Fabulous Women Over 40: Loan Hillsten

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

By Sheri Oneal

This month I am excited to share Ms. April in my blog series Fabulous Women Over 40. Loan Hillsten and I have had the same circle of friends for about two years. I learned of Loan’s story at a dinner party one night when inquiring about where she grew up. She is a vibrant and caring person who carries a secret past most of her friends and colleagues do not know about.

We, as Americans, are privileged to live as freely as we do. The awareness of those here from other countries is evident, and often the media shares insight to the struggles they have endured coming to America with dreams of freedom and opportunity. I have never known anyone personally with a similar journey until I met Loan. Her past is riddled with memories of fleeing her war ravaged homeland with her family in search of freedom in the United States.

Loan Hillsten AKA Loan Thi Kim Pham was born in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam on November 24, 1963. She is the youngest of four siblings, two sisters, Le and Lan, and two brothers, Thuy and Lai. Loan’s mother, Tu Thi Trinh, was a housewife who made extra money cooking Vietnamese food and selling it at the local market. She passed away of liver cancer at the age of 43 when Loan was only 9 years old. (below photo is of Loan’s family before she was born). Loan remembers how wonderful her mom’s cooking was and how so many people loved buying her delightful dishes from the market. Loan’s father, Vinh Van Pham, fought for the South in the Vietnam War, from 1950-1954, and was left crippled when he lost both legs stepping on a land-mine.

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Loan Hillsten

On April 29, 1975, the night before the “Fall of Saigon,” Loan and her family fled Saigon to escape definite death from the Northern Vietnamese forces who were expected to invade the next day. She remembers her brother-in-law (who was in the military) telling her dad the communist were coming to take over the city. Knowing they would kill anyone associated with the military first, they were forced to leave their home and all their worldly possessions behind. Loan remembers arriving at the pier scared, watching as people were screaming, crying and fighting to get on boats so they would not be left behind or be separated from their families. Because her dad was unable to walk he told them to go ahead and get on the boat but her brother-in-law wouldn’t let that happen and carried her dad on his back, fighting his way through the crowd to assure he was on the same boat as his family.

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

The boat she boarded with her family held 30-40 people, with no one knowing where they were going, only that they were leaving land. The men stayed up on deck most of the time and the women and children stayed below with no bathroom and little food. She remembers hearing stories from her brother-in-law of men on the upper deck who jumped to their death in fear of what might lie ahead. When they arrived in the Philippines two weeks later they were not welcome. The U.S. military had to step in and took them by boat to Guam before they were able to come to the United States. They lived in a tent for couple weeks on this island. They had to shower out in the open and she recalls the army soldiers riding by whistling and yelling at her as she tried to cover her naked body making her feel defiled and embarrassed.

Loan’s memory of her childhood is scattered with visions most 12 year olds should never have to endure. Having only the clothes they were wearing when they fled, she and her family arrived in America. They were placed in a refugee camp, Fort Indiantown Gap, known as “The Gap” or “FTIG” located in Pennsylvania. The GAP served as a refugee camp for Southeast Asian refugees over an 8 month period in 1975. More than 32,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees were resettled through the camp. Her first memory upon arriving was how cold it was and seeing snow for the first time. Each day they would gather in lines and wait for their meals, there was nothing to do all day and they were not allowed to leave the tightly secured base.

Fabulous Women over 40, Loan Hillsten

After 6 months, her family was lucky enough to have two churches sponsor them out of the refugee camp, being sponsored was the only way anyone could leave the facility. The churches helped them find a home in Urbandale, Iowa, to get them signed up for the school system and covered the cost of food and rent for the first 3 months. In their new small home, 10 people lived in a 3 bedroom house with only one bath, you can imagine the chaos that ensued each morning. Loan started elementary school where she had to not only learn a new language (since she spoke no English), but also acclimate to a fascinating and at times scary new culture.

In the years that followed, Loan and her family adjusted and assimilated to life in America. She and her siblings went on to finish college. Her American life was not, however, left unscathed even after surviving and escaping a war ravaged country, she would face the tragedy of losing two more family members to liver cancer. Her brother passed away at 25 years old, who at the time was working to complete a master’s degree in engineering. Her sister, 39 at the time, perished two years later. Knowing this disease runs in her family, Loan gets annual checkups.

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

Today Loan resides in Murfreesboro, TN with her 15 year old son Taylor and is a Finance Manager at McKesson Corporation. Most of her friends see her as a beautiful, active and happy person, someone who is always laughing. Her friends look forward to her cooking and she always delivers something amazing to friendly gatherings, something I know her mother would be proud of because she carries on some of her cultural traditions. She is the first to help when someone is sick or needs something and she shows no sign of any of the past experiences she had to endure. This month marks the 40th anniversary of fleeing South Vietnam and the experience that led her to become an American citizen. She recently visited her father (photo below) and other family members in Iowa.

Loan Hillsten , Vinh Van Pham

It humbles me to see a woman who has gone through what she did at such a young age, yet see no sign of sadness or conflict in her life. Her strength and compassion is truly amazing she is an inspiration to me and is why I had to showcase her as a Fabulous Woman over 40! 

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

I hope you have enjoyed Loan’s story! I would love to hear your thoughts so please feel free to leave comments below. Stay tuned for Ms. May!

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Fabulous Women Over 40: Kate O’Neill

Kate O'Neill, author, mentor, consultant

By Sheri Oneal

Finally SPRING  is upon us, thank goodness! This month’s Fabulous Women Over 40 I am featuring the wonderfully beautiful and talented Kate O’Neill! I met Kate many years ago while attending various Nashville business mixers including the Technology Council. The one thing I always noted about Kate was her energy, her smile and most of all her laughter, she always seemed to be the happiest person in the room. We joke about having the same last name but it being spelled differently…sista-from-a-notha-motha sort of thing. I have always known Kate as an extremely intelligent and powerful business woman, but when I found out about her newest personal project I knew I wanted her to be a part of this blog series. These stories are not just about the fabulous things women over 40 have accomplished within their careers but the ability their stories might have in helping others deal with life changes that offer personal growth, insight and compassion along the way. My hope is that Kate’s story might help someone out there who is in the process of dealing with the painful emotions surrounding the loss of a loved one.  

Kate O'Neill, author, mentor and consultant.

I will start with the early stages of Kate’s career, after studying at the University of Illinois she worked as a language consultant translating German and Russian documents into English. She was a technical writer for Toshiba, a content manager for Netflix, a communications consultant for Lexicom Inc., a senior business analyst for HCA and held many other positions with companies like Landmark Digital Services, Searchmonkey and Magazines.com. Out side of her technical and marketing background she worked as a songwriter and publisher for Honey Bowtie Music. Born in Park Forest, Illinois and having lived in Germany, California, Oregon and Chicago, in 2003  Kate settled in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2009 she started her own business [meta]marketer which she closed in 2014 to start her new endeavor KO Insights, where she provides training, guidance and strategic marketing for businesses. With an impressive list of accomplishments, she is also a speaker, an author, a mentor and a consultant.

Kate O'Neill, author, mentor and consultant.

While all of these accomplishments completely make Kate a FABULOUS woman over 40, the one that is closest to my heart is her recently published ebook dealing with her personal struggle of loss, called “Surviving Death.” I have always admired Kates humor and writing style within her social media platforms so I knew this book would not let me down. I was intrigued to see how she dealt with the stages of death and grief and how she moved forward in the aftermath. Although the title may seem to allude to death and sadness, Kate’s sense of humor and unique style of sharing ideas through her journal excerpts allows the reader to experience her growth while it was actually happening. Sharing her personal thoughts written in pages of her journal during the painful, drawn out years of watching her father die to cancer offers a poetic insight to the unfair side of life experience. In contrast she expresses the feelings she was faced with in the sudden loss of her husband to suicide several years later. Her process of turning those negative moments of loss into positive life lessons offer a great contribution to us all because none of us are spared from experiencing death. In the end her story presents her journey of becoming more grateful, finding the strength to rebuild, to move forward, to accept help from others and finally finding the enlightenment of joy, laughter and meaning on the other side. Kate never intended on writing this book, it happened by accident, it is the result of her healing after several very painful years of processing her loss.

Kate O'Neill, author, mentor and consultant.

Kate mentors for Jumpstart Foundry and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. She is a Chair-Elect of the Business Intelligence Systems Advisory Board at Tennessee State University as well as an executive board member for The Nashville Technology Council. She serves as an advisory board member for Evolve Women, and a columnist at The Tennessean. If you would like to know more about Kate O’Neill you can visit her business web site here. If you would like to read her book “Surviving Death” you can find it here on Amazon.

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Fabulous Women Over 40: Lisa Palet Goldstein

Cancer Survivor, Wonder Woman

By Sheri Oneal

Welcome to this months Fabulous Women Over 40 featuring Ms. February, Lisa Palet Goldstein AKA “Wonder Woman!”

I met Lisa on Labor Day last year at a party she was having at her house. A friend invited me along and I had no idea what I was embarking on that day. When we arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see more that 20 people I knew, when Lisa welcomed me the first thing that I noticed was her infectious smile. As I greeted those I knew I overheard various conversation’s on Lisa’s status, at one point a song started to play over the stereo, the room began to sing along “Hit the Road Jack,” and Lisa’s eyes teared up. It was then that I realized this was not actually a Labor Day party….it was a cancer party and Lisa was in the myst of her journey in being treated for colon cancer.

Colon Cancer Survivor Lisa Goldstein

In the 9 months I have known Lisa I have discovered a deeply compassionate and inspiring woman. Her kindness, empathy toward others and ability to listen deeply at what others say is evidence of her ongoing desire to give back. She has worked as a social worker, done in/out patient work with addiction programs and continues to work in the healthcare industry with an aspiration to help those in need. She volunteers with Make-A-Wish and enjoys her time working with the kids.

May 28th, 2014 marked Lisa and Rob’s 19th wedding anniversary, it was also the day she received the diagnosis that she had colon cancer. In that moment of reality she was sad, scared and as anyone facing cancer would feel, devastated. Lisa said “it felt as though a stack of papers had been thrown in the air and I had no idea where they would land.” She had no symptoms of colon cancer and it does not run in her family. She had been to the doctor 6 months earlier because she was tired and anemic, they ran blood test and said her iron levels were low, when she returned for tests a second time with no change her doctor suggested a colonoscopy. Colon cancer became her reality and she began the most challenging 9 months of her life. She immediately started with six weeks of chemo and radiation treatments, then surgery to remove 8 inches of her colon, then 8 chemotherapy treatments and she still has one more surgical procedure to go.

Cancer Survivor, Wonder Woman

From the start, Lisa decided she was going to put up a fight and wanted to keep a positive mindset during the most negative experience of her life. In the first few days of her diagnosis she kept thinking about her battle ahead and wanted to give her tumor a name as if it were a prized fighter she was training against in a championship. Jack was the first name that came to mind and her battle song would be “Hit the road Jack” by Ray Charles. In those first few days she battled staying positive because as the news spread people began wanting to talk, to ask her questions and to offer encouragement. She struggled with the thought of dying, of wanting to see her 16 year old daughter Sarah grow older and so many other things you think about when facing the reality of a disease that can take your life. Like so many cancer victims she struggled with staying positive while having to repeat all the details of her cancer to others over and over. That continuous reminder of her battle became exhausting so she decided to start a Facebook page named “Hit the Road Jack, “ this would allow her to post news but not have to talk about it all the time in her daily life. She didn’t want attention, she wanted peace and this would give her a voice to share. She was uncomfortable with all the attention the page brought to her but at the same time amazed by the outpouring of support and love she received. It was that love and support that helped carry her through those grueling 9 months. The FB page allowed her to have personal emotional time alone while processing what people shared with her online. This created a separation of the discussion of “cancer, “she no longer had to constantly talk about what she was going through when she was out with friends. When she posted a photo of a pair of “Wonder Woman” socks she received from high school buddy Victor Wilson, it took the FB page to a new level. She instantly took on the super hero persona of “Wonder Woman!” Pictures, gifts and numerous references over the months helped Lisa keep a positive mindset through humor as she marched onward.

Cancer Survivor, Wonder Woman

Lisa continues to learn the facts regarding colon cancer and has made it her goal to create a better awareness of how important it is to be tested. It is the #2 cancer cause of death yet it is a highly preventable disease. She continues to find knowledge and comfort from the closed FB group “Colon Town” and with the help of “Meals 2 Heal.” Finding others who understand and are dealing with the same symptoms and procedures helps with the fear of the unknown. The deeply personal issues an individual goes through with any health or emotional affair can never be explained to someone who is not walking in the same shoes.

Colon Cancer Survivor Lisa Goldstein

Lisa’s doctor caught her cancer early and her prognosis is very good. Please get tested, eat healthy, stay active and be aware of changes within your body. Life is short, we all have so much to offer to others while we are here. The photos I shot of Lisa were taken before she had her surgery, she wanted to have a memory of the person she was in the beginning of her journey. On the outside today it is obvious Lisa has been through a battle, she has lost 20 pounds, often feels nauseous and gets tired very easy, that will change as her body starts to readjust from the end of chemo. On the inside she is forever changed from the person in these photos.

Although I wish my friendship with Lisa had not happened with a party marking a journey against cancer, I now feel grateful to have the honor of calling her my friend. She is definitely a fabulous woman, a wife, a mother and a beautiful person both inside and out who truly inspires others. In my eyes Lisa, like so many others who are dealing with cancer is a “Super Hero!” I hope that her story will help someone out there get tested early and perhaps save a life. I also hope it helps someone start a FB page to relieve the emotional impact one feels with the journey of having cancer, there is an immense amount of strength gained through the support and love of others. Tonight more than 150 people will come together to celebrate the end of Lisa’s battle, I can assure you there will likely be some Wonder Woman capes in the room!

Sheri Oneal and Lisa Palet GoldsteinI hope that you’ve enjoyed Lisa’s story and stay tuned for “Fabulous Women over 40: Ms. March!”

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