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Jill Hollander was born with a congenital heart defect that required her to have open-heart surgery when she was two years old.
Hollander turned her health journey — which included a second open-heart surgery, a heart transplant and cancer — into a career and built her own coaching company. She now helps others find “yes” when they are facing adversity.
She spoke with Jessica Abo about how she stays positive, strong and resilient during life’s most challenging moments, and how you can, too.
Jessica Abo: Can you tell us a little bit about your story?
Jill Hollander: I was born with a congenital heart defect — one so extreme that if I had been born ten years earlier, I would not be alive today. It’s thanks to medical science that the surgery was even possible.
I had to wait until I was strong enough to have the surgery. At age two, I was strong enough and had my first open-heart surgery and the surgery was a success. I helped to continue that success by developing a mindset of “healthy.” I decided to view myself as healthy. And my parents supported that view by allowing me to participate in all the same activities as my sister, who was not born with any health challenges. And my parents also modeled how to make my health a priority without allowing it to stop or define me.
Learning that I don’t have to let my health stop or define me set a strong foundation for some big “no” s that were to come. I needed to eventually have a second open heart surgery that I had at 16 years old. The surgery itself was a success, but I never recovered as expected. I went into a period of four years when my heart was slowly failing. Through that time I kept finding my “yes,” my big ones and my small ones, by staying connected to my friends, being part of the high school experience, going to the parties, going to the concerts and doing the things that made me feel like a regular high school student.
I also was getting some “no” s. I was going to need a heart transplant. I couldn’t even think straight when I heard this. As soon as we left that office and went home, I went into my room and I cried and I screamed and I yelled and I felt all my feelings. And I did that for three days. And then on the third day, I’d had enough. It was time for me to step through my fear and deal.
First, I took the step out of the room. Every time that I connected with my friends and I stayed part of the high school experience was me saying “yes” and saying “yes” to my life and living my life through all the “no” s. Then came the time when my heart had just gotten so weak and I needed to be in the hospital to be evaluated, to be on the transplant list. Then a huge “yes” came. Within two weeks of being on the list, I received the greatest gift of all, the gift of life. I was told that a heart might only last eight years. How was I going to plan for a future that I didn’t even know would possibly exist? I decided to live in the now, but plan for the future.
I live for the now by going on vacations and doing things that I love with my friends and creating a great network of friends, authentic friends. I also planned for a future when I decided to get my master’s degree in speech-language pathology. I planned for my future again when I created my practice as a speech-language pathologist. I also planned for my future when I started to really date. Dating with ongoing health challenges was something that scared me, but I walked past it and I kept going. I found someone that was such a great match for me.
What really solidified that was part of the transplant life is things come up. I have a low immune system and things happen. In 2012, I was diagnosed with transplant-related cancer. The person that was by my side was my then-boyfriend, my now-husband, every step of the way. Through these experiences, I also learned how I really want to live my life. Life is precious. How do I really want to live? What do I really want to be doing? That’s when I decided that I wanted to expand my business to include something that was really passionate to me by sharing my experiences with others and integrating it with my background and knowledge. I became a certified health coach and certified life coach. That’s how I now offer empowerment coaching and motivational speaking to others, to help others find their “yes” in a sea of “no” s.
What are your tips for those who are struggling with isolation?
Hollander: Number one. You can begin to shift your mindset by redirecting your thoughts. You can redirect your thoughts in many different ways. You can read a positive quote to start to help you to think more positively. You could get on a phone with a friend and connect and focus on the conversation that you’re having.
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Step number two is to begin to find, own and use your voice by shifting from your head-space to your heart-space, from your thoughts to your feelings. You could do that through creative outlets. It may be dancing. It could be painting. It’s whatever feels right for you.
Step three is to start to be resilient. Something I heard that I really liked was that resiliency is the ability to adjust to change. Right now, we’re all going through so much change. Find the person or people that can be in your support network, people that you can support and who can support you. If you feel that you need to reach out to a therapist or a coach to help you through this difficult time, that can help you to be resilient.
Number four. Identify the one problem that is impeding your life the most and start there. If you’re not sure what that is, I would suggest writing them all down. Then, on a scale of one-to-ten, give each one a number — one affecting you the least, and ten the most. The number that is closest to ten is the problem that you begin with.
Number five. Hope, cope and deal, taking one step in the direction where you want to go. Just one small step. With each step, you’ll see that you can cope. That is you coping. You can deal. And it’ll give you hope that you will slowly get through this challenge.