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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Where is Home?

Even the most independent person craves a sense of belonging — within a family, a workplace, a community. It’s part of the human experience.

Seated over a cup of hot coffee in a cafe on Chicago’s south side, 56 year-old Anita Ong is thinking about country.

“I was born in the Philippines,” she says. “My parents were from China.”

She pauses.

“So! I am in between.”

Her words carry a bright tone, but her facial expression reveals resignation.  She is taking me through the past, as though we are there.

“In between” because even though Anita was born in the Philippines, she doesn’t have birthright citizenship there. Instead, citizenship follows that of one’s parents.

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In the late 1940’s, around the time Mao Zedong’s Communist Party was declaring victory over the Nationalists, Anita’s parents left China — her father first, then her mother.

“My father went to the Philippines because life was really difficult in his home town — a small rural area. And my grandparents were really poor.”

Anita is the seventh of nine children, all of whom were born in the Philippines. Along with her siblings, young Anita grew up in Laguna and Manila and attended Chinese school.

She had to be linguistically nimble.

“In the morning, we studied English lessons, and in the afternoon, we studied a combination of Mandarin and Fukienese (both Chinese dialects). At home, we spoke Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines) and a little Fukienese.”

To say she was a girl without a country is not far off…

I try to think of the long-term implications of this arrangement. How does one travel without a passport from your home country? How does one answer the question of nationality? What of the question of voting some day?

School of Life

Anita shares accomplishments with humility and brevity.

“In the Philippines, I ended up in medical school. I finished, and I did my residency in pathology.”

Upon completion, rather than a license and a medical practice, Anita received some bitter medicine. Suddenly, her career path appeared to be a dead end. Or perhaps, an “in between” space. Since Anita was not a citizen of the Philippines, she could not practice medicine there.

“It was very frustrating, because when I was doing my residency, my teachers told me that I was a GOOD pathologist.” Anita hints that this was a new kind of praise, a new-found and certain aptitude.

Beyond the issues of personal identity and pride, there was a financial question that accompanied the news: How would Anita earn a sufficient living? While staying with her parents, Anita remembers thinking, “there should be something better for me than this.”

Her mother agreed and encouraged her to go to the United States.

“I had been living a very sheltered life.” Anita spoke softly now. “What would I do in the U.S.?”

Her sister was living in California, but apart from her, she didn’t know anyone.  “I would be on my own,” she reflects. “It’s sort of scary.”

USA 

Anita boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles, traveling on a Taiwanese passport.

“If a person like me does not have a passport, you can choose either a PRC (People’s Republic of China) passport or ROC (Republic of China), which is a Taiwan passport.”

Anita has never lived in either mainland China or Taiwan.

She landed in California and visited her sister in Redlands for a few weeks. She remembers those first impressions with vivid detail. “There were a lot of citrus trees. I could smell the orange blossoms, and that was wonderful. I thought it was a beautiful place.

“Everything in America seemed to be bigger, grander and brighter.”

Weeks later, she made her way to the Midwest, specifically, the University of Illinois in Chicago. There, she would repeat her residency in pathology and add two sub-specialties.

“I realized I can survive.”

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Despite cold urban commutes through dark Chicago winters, Anita felt at home — both in Chicago and in her area of medicine.

“I like details. I obsess with details!” she laughs. “Pathology has a lot of details.”

And in pathology, there is less patient contact, which also suits Anita.

“I like dealing with people sometimes, but sometimes I get shy. And sometimes, it’s a little overwhelming.

“Generally, we are in the background,” she says of herself and her fellow pathologists.

Intermingled with mention of microscopes and objective lenses, Anita says, “We have specimens. They don’t have faces, so in a way, it’s easier.”

Anita wanted to do this kind of work for many years to come.  She wanted to practice medicine in the United States.

Her superiors wanted that too.

Working visa.

Green card.

Employment.

Home.

Sort of.

 July 3, 2013

“Will it sound bad to say that I wanted to be a citizen of a country?” Anita asks me. “I wanted to be a citizen.

“Life has been GOOD to me here.”

Anita was working at the hospital when a woman called from a government office: Anita was going to be sworn in as a United States citizen on July 3, 2013.

“They usually don’t call people, but this was such short notice.” Anita is speaking faster. “She left a message on my cellphone and on my home, so it was like listening to the good news TWICE!” She is laughing now. “Actually, I listened to it a number of times!”

On July 3, Anita went to work, then left for the ceremony at around lunchtime. “I was so excited! So restless!”

In an ordinary room set up with rows of chairs, Anita estimated there were about 60 people, from about 30 countries. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke.

“Then there’s a portion of the program where they call the country.”  People from that country are to stand at that time.

“And I was thinking, ‘Should I stand up for the Philippines? Should I stand up for China? Should I stand up for Taiwan? I should stand up for Taiwan, but then, would they have a slot for Taiwan?’

“They did,” she smiles. “So I stood up for Taiwan.”

As soon as Anita’s ceremony was complete and she was a U.S. citizen, she left the room and encountered a man distributing voting forms.

“The FIRST thing I did as an American citizen was register to vote!” Anita can’t contain her excitement. She has never been able to vote in her 56 years of life. “I can have the EXPERIENCE of voting. It makes me feel like I’m doing something MEANINGFUL. It is a privilege!

Then she looks at me deviously.

“Do you want to know what my SECOND thing was?”

Yes.

“I went to McDonald’s! My second act as an American citizen was to eat a burger!” she laughs. “I didn’t get fries though. I was feeling guilty.”

She went back to work that day as a citizen of the United States. “I was showing off my certificate, and some of my friends called me.

“I was so happy! Really. I was very happy. And now, when I think of it, I can’t help but smile!”

A friend asked Anita what she wanted to do to celebrate. Nothing much. She doesn’t like crowds. They talked playfully about eating hot dogs and burgers, watching the fireworks and buying red, white and blue carnations.

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July 4, 2013

Instead, they decided to get together for a low-key movie-watching afternoon at Anita’s friend’s apartment.

“He said he needed to stop at the laundry room,” says Anita. “So we went down this corridor, and suddenly there were these people saying ‘surprise’! They were cheering!

“I was just so surprised and speechless for I don’t know, a few minutes, I was just standing there and laughing. I felt like I wanted to cry and laugh.

“It was such a heart-warming gesture. It was such a happy…” Her voice trails off and she wipes her eyes.

“There are so many people who care for me….”

Anita received symbolic gifts from her friends that day — a flag brooch, a necklace with a heart-shaped locket bearing red and blue stones, a shawl that is an American flag.

She also received a copy of the Constitution of the United States.

“One guest made copies of the Declaration of Independence and distributed them so everybody could read a portion of the document and discuss,” says Anita.

“I read the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.”

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary…”

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