience and harsh discipline, and I had resigned myself to the limitations it put on me, even as my education opened up doors of possibility.
I was lucky that a mentor was watching. I didn’t look for her; didn’t seek her guidance. She was watching over me until I was ready to share my story with her. When I did she helped me enter a women’s shelter. My second-born was just seven weeks old at the time. I was vulnerable and scared. But that’s not what she saw. What she saw was my desire to overcome and create a better life for my daughters and me. With her support, I did. Ever since, I have made paying forward the investment she made in me a priority in my life.
That was the first time a mentor found me. As I said, true mentors are rare, so I am humbled that two have found me in my lifetime. The second was a veteran.
Being a mom and a nurse, continually diving into higher education and operating in high-pressure environments often left me marginalized in my own mind. I began to feel burned out. I wondered why I had made such a demanding life for myself, and started to worry it was mentally and physically beating me down. One day, coming at the end of a double-shift at a VA hospital, I had the privilege of giving a tour to a paralyzed veteran. I was tired and cranky, and didn’t feel I had much else to give.
“Eventually I came to realize that some roads you have to travel by yourself. It may not be easy, but it is absolutely necessary.”
I only had to spend an hour on the tour, but was still with the veteran several hours later, and I felt more energized and hopeful than I had in ages. That veteran became a mentor, a boss, and most importantly a friend. He showed me I did have the strength to be a better version of myself, and supported me as I pursued a different way to serve veterans than at the bedside. I think of him each time a veteran says to me “thank you for what you do,” because I know this is how I am paying it forward in his memory. I find a deep sense of accomplishment whenever I listen to a veteran who could use my knowledge navigating the complicated healthcare system. I feel the same when I mentor nurses who volunteer their time at the women’s shelter that helped me so many years ago.
That’s because I now focus on helping others. I offer my own lessons learned, professionally and personally; I pay forward the lessons that have been shared with me by mentors who helped me along the way; and I have found that to be as rewarding as anything I’ve accomplished in my own career. Most importantly, I try to instill this philosophy in my three beautiful, intelligent daughters. Their continued success in their education, and their natural desire to help people around them has brought me so much joy and validation. In my role as their mom, I think I truly have found the best way to pay it forward, and the very best version of myself.
Where I have been and what I have endured shaped my identity, my priorities, and my quest to serve. My life and career illustrate that power can be used to control, or to uplift. But my circle of experience and influence continues to grow, and I will always be that girl who thinks it’s a privilege to learn and stretch and grow. Thanks to my mentors, I resolved that my challenging past would not define my future. Thanks to my children, I saw a better future for myself and had the courage to pursue it. And I honor what they’ve all taught me by serving those who served, in my role as chief medical executive of AmVets.