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Alone At The Desk - 29: Women Surviving the Pandemic

Two women with different struggles during the pandemic. Neither has to do with actually contracting COVID-19, but requires courage to get through it.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — At the time of this recording, we are in yet another wave of COVID-19, which has killed 632,000 Americans, according to Johns Hopkins University. That human loss will always be the worst part of the pandemic. When we look back on this dark time in history, it will be the people taking their last breaths from hospital rooms, struggling to say their goodbyes over FaceTime that we will remember most. Parents, grandparents, the young and old, having their lives cut short. In some ways, those deaths are worse now than they were in the first year of the pandemic, because now - they're mostly preventable because of safe, effective vaccines. But, that's for another episode. 

Today, we are talking about other aspects of life that have been adversely affected by COVID-19. Aspects of life that were difficult to begin with, but made far more complex by an invisible virus that continues to burn through the world without a definitive end in sight. We'll do this through the eyes and experiences of two separate women with with distinctly different challenges. 

I came across both of them while pursuing entirely different stories. But I saw a similarity in what they faced, and how they faced them. Their struggles began just before the pandemic. They were forced to deal with those struggles during the pandemic. Two women, surviving COVID-19. 

I'm Nick LaFave. This is Alone At The Desk.

Alone At The Desk. A podcast by an average, middle aged guy who just happens to be a TV news anchor. We talk exciting and the boring parts of life, the industry and life in the industry. And we cover some important stories along the way. Brought to you by 13 On Your Side News in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

You're listening to the West Michigan band, HOLLYWOOD MAKEOUT. One of its members is Erin Lenau. She says in the summer and fall of 2019 they'd been starting to have more success.

ERIN: We had been getting a lot of bigger shows and getting paid a lot more money at one time. And we had an album that we're trying to put out.

Days in general were really good for Erin and her partner, Cedric. Erin was an elementary teacher and a workout instructor.

ERIN: Well, usually, I would just wake up and go to the bar code, maybe teach there. I teach bar and boot camp at the bar code. And then I would go to work really early, like 7:30. That's, NOT super early, I guess. But 7:30 before school started, and then I spend my time with the kindergarteners for the full day. And then afterwards, about 4 o'clock I'd go home, maybe sometimes take another workout class or go straight home, clean the house, make dinner. 

It wasn't just the present that was good. The future was bright, too. Again, the band was doing well. She and Cedric planned on getting married. And she wanted to have a baby. Things changed in December.

ERIN: I had a break from work working at school, we had Christmas break, and so I always did self checks, self exams, self breast exams, just because my aunt had died of breast cancer around my age, and my father's sister, and I had to wait till that's okay. And I had tried to make sure that I was getting my breast exams and doing everything that I was supposed to for making sure that I didn't get it.

Erin already had an appointment set up to do genetic testing for the BRACA gene. The very day prior, she found a lump in her left breast. They immediately scheduled a biopsy.

ERIN: So I was stuck in a traffic jam. And they told me at like 5 o'clock. And the nurse said, she called and said, Are you alone? And I said, What? Because I already knew what she was gonna say, obviously. And she told me the news. And then I just was crying in the car by myself. Stuck in this traffic jam, which is terrible, because then everybody on the highway is like looking at you from the side and seeing that you're just like bawling. And just like, uncontrollably. She told me what it was and what type it was. But I didn't understand. She told me to remember, PR positive her to negative and I obviously didn't remember what she said when I got off the phone. So that's kind of the day that things changed for me.

The good news was, they caught it early. Stage 1B. But, there was more news, which Erin got exactly one week later.

ERIN: And I was really tired, like all the time. And you know, my chest hurt all the time. But I thought it was because of mammograms and things like that. And then when I told my co workers about it, they were like, No, that doesn't sound right. Like that sounds like something else. And I was like, well, it's probably because I'm so stressed and worried. And they were like, I don't think so. So I had found that I had cancer on a Tuesday. And then I took a pregnancy test before work on a Tuesday, which is a really bad idea, by the way, because you should not take a pregnancy test before you go to work. 

She did. And it was positive. 

ERIN: And my partner was in the shower at the time. And I just ran into his bathroom and said like, I'm pregnant and he we started didn't really talk. After that we sort of just were really quiet that morning. And I was shaking a lot and sweating a lot. And then I went to work and did my job. And but I had a student teacher so I just made her like teach for a while while I made a bunch of phone calls. So it was really good. She was probably one of the one of the first people to find out because she needed to know what was going on.

Clearly this wasn't how Erin imagined finding out she was pregnant. The cliché images of celebrating over a positive test and tears of joy were not at all what was happening. 

ERIN: I really thought that she was going to die or something was going to happen to the baby. And I've been wanting a baby for so long. I thought it was like the worst timing that could possibly be. And so I thought, nothing. I wasn't really excited. I was just scared. Everybody has thoughts when they're pregnant, about what their child's gonna be like, and I just thought I wasn't gonna be able to have her at all.

Erin and her doctors came up with a plan. That included waiting until her second trimester to do a mastectomy.

ERIN: By that point, that cancer traveled to my lymph nodes. So yeah, that kind of made it then became stage to be cancer for that reason.

Understandably, Erin was having a hard time. Even the first ultrasound with the baby was a struggle.

ERIN: They listened for her heartbeat. And I remember, my mom said, you're gonna want to record this moment. And I said, No, let's don't worry about it. Because I just thought, I don't know why now, I think it's really sad. But at the time, I just was so detached from being happy. I just wanted to be sad. I wanted to be angry, and I wanted to be upset. And I didn't want to enjoy it. 

After they took the breast, Erin developed an infection. A bad one. So much so that she had to wait even longer to start chemo.

ERIN: And my first chemo was on my birthday, actually, it was it's comical how it's how these things planned out. They were like, would you like to do it on May 15. I was like, okay.

Despite the cancer, despite the spread, despite all the fears, Erin's doctors reassured her that they'd seen this before, and many women have delivered healthy babies while themselves fighting cancer. And she was starting to get excited.

ERIN: I got the room ready. I am very much a planner. I'm a kindergarten teacher. So I plan things, you know, pretty. I'm very organized like to probably a fault. Like I'm obsessed with it sometimes. And it's a little bit much for my partner but so I was excited about like getting the clothes and sorting them by size and putting them in bins and labeling the bins and so I kind of kept myself busy from thinking about the bad things or the things that could happen by you know, cleaning and organizing and sorting and painting. 

On Aug. 8, 2020, Frances (Frankie) Mae Lenau came into the world, healthy and happy.

ERIN: I'm just excited about watching her grow and making sure that I teach her how to, you know, be kind to other people, especially people going through measurable difficulties. And that's kind of what I'm excited. I'm excited to raise somebody who's kind. That's what I'm excited about.

Today, Erin and Frankie are doing great. Erin just had reconstruction surgery, and Frankie recently turned 1. Her band, THE HOLLYWOOD MAKEOUTS has their next gig scheduled for the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Feb. 10, 2022. I haven't heard about any wedding plans with Cedric yet. But I also didn't pry.


Part two of today's episode. Again, a woman who's life was going through massive change before the world did. On the outside, Mindy Nowakowski had an idyllic life with her two daughters and her husband. 

MINDY: I was 16. So he was 17 at the time, and we started dating. We were high school sweethearts, and dated for nine years, and then got engaged. 

Mindy was a stay-at-home mom for a while. But, she had plans professionally.

MINDY: I've usually always worked at least part time. I actually chipped away for 15 years at a nursing degree. Slowly as I was raising my kids, I would take some gen-eds until the point where I got into the nursing program, worked my way into that and got to my last semester, my semester before my leadership, which is like your internship and failed the class by like, less than 2%. And that was my chance. That was my exit the program, I guess you could say, it was devastating.

Not long after that, her marriage ended. Mindy says there was no one, single driving event or issue that did. Like so many others, they just grew apart. But she said things have remained very good between the two of them.

MINDY: He's the most amazing dad. So lucky. I think like a lot of marriages, we just started drifting apart. There's nothing major that happened. Thankfully, on both ends, it was a very loving, peaceful divorce. And it's been like that even as co-parents. We put the kids first, that is our number one priority throughout the divorce and co-parenting now. And we are very, very proud of that. Very proud of that. 

As good as Mindy and her ex-husband were, Mindy was still now a divorced mom of two teenage daughters heading into a pandemic. She just didn't that last thing was a thing yet. Mind was a server at a local mom-and-pop restaurant.

MINDY: Well I think at first, like everybody, COVID seemed like a two-week, you know, like, okay, the kids are closing down school for two weeks, I'll be out of work for a couple weeks, and then we'll go back to life as normal. 

We all know now, things didn't got back to life as normal. On March 16, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sent down an order closing bars and limiting restaurants to carry-out only.

MINDY: I was at work and the news story hit. And I literally was sick to my stomach. Like everything flashed like before my eyes. I was like, What? I can't afford to not have any income coming in. So we were at work, and we looked up on the internet. And we saw that as of... it was like the next day they were mandating restaurants to shut down for in-person dining. 

It became very clear to Mindy very quickly, and she would need to pivot.

MINDY: I was very scared. Kind of panicking internally quietly. I just started looking at everything, bills that didn't seem like a big deal all of a sudden felt like a big deal. I I was trying to keep it together for my kids. You know, like, that's what you always try to do is put on a front. But I was scared. My boss, you know, like I said, it was a small mom and pop restaurant. And she had to run it by herself. Like there wasn't work for anybody else. She stayed open for to-go orders. But that was it. So I was at home. And very stressed, very anxious, just the unknown. You know, when you become a divorced mom, and take on all of that by yourself, you see things in a totally different perspective. So it just had me really thinking about, gosh, I think I need to be more prepared than I actually was for a situation like this. 

Her next move actually came from out of a moment of boredom, while she was sitting around her house.

MINDY: I happen to go on the marketplace one day and somebody was selling a Cricut machine. It's like a vinyl cutter. And I happen to see it and I was like, that would give us something to do while we were at home. You know, we could make shirts. It's just kind of as something to pass time it is like a hobby. 

She bought it. And started creating. Which paired perfectly with ambitions she'd had for quite a while. 

MINDY: So I've always wanted to be a business owner of some sort. I never know exactly what but I just knew I just had this passion of entrepreneurship and just really wanting to do my own thing. 

Her own thing was turning into a small clothing line. But it needed a name. 

MINDY: Worthy Girl Customs came from. Just I think anybody going through any kind of hard times and I know a lot of people relate with this of feeling worthy of so many things that can be a struggle for a lot of people. And I definitely had struggled with that for a long time. So when I was trying to think of a business name, when I decided that I was going to take it from a hobby or something that was just a distraction when I needed it, when I knew it was going to become more than just a side hustle. And I was trying to think of a name, it honestly came to me so easily because worthiness, that word worthy holds like a lot of heaviness on me. And one day, I was just like, were the girl, or the girl or the girl customs just kind of came to me really easily. And it just felt like it fit.

The concept of self-worth has become more and more important to Mindy as she's gotten older, as she's gotten divorced and as she she's herself now as a more independent woman and mother.

MINDY: One day, I caught myself in the mirror because I avoided the mirror for many years. And I like looked at myself, and it was like an awakening. And I was like, you know, this body has carried me through some really hard times in some really tough moments. Some moments when I didn't want to get out of bed and I was physically, emotionally exhausted. And I need to appreciate it for what it is, instead of saying negative things about it, I need to start looking at myself and just embracing all my imperfections, my stretch marks. Well, they're there because I carried to amazing humans, I'm proud of that. You know, my mom who was there because I grew to humans, you know, every imperfection. I think before, anytime I tried to diet or lose weight, I was missing the emotional connection of the weight loss journey. And now that I've really thought and understood that that has been the key for me is the connection of truly loving your body not from just a physical, your weight, the number all of that what you look like, but from truly like loving your body for everything. It's an abled body. I'm so thankful for that, so many people don't have an abled body. And just trying to spread the message to other women that are really struggling with that. That is one of my main goals is just to help other women really realize how amazing their bodies are and stop hiding behind the baggy, loose clothes and show your body for everything that's worth.

So she had her idea. She had her concept - about which she was passionate. But she didn't quite know how to get it off the ground. Again, she was starting from scratch.

MINDY: I research. The internet is an amazing thing. You know, googled How do I start a business. Went down to the Kent County Clerk's Office, registered my business, went online got a federal ID or tax ID number. just I took it step by step because the thought of it is very overwhelming. It can really it can weigh you down. So I just told myself step by step.

If she didn't know something, she Youtube'd it. And she found a Facebook group specifically for women entrepreneurs.

MINDY: Grand Rapids boss babes. It's a closed Facebook group. So women business owners, it is the most amazing group because it's full of like 3,000 women who are taking this journey of being a business owner of some sort. I mean, there's attorneys in there, there's makers, there's photographers, you name it, and they have been the most amazing resource if you need anything. Hey, I need this or Hey, I need advice on this. Everyone is always willing to chip in and help. So that's kind of how I started. 

And now, in addition to selling online at Worthy Girl Customs.com, she's selling some clothes and coffee mugs in two retail stores. We met for this interview at DreamScape Desserts in Comstock Park and Katie and Company in Newago.

MINDY: She also owns a company called out of the barn, and they do part of that, they do this ginormous pop up shop once a month. And it's just 70 plus vendors that all come together in her yard out in Allendale and set up their booth tents and showcase everything they've made. So I was able to do my first pop-up shop there this couple weeks ago, almost like an upscale private market. It is yes. It's amazing. Yeah. Very cool.

Mindy admits things are still slow. But there's forward progress. Her only frustration is things aren't moving faster. But, that's also not a deterrent. She's excited about where she's going. For her, and her daughters. 

MINDY: I think they've seen me try. They definitely seen me reach for my dreams and be a go-getter. I think that's been a very positive aspect on them how to treat a situation like that. Of course, they've seen me scared, mad, sad, you know, everything in between. But I'm hoping by me pushing through all these adversities and all of these things that have tried to knock me down. By staying upwards and moving forward. I'm hoping that I'm being an example to them that anything you put your mind to you can achieve. I truly believe if you have a dream. It's all about putting in the work. It's it's about putting in the work if you do that, I believe anything is possible. 

This has been Alone At The Desk with Nick LaFave. I'd like to thank my guests, Erin Lenau and Mindy Nowakowski. Check out Erin's band, Hollywood Makeout on their Spotify page. Mindy's website can be found at WorthyGirlCustoms.com. She also has a GoFundMe page. If you'd like to hear more episodes, you can find them on itunes, Spotify and SoundCloud. If you want to contact me, go to Facebook.com/nicknews, Twitter.com/nicklafave or email me at nicklafave@13onyourside.com. Thanks for listening.

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