How My Mother's Death Led Me To Quit Being A Doctor & Live My Dream
Sarah Villafranco, M.D., is a natural skin-care expert and practiced emergency medicine for 10 years.
I'm a doctor. Countless sleepless nights and a degree from Georgetown University will prove it. I trained as an emergency physician in Washington DC, where I saw everything from stab wounds to anxiety attacks to babies born in the ambulance bay to foreign objects inserted in places beyond your imagination. I finished my training and moved to Colorado with my husband and our then two-year-old daughter. Until that point, I'd lived within 10 miles of my parents for my entire life. But not any longer.
Things were swimming right along until my mom came to visit a few months later. We were hiking when she had a brief episode of stomach pain. It passed with a little Ujjayi breathing, and we didn't think too much of it. A month later, back in DC, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
After 16 months of aggressive treatment, my stepfather finally made the call to say "I think you'd better come home." I numbly got on a plane with my brother and my second daughter, who was three months old. We spent a week in their house, caring for my skinny, ravaged mom, telling her it was okay to let go. She slipped into a coma not long after we arrived, and died eight days later, at age 64. She was my most precious, beautiful friend.
Back in Colorado, I returned to work, but something was different. Of course, everything is different when you lose someone you love. But there was something missing in the work; as if I couldn't define my purpose there. I knew I was helping people and that I was a good doctor, but at the end of a shift, I just felt exhausted and empty.
Looking back, I think it was a sense that I had not made the world more beautiful, safer or much healthier. I was taking care of problems that had already happened, putting out fires. I saw so many patients with problems they could prevent by simply choosing their own health over the cigarettes or fast food or alcohol or whatever else was making them sick. After losing my mother — who lived an incredibly healthy life and died anyway — I started to resent patients who took their health for granted. And I didn't want to become a resentful human. So I began to percolate.
About this time, I took a class making soap at a local ranch. I was immediately transfixed: chemistry plus beauty was an irresistible combination. I converted a windowless room in a dear friend's house and worked for two years on formulations. I coated myself with every plant oil known to man. I taught myself about emulsions and surfactants and preservatives. I was obsessed.
When I worked a shift in the ER, I counted the hours until I could get back to the lab. I knew something had to change. I just had to figure out how. And why.
You know how when you fall in love, there's no answer to the why part and we don't really ask because the answer is "IT'S LOVE!"? That's how I felt about making these beautiful, natural products. I wanted to shout from the rooftops: "Hey everyone! Let's stop using all these chemicals that make little girls get their periods too early and cause cancer and fish mutations and are changing the planet and the course of our evolution! And, let's do it not only because it's the right thing to do, but because there are SO many luxurious, incredibly healthy options, and I know how to make them!!!"
The process of justifying it all to myself was excruciating. I'm a doctor! I worked hard to be a doctor, especially while making babies at the same time! My dad is a law professor, my mom was a lawyer ... and I'm going to be a soap maker? I suffered silently for a long time and thought endlessly about it from every angle. But I kept wondering what my mom would say, and I could hear it as clearly as I heard her little heart stop: "Honey, do what you love." When I finally said it all out loud, my husband cocked his head at me with a slight, confused smile. And then he looked at my face and said "OH. You're serious. Okay, let's make a plan."
So we did. And three years later, I am CEO of our budding little skincare company. I use my medical background to help people with specific skin questions and to encourage healthy life choices. If we can educate people about why certain chemicals are bad for the world and one person switches over to greener products, I've practiced medicine. And if the level of 1,4-dioxane in our water supply goes down over the next 30 years and fewer aquatic species are affected because of my company and companies like it, I've practiced medicine. And, most importantly, I've practiced love.
So. What's your passion? And what's your plan?
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