Flow State

“I’m sitting there in the bank just crying, just reading through all of the things. Oh, look, she paid for the dogs to go to the vet. Oh, look, she bought this. So many times when we would go out to dinner — and I would pay for dinner — she would pay with what I thought was my card, coming out of my account. No. She was paying for it. And she never said it.”

It had been months since Debra died, and the bank contacted Dr. Heather Richardson, MD, on the very same day her friend Debra’s death certificate arrived.

“We were each other’s living will person, and so I went to the bank.”

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Dr. Richardson is a respected and beloved breast health surgeon at Bedford Breast Center in Beverly Hills, California. One reviewer on Yelp writes that she’s a ‘highly skilled and professional surgeon, who also just happens to be a super cool bad@ss.” Breast cancer patients write about how she saved their lives. Office staff smile about the way Dr. Richardson hums and sings so freely and skillfully.

With a passion for the fine arts and science, Dr. Richardson loves her work.

“I have to think three-dimensionally. I have to think about balance, symmetry, aesthetics. I get to talk to people about their fears and anxieties. And usually I get to make them feel better. And they’re so grateful. To connect with people, to use an analytical mind to solve problems, and then to physically have to do something… the artist in me just loves performing surgery. It’s just really elegant. They talk about the ‘flow state’ when you’re doing something and you kind of get lost. I absolutely get in the flow state when I’m performing surgery.”

About five years prior to that day at the bank, Dr. Richardson had been communicating with her friend Debra who was going through a hard time. Dr. Richardson invited Debra to come to Los Angeles to stay in her spare bedroom.

“She never wanted to be a burden, but there was this heaviness to our conversations. I don’t remember the exact day, I told her point-blank: ‘There’s never going to be a right time. Things are never going to be organized and orderly or tidy enough. At some point, you just have to get on a f*king plane.’ We used that moment, that statement, many times after that to punctuate those action thoughts that need to propel us into the next stage of our lives, as paralyzing as it may be to take action.”

They decided Debra would stay for a month or two, rent-free. She could get her feet on the ground, then go. She wouldn’t have to work or pay for anything. Just take care of home life and enjoy. Two months grew into nearly five years, and a sisterhood.

“She was a very bright girl. She didn’t have an opportunity to really get educated. She is just one of the most giving, caring, conscientious people ever.

“I have to have an education because I had to have an education. I can’t do what I’m doing without having gone through the schooling that I’ve gone through. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that people that are formally educated are better or smarter than other people. I know a lot of people who have learned what they know just from experiences in life lessons, and they’re so much more capable and smart than a lot of people who are more classically educated.

“One of Debra’s favorite mantras was ‘unexpressed expectations are premeditated resentments.’

“So, if you don’t tell someone what you’re thinking and you don’t communicate anything, then you don’t give anybody an opportunity to try to make it better or fix it.”

They did communicate, effortlessly. And they didn’t have unexpressed expectations.

“We just had this team living approach where I paid for everything and she took care of stuff. So she cooked and cleaned and took care of animals. She had two cats, and I had two dogs. We had like a little menagerie. We were like cousins or sisters.  I would do my thing and work, and she would do her thing and take care of the dogs and the house and listen to podcasts and research everything.

“We didn’t ask for anything from each other, but anything that we needed, we would have given to each other.”

That synchronicity changed both of their lives forever. “She was my best friend. I was her biggest cheerleader, and she was my biggest cheerleader.” Neither could have foreseen what would happen one day in the autumn of 2019.

“She came into my room at four-thirty in the morning and said, ‘something’s really wrong. I have a horrible headache.’ And after talking with her, I figured pretty immediately that something was not right. So we went to the hospital.”

Soon after arriving at the emergency room, Debra seized. “That was her last conscious moment.” Debra died of a brain aneurysm.

Even in death, Debra was as Dr. Richardson described her: giving, caring, conscientious. She donated her organs. Months later, a memorial service was held. The date was February 11, 2020. Debra’s birthday. She would have been 48 years old.

Los Angeles for Healing

Debra came to Los Angeles to heal. And so did Dr. Richardson.

Back in 1999, Dr. Richardson had finished medical school and was in her surgery residency at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. She died in the year 2000. The young physician didn’t yet know what type of surgeon she wanted to be, but soon after, that decision was made. She joined a practice with Atlanta breast surgeon and mentor Dr. Bill Barber.

“I lost my own mom, and I’m sad without her. I wish she was still here. I think the gift in that experience of going through that with her is that I saw what people are going through mentally on their own side of it, the fear that they have, the anxiety they have, how they process information. Learning those lessons through someone who actually went through it, it really kind of gives me a scope of what my patients might be going through. And as much as I would rather be a slightly crappier doctor and still have my mom around, it’s definitely something that I’m making the most of, and I know that she would be proud of me.”

Dr. Richardson’s layers of resilience are as deep and diverse as the intricate paintings she creates.  Her perspective is ever listing toward the light.

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Moving West

“In any scenario, you have an opportunity to make something better for a person… and sometimes that person is yourself.”

By 2014 and after another loss in her personal life, Dr. Richardson needed a change. A place to heal.  It was her own time to get on a plane.

“I was in a very complicated marriage for years and years and years. And my husband took his own life. It was a really horrible situation, and I wish he had made different decisions. But I can’t unmake his decisions. And they weren’t my decisions to make. So I have to just sort of let them go and appreciate that I wish things had turned out differently. I can’t do anything else about it. And all I can do is take what I have from all of that experience and move forward. That’s why I left my practice in Atlanta and why I came to Los Angeles.

“Just start over, just give myself a new place to come. I wanted to go somewhere really different and wide open where there were tons of opportunities for me personally and socially and career-wise. And I just wanted something bigger.”

What did she do during that transition time? Did she have anchors or routines to help her feel grounded? Did she exercise? Hike? Meditate?

“I’m the worse exerciser. I am the worst dancer. I don’t do anything athletic. I’m just a giant klutz. I don’t like moving!

“The most athletic thing I do is downhill skiing and that’s because the mountain does the work. All you have to do really is stand still and go into a controlled fall. At the other end of that is a giant bowl of melted cheese and several glasses of wine!”

Humor is something her mom and dad instilled in her and her brother, Jamey.

“Our family is really funny. Whatever the situation is, it is what it is. And it doesn’t have to be good or bad. You don’t have to put a sign, a dramatic absolute, to anything. Any situation you have, you can take something good away from it or any situation you can make it better. If it’s already pretty good, you can just enjoy it and be grateful for it.

“I just threw myself into my work, and I love what I do. I came here to start with one practice, and that ended up not working out.

“To have a really busy, thriving practice and start over from scratch twice was really sort of a blow. That is really where all of my attention and all my effort went. And it bore fruit. So that was the reward. The reward was in that work: Planting those seeds and then watching everything grow and develop and blossom. I didn’t really think, well, what if I fail?”

She asked herself a different question: What am I going to do with my success?

“Any ingredients that you’re given, you can always make something from it. Any horrible situation that life presents you, presents you with a lesson of your own strength, your own resilience.”

Through her example, Dr. Richardson shares that strength and resilience with every patient she encounters and with all who come to know her caring heart.

“Every stumbling block that I encountered was a rock or a current that sent me onto this beautiful new shore.”

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Trickle, Trickle, Trickle

Back at the bank that day, Dr. Richardson was told that whatever was in Debra’s account was now hers.

Dr. Richardson knew that Debra’s father had left her about $100,000 a few years prior.

“I figured after three years, she probably had like $80,000 left. After sitting for two hours at the bank, they handed me a check.” There were $13,000 left in Debra’s account.  “I was really shocked that all of her money was gone. My first thought was, ‘way to go!’ You haven’t been sitting on a big pile of money that you’ve been waiting to spend. You did everything you wanted to do. I’m really, really impressed!’ Then I thought, maybe she’s put money somewhere, and I need to find out where it is. As I’m going through every month of her bank statement, it’s just trickle, trickle, trickle. The entire time she was living with me, she was putting money into my account.

“I had two bank accounts, and I would move money back and forth between the accounts. And when I would do that, it would just say the name of the bank. And her account was at the same bank. So when she transferred money in, it just said the name of the bank. So I never, ever, ever knew. She did it completely anonymously. The only reason I ever found out was because she died.”

Not unlike donating her organs after death, Dr. Richardson knew how befitting this gesture was of Debra’s character.

“In any relationship, I think people overestimate what they’ve put into it. Whether it’s business or personal, you overestimate what you’ve put into it. They’re overestimating what they’re putting into it. And the reality is somewhere in between. When you give freely and you’re grateful for whatever you get, then it’s complete harmony.”

It takes a selfless heart to recognize and appreciate the depth inside the soul of another person. That’s what they both did for each other. And that is why their sisterhood was complete harmony.

Dr. Richardson says Debra always gave more than she got.

I bet a lifetime of family, friends and patients would say the same thing about Dr. Heather Richardson.

Find Bedford Breast Center on Instagram and Twitter @bedfordbreastcenter and online at www.bedfordbreastcenter.com. Photos courtesy of Dr. Heather Richardson. Shown: Portraits, as well as an image of a painting done by Dr. Richardson, and an image of Dr. Richardson and her friend Debra.

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Just Turn Around

Pippi Longstocking! If she had to pick one favorite book from her childhood, L. Marelle Camel would choose Pippi Longstocking. The adventures… The lack of supervision…

“I just was so taken by this little girl who was raising herself.” Marelle’s smile and tone revealing a bit of envy for the child who was free to get into mischief unchecked. “But also, I was kind of afraid for her because she didn’t have guidance.”

Since those early years, books have moved Marelle. And she wants them to impact today’s elementary aged kids too by presenting reading not as a chore, but rather as a world of exploration, learning and wonder.  Marelle cares about this so much that in early 2019, she founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Camel Kids Foundation.

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“It’s important for kids to really see themselves reflected in books,” she said. “We provide students with free books to introduce them to authors and illustrators and lead characters of color.”

Marelle says it is imperative for children to see books that have someone who looks like them on the cover.  “Especially in children’s books, picture books… that’s important for the little kids to see.

“I want to triumph all of our people of color who are authors because they don’t get a lot of credit. I want to introduce their books to kids.” That also includes illustrators of color. “I think that the children who are not of color can also benefit from reading a story by someone who is of color. Nine times out of 10, they have friends, schoolmates or playmates or people in dance class that are of color. And it’s important for them to know how to relate.”

Marelle knows stories can be formative, and they have staying power. Decades later, the thought of Pippi Longstocking still brings a smile to Marelle’s eyes. (The story was first published in 1945 by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and it has been translated into 75 languages.)

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Now a 32 year-old actor living in Los Angeles, Marelle embraces all aspects of storytelling, and she has made a commitment to reaching young minds through books.

The mission of Camel Kids Foundation — which Marelle says is currently operating in Los Angeles and New York, and next in Atlanta — has two parts. One part: Visit schools to read and gift carefully selected books to elementary age children. The other part: The Snack Box Project: To provide classroom supplies for teachers and snacks for their rooms.

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An estimated 94% of all teachers buy classroom supplies out of their own pocket, and up to 13 million children nationwide go to school hungry regularly.

The struggle felt by teachers to provide for their students is a reality Marelle knows well. Her mother, Pearl, has been an educator for nearly 25 years. While teaching pre-K and kindergarten, Pearl raised three daughters alone: Marelle, Marelle’s twin sister Lynne Michelle (younger than Marelle by just three minutes) and their older sister Katherine (who is also an educator and teaches K2 at a daycare).

Homework and the Human Spirit

Growing up in Atlanta, Marelle learned the importance of education from her mother.

“She is an educator to the T. So if we didn’t have homework, we had homework. She would give us homework. And even if we did have homework, she would give us homework. Our summers were spent at the library.

“If one of my sisters or I even asked a question, like, ‘I wonder if there’s butterflies that have the same pattern…’ that would be a book report that we would have to do. If you asked a question, you would learn it. You know? And it would be all of us that would have to do that book report. So being the daughter of an educator is hard, but it’s good at the same time because you learn so much.”

Marelle and her sisters learned academic lessons from Pearl. But one of the biggest life lessons Marelle learned was this:

“My mother says, ‘Turn around, child. Just turn around.’

“A lot of people wait until they’ve got Oprah money or Obama money in order to be philanthropists. (My mother) says, ‘Turn around. There’s somebody behind you that could use your help where you are now. You are capable. You don’t have to wait until you have… money to be, like, now I’m going to donate. Or now I’m going to build a school in Africa. Or I’m going to build a school in Europe. You know, there’s something that you could be doing, someone who could benefit from you, if you would just turn around.’”

Marelle thinks about how an organization like the one she has founded today could have helped back then. “We struggled as a family,” she says. “And so now that I’m capable…. (You) can hear the echo. I’ve definitely got to turn around, you know? And help somebody else.”

Camel Kids Foundation primarily serves Title 1 schools, although not exclusively. The basic principal of Title 1 is that schools with large concentrations of low-income students will receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting student’s educational goals.

Learning to Live

After graduating from high school in Atlanta, Marelle left home for the first time in the name of study: to Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. There, she learned that being on her own wasn’t as carefree as it seemed for fictional Pippi Longstocking.

“I had a hard time my freshman year. Wow! I never realized my attachment to my mother until it was time to leave.” Four years later, she majored in Communications and went back to Atlanta to figure out what to do next. From age 21-24, Marelle would search.

“I found that period, that three year period, very hard for me. It was about discovering my identity and who I was as a person, who I was going to be, the things that I wanted to do, the things that I could do and how could I make my goals reality.”

It’s during those times of waiting or searching that we all find our spaces of grace and refuge.

“I did dance — ballet, contemporary and hip hop. I found a love for pilates and yoga during that time…. That was my release. That did … buy me some time and really helped me deeper discover who I was as a person. I’ve always been very creative, and dance is definitely a way to express myself.”

Through her yoga practice, Marelle says she found calm. “It was the stillness about it that really got me to hone in and focus, which I think is necessary as a young adult to have.

“I think that’s what really led me to just pick up and leave after I’d found my focus.”

Unlike that first goodbye when she left Atlanta for Oakwood University, Marelle was ready when she decided to move to Los Angeles to work in production and then pursue acting.

“Leaving the nest again wasn’t something that I feared. It was something that I welcomed. I was ready for change.”

Change Maker

Even as Marelle focuses on her acting career, her mission with Camel Kids Foundation is deeply rooted in family and tradition and turning around for the next person.

I wondered if Camel Kids Foundation had made its way to Pearl’s classroom.

“I go to her class whenever I’m in Atlanta and disrupt,” she laughs. “I teach (teach, she says, with air quotes) to the best of my ability!”  But those visits have been personal visits.

If Marelle brings Camel Kids Foundation to her mother’s classroom — to sit down with students and read to them about characters just like them — it will be a sort of coming full circle,  a circle which has her mother, Pearl, at its center.

Marelle has watched her mother teach and is in awe of the way she’s able to make connections with students and sees the light bulb moments when they’ve learned something. And there is reverence there, but not only that.  “I adore her.  She’s my heart.”

And it is really heart that is motivating Marelle’s movement — to see hearts, to open hearts and to nurture hearts. Perhaps so that every child will one day find it in their own  heart … to also… turn around.

To learn more, to donate or to get involved with Camel Kids Foundation, visit www.camelkidsfoundation.org and follow them on social media at @camelkidsfndn. Email, volunteer, donate, share. Portrait 1 photo credit: Kevin Richardson/Dance As Art. Portrait 2 photo credit: Kirk McKoy. My thanks for permission to use your beautiful work.

Designing a New Future

Do you feel like you can exhale?

“Noooooo, not yet,” is the quick reply from Justin Hughes. “Not yet.”

Sitting on the floor of a Chicago gym surrounded by a forest of heavy bags, he is smiling and energized after teaching a boxing class.

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“I still wake up nervous.” He is more serious now. “Is a bullet gonna fly past me?”

The 25 year-old trainer and amateur MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter’s expression tells you he wants to exhale, but he can’t yet.

Justin grew up in South Chicago, where street signs delineate gang lines.

“We’re raised in a war zone, you know? You gotta learn how to survive while you’re trying to pursue your dreams.”

In that order.

“Surviving is more important than doing homework or track practice or going to the library, because you can get shot going to any of those.

“As a kid, I was a punk. I used to always get beat up. I had glasses. I was skinny. And I had no big brothers.” That meant no one to help him out in a fight. “No retaliation means they’re gonna do it again. And keep doing it.”

Wherever there is a void, something enters to fill it. Guys in the neighborhood did what they could to protect the young boy Justin from the streets.

“They used to tell me, ‘Go in the house, they’re about to start shooting.’ So, you know, I used to run in the house and then hear the gun shots.

And like many boys Justin knew, he didn’t have a father in his life.

“We can talk about me not having a dad. But that’s everybody!” he says, his arm sweeping wide. “Nobody had a dad.

“So we looked up to the guys in the neighborhood. They would make sure we stayed in school. We’d get punished if they’d see us ditching.”

As Justin got a little older, the ways they protected him became less parent, more peer.

“There’d be times where we’ll be fighting with other neighborhoods, and we’ll be sent to go shoot at them, and they’ll pick certain ones like, ‘no, you can’t go.'”

Sometimes Justin was among the ones who couldn’t go.

“It’s like being surrounded by water. And you’re trying to get to another land that you see over there.

“You gotta know how to swim. So eventually I had to dive into it. I had to learn how to swim with the sharks for a while.”

Even though his dad may have been absent, his mother was fully engaged.

“My mother is strong!” he smiles. “She’s like an Army general.

“And my mother was real strict. ‘Gotta be in the house before the street lights come on,'” she’d say. “And we used to have to ask to get water out of the refrigerator,” he laughs.  “I don’t see where THAT came in…”  But he understands what she was doing.

“There were a lot of kids that were very disrespectful to their mothers out there, and I guess she was making sure we would never EVER be like that. So it was good. She raised me good.”

Tough Times and Turning Points

The influence of people outside was growing. And darker days were coming.

“I kind of lost my way around 14,15. My mother definitely didn’t want me going down that path, as you can imagine.

“I’d come home with scratches, or the police would bring me home and tell my mom ‘your boy was fighting.'”

As Justin’s trouble increased, so did his mother’s pain. He remembers her crying. He remembers her trying to get through to him.

He didn’t want to listen. But she persisted.

“I’d go in the bathroom to take a shower, and there would be a letter there. She’d write me letters and leave them where I’d find them.

“They would say things like, ‘You need to slow down, son…'”

He stopped to think about that.

“That stuff always made me cry.”

He knew she cared, and beyond that, she was also highly intuitive when it came to Justin.

“I am inches and seconds away from getting into some crazy trouble,” he remembers. “And she’ll just call my cellphone. At first I’m ignoring her. But I can’t ignore my mom, because I’m in fear of her.”

So he’d answer, and hear her voice down the phone.

“‘What are you doing? Huh? What are you doing? Get back in the house!'”

Shaking his head, he smiles then laughs. There is a hint of awe.

“My mom is THE angel,” he beams. “I’m talking about THE number one angel!”

Justin’s mom, good grades and participation on sports teams kept Justin attached by a string to hard work and honest living. But increasingly he was marking time outside of school by more brushes with the law, violence, guns, selling drugs.

Even so, he graduated from prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, then went away to Champaign for college.  He loved art class. His professors saw promise in him. A new day was beginning.

But old patterns followed Justin, and his world changed again: Felony possession of a defaced firearm.

“They gave me a two year suspension from school. There was a trial…”

And a little jail time.

Justin went home to Chicago. And back to the streets.

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“I had no direction. I was getting in trouble every day. Just selling drugs and surviving. My mom kicked me out a couple of times.

It was to the point where I was like, man, I gotta do SOMETHING, you know?”

When things were on the mend, you could find Justin at home on the couch, playfully fighting with his mom over the television remote control. His mom would win.

“I was sitting there watching HGTV, and I was like, ‘Mom, this is BORING’.

“After a while, I was like, ‘They should have made the kitchen THAT color. They should have put the towel over there.’

“And one day a light bulb clicked in my head, and I thought, ‘I might actually LIKE this stuff.’

“I had started learning about colors and color therapy and how colors make people feel, and I felt art was deeper than what the mind can see.

He thought to himself, “I might need to pursue this. What does this cost?” He got on the internet and he searched.

He sought out the Illinois Institute of Art.

And he got in.

“Art school was very expensive, and you gotta get art supplies. I was applying for jobs, but they weren’t coming quick enough.

“So I started selling drugs even harder. I was out at 6:30 in the morning. I needed money.  And I used that money to buy my books and art supplies.”

It got him through. That and a lot of hard work. Across his chest, a tattoo in all capital letters reads HARD WORK. Justin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture.

“I feel like college is a good point for finding yourself. I felt like the professors I had really helped me — the way they related the lectures and the work to life.”

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New Direction

Justin is meeting new people and developing new interests. New passions are being revealed. He has a talent for MMA and has become an amateur fighter. He wants to win a title belt. He found he not only has an aptitude for boxing, but also for teaching the sport. He is a personal trainer. Instead of selling crack, he now makes his money at the gym. He has an apartment of his own. Justin is starting to think about dreams a little more and basic survival a little less.

His yesterdays are still not far away though. When he visits his mom, he walks a fine line with some people from his past.

“When I come back, I can feel some resentment. But it’s my home.

“I’m trying to drag some of the little guys out of that life. They still look up to me. They see some of the stuff that I’m doing now. And they have seen where I came from. So they listen to me sometimes.”

Wherever Justin can find success, he plans to use it to help young people.  

In martial arts: “I want to coach kids. I want them to be the best.”  In music: “I love making beats. I want to help kids make beats.”  In art: “If I get the chance to open my own design firm, I’d like to hire some kids as interns. I want to show them there’s other things than playing basketball and rapping.

“Now, it’s not about ‘What do I want to BE’. But ‘What do I want to CREATE?'”

Justin wants to dream a bigger dream for kids than they do for themselves.

A football coach once did that for him. In his senior year of high school, Justin was new to the sport. When the team’s middle linebacker got hurt, Justin says coach Tim Franken summoned him.

“‘I want you to play middle linebacker,'” he said. Justin’s voice jumps in disbelief at the memory. “I’m thinking, ‘What? I’m 5’7”, a hundred and some change, soaking wet!’

“Coach Franken said, ‘I think you got heart. I see it.’

“He instilled so much confidence in me in that one sentence. ‘I think you got heart. I think you can do it.’ I swear to God, I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”

He laughs a little, uplifted by the thought of it.

His laugh is contagious and bright and transcends hardship. And it is not a laugh “an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle”, as scripted by Carl Sandburg in his raw rich poem “Chicago”. It is a laugh of joy and battles hard fought, of new horizons in view and of promise. It is a laugh that, when unguarded, vibrates with the sound of youth.

“I’m not lightly breezing through life, but I’m not fighting myself spiritually anymore.  I feel like I made it through a very rough stormy part…

“But I think I still got a lot to go.”