Category Archives: RealSelf Stories

Cancer Took My Breasts. Reconstruction Helped Me Move On.

Pre-chemo hair shearing.

The week I started chemo, I got my hair shaved off and made into a wig.

Our employees have incredible backstories. Community Manager Mari Malcolm shares her experience with breast cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I’d just turned 35 when I found a lump in my right breast. My doctor told me I was so young that it was probably nothing. It took a few months before I admitted to myself I should probably get that optional mammogram.  

My original diagnosis was stage IV. Thankfully, I was really only late stage III, so I’m still here. But the tumor was so big and close to my chest wall they had to shrink it with five months of chemo before they could do the mastectomy. They took so much tissue, I was left with pretty much just skin over ribs.

The first time I peeled back the bandage, my knees buckled and I had to sit down, which my surgeon said was totally normal. Nurses would compliment me on the neatness of my scar, but I felt like I had been (very necessarily) mutilated.

I kept working through most of my treatment and recovery, often from the hospital. In an environment where showing weakness wasn’t a smart career move, I went to the office in a wig, missing eyebrows and eyelashes, trying to hide how tired I was with makeup.

I was honest about my cancer, but I wasn’t comfortable with most people knowing I’d lost my breast. For a year and a half, I wore a prosthetic pocketed into a bra and avoided low necklines.

Breast Reconstruction Isn’t a Given

Whenever I see stark black-and-white photos of breast cancer survivors baring their mastectomy scars, and I’m in awe of their badassery.

Choosing to live without breasts in this culture is an act of defiance and intense self-love. When I’ve talked with women who decided against reconstruction, they’ve told me that by the time they’d finished cancer treatment, they were sick of surgeries and just wanted to move on.

After five months of chemo, three surgeries, and six weeks of daily radiation, I understood this.

But also I suspected reconstructive surgery would help me move on in the way I needed to. In my oncologist’s waiting room, I’d met a fiftysomething woman in for a follow-up. She heard about my upcoming mastectomy and came this close to taking her top off to show me her new breasts. “Look, they’re so perky!” she enthused, giving them a squeeze.

After that, I knew if I made it to the other side, I’d get new breasts. I wanted a reality where I didn’t have to think about cancer every day. Continue reading

RealSelf Turns 10: Staffers Share How It’s Changed Over the Past Decade

Ten years ago, RealSelf launched in CEO Tom Seery’s spare room. Today, we’re a fast-growing company with over 130 employees located in Pioneer Square.

Getting from there to here has certainly been an interesting ride. From the early days of bringing your own fork to work (huh?), to champagne toasts of today, it’s been quite the journey. We have employees who have been here from the very beginning, to newbies who’ve only been here a few months. For our 10-year anniversary, we asked them to tackle two big questions: “What was RealSelf like when you started” and “What has changed the most?”

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RealSelf Community staff attend a Mariners game.

Sharon Walls, Community Engagement Manager

Years at RS: 10 

What was it like? RealSelf was still finding itself when I started. My first article was about SPF labels on sunscreen! The site was based around articles and first-person “as told to” stories. We were less focused on elective surgery and more focused on what women did to look their best.

Tom always had the mission to empower consumers through information.

What has changed? The site evolved from a single perspective (via articles), to having consumer reviews and doctor tips, which became the Q&As. I think the doctor involvement is what makes RealSelf truly unique. Consumers can get perspectives from fellow community members and also professional opinions from healthcare professionals all in one place.

Peter Krengel, Manager of Analytics

Years at RS: 3

What was it like? When I interviewed at the office near the ferry, they had just moved and there were half as many applicants as employees in the office that day because the phone lines hadn’t been installed yet.

What has changed? What’s changed the most is the sheer volume of work and progress the company is able to make on a daily basis. Going from 20 employees to 130 is nuts.

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Doctor Advisors at a spa day.

Maureen Ezekwugo, EVP Doctor Community

Years at RS: 6

What was it like? When I started in 2010, RealSelf was mainly unknown. Traffic was at 900K unique users a month, there were only about 1,000 claimed doctor profiles, our revenue model was fueled by Google AdSense, and Tom Seery carried a pink water bottle around to each meeting. There was no coffee at the office. No snacks, not even a fork.

You had to bring your own fork.

What has changed? Unique users have increased 10X, claimed doctor profiles are up over 12X, and we no longer have any reliance on Google AdSense to pay the bills. We have ample snacks, coffee and beer, a great following by both consumers and doctors, and Tom Seery has upgraded to La Croix and Talking Rain.

Most importantly, the talent and experience on our team has grown exponentially and continues to expand with some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with in my career.

realself-ragnar

RealSelf staffers ran Ragnar, a 200-mile relay race through the Pacific Northwest.

Meredith Russian, Manager, Administrative & Billing Operations

Years at RS: 6

What was it like? When I started, there were seven of us in the office. There were a very conservative amount of office supplies. No one had monitor stands, so we’d stack up reams of paper. The only office snacks were coffee (if Maureen made it) and Talking Rain. There were basically three departments: Sales (four people), then the Dev team (two), and Community.

What has changed? The biggest change has just been the displays of generosity from RealSelf to its employees. The bigger and more successful we’ve become, the more RealSelf has been able to bless its employees.

Charlie Chu, Doctor Advisor

Years at RS: 1

What was it like? I started in July in 2015 and instantly loved the atmosphere and culture. I think we were around 60 people, maybe less?

What has changed? We are growing so quickly and it is exciting! The Doctor Advisor team has grown and developed a ton. When I started, we only sold doctor spotlights. Now we have a new and improved model, invited non-core doctors, renewed almost all our doctors, added business pages, and new treatments.

I love how our team and company is able to grow, adapt, and make an impact!

Debra Gravelle, Doctor Advisor

Years at RS: 4

What was it like? I was the fifth advisor on the team, and it was a very close-knit group. Because I am remote they keep a hangout open so I was always with the team. Even on a bad hair day.

What has changed? The number of employees has increased so much in four years that when I make my quarterly visits I always think, “When did all of these people show up” So now I get to be on a hangout for meetings and trainings, but don’t show my face any more because a bad hair day is my new norm.

Anthony Mendonca, VP of Engineering

Years at RS: 5

rs-office-1
What was it like? Much smaller! This is a photo of the developers’ office, just enough room for the four engineers we had at the time. This wasn’t even the first office, just two months before this, we had one developer, and we were squished into an even smaller office with everyone else.

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What has changed? Aside from the growth itself, it’s been amazing to see how our culture has flourished with every new team member that’s come aboard. I’m happy to be a part of this family.

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CEO Tom Seery.

Tom Seery, CEO

Years at RS: 10

What was it like? I liked that I got to work with my wife for the first, and probably last, time.

What has changed? My perspective on our purpose. It was an idea to empower consumers, and now is one that is about delivering on our mission to instill greater confidence.

See more of our 10-year anniversary celebration via #RealSelfLife on Twitter, and be sure to check out our Careers page and learn more about how you can help shape our next 10. 

Continue reading

Giving Back: Celebrating the Start of School With a Treehouse Drive

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At RealSelf, we love to find ways to give back, and the Treehouse back-to-school donation drive seemed an especially great opportunity to contribute to our Seattle-area community.

An organization that supports foster children, helping to give them “a childhood and a future,” Treehouse has a strong focus on leveling the playing field for foster kids, so they can graduate on par with their peers.

A big part of feeling confident about going back to school is having appropriate gear and nice clothes. This year, Treehouse’s Wearhouse expects at least 900 kids and their foster families to come through its doors to prepare for fall classes.

During our two-week donation drive, we collected over 80 backpacks and 70 items of clothing.

There’s still time to help! If you’d like to host a donation drive or make a gift, contact Treehouse.

Learn more about RealSelf and all our giving efforts, including our new Fellowship for doctors. 

At Nordstrom and RealSelf, Women Regain Power by Knowing Their Options

In my early 20s, I worked in the Nordstrom lingerie department at the flagship store in downtown Seattle. I learned many things. I could gauge cup sizes by eye and provide perfect bra fittings. I listened with empathy as customers confided in me about their body-image issues, and I could read between the lines to better serve their needs.

And as manager of the Nordstrom Prosthesis Program, I learned to help empower women who were dealing with breast cancer.

Most women had recently had mastectomies. They’d already faced incredibly difficult decisions, most of which needed to be made quickly. Should they have both breasts removed, even if their cancer was only on one side? Would they go through the rest of their lives with no breasts, get prosthetic breast forms to pocket into their bras, or have reconstructive surgery — and if so, what kind?

I knew I couldn’t answer any of these intensely personal questions; my mother had recently undergone this life-altering process, and no one could make these decisions for her. But her experience made me realize how much room for improvement there was in raising women’s awareness of the wonderful services that can bring some sense of normalcy to one of life’s most difficult situations.

Even when survival is the primary focus, prosthesis programs like Nordstrom’s can play a huge role in supporting these women as they figure out which type of breast forms, bras, shirts, and other clothes will work for them going forward.

My mom was given detailed information about her medical care, but she received only a simple pamphlet about post-surgery garments. She had so many questions about where to buy bras, what to expect, and what insurance covered. I found it surprising that her doctors didn’t explain all the options before sending her on her way.

Once I started working with the Nordstrom prosthesis program, I told my mom about what she had been missing out on. She teared up when she learned she could still wear beautiful lingerie, sport bras, swimsuits, and much more by having a pocket (an extra layer of material, often with small snaps along the top) sewn into the cup to hold a prosthetic breast form. Many department stores, including Nordstrom, offer alterations like these free of charge with a bra purchase.

My most significant takeaway from my time there is that everyone has insecurities about their bodies. This has become even more obvious to me at RealSelf, as I read the stories of our community members. Everyone is striving to find more confidence, and everyone’s path is different. Some buy new lingerie, others opt for cosmetic surgery, and others embrace their body the way it is. Either way, we’re lucky to live in a world where we can make choices that help us feel more confident in our own skin.

Finding a community of like-minded people is so important, especially when you’re facing breast cancer. While support groups exist, it can be challenging to get up the courage and energy to attend, no matter how many questions a person might have. That’s why RealSelf is so wonderful: it allows people to ask questions and learn more wherever they are, without being fully exposed.

I wish I had known about the rich RealSelf community while I was at Nordstrom. Many of the random, difficult, and important questions I was asked could have been answered by RealSelf doctors, or by other women going through similar experiences and navigating tough decisions, from researching procedures to healing.

Sarah’s Top 5 Tips for Post-op Bra Fitting

  1. Work with a fit specialist. Ask for someone specifically certified in fitting prostheses.
  2. Go wireless for at least six weeks after surgery to protect your incisions as they heal.
  3. Buy bras made of soft material — the softer the better, since skin is often sensitive after surgery and radiation.
  4. Unlined, soft-cupped bras are best for pocketing and provide the most natural look with a prosthetic.
  5. A full-coverage bra will support the prosthetic and keep it in place.

Learn more about the Nordstrom Prosthesis Program in the company’s video below:

Sarah Williams is a Recruiting Coordinator at RealSelf who previously worked at Nordstrom in the Prosthesis Program. RealSelf is not officially associated with Nordstrom.

RealSelf is No. 5 on Seattle Business Magazine’s Top Midsize Companies List

Seattle Business magazine revealed its “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, and we made a huge leap to snag the No. 5 spot on the midsize companies list, up from No. 24 in 2015.

Our ranking was based on employee surveys that covered 10 categories: benefits, communication, corporate culture, hiring/retention, executive leadership, performance standards, responsibility/decision making, rewards/recognition, training/education, and workplace environment.

While we have a lot of nice perks, like ample snacks and a dog-friendly office, Seattle Business magazine wrote this about why our workplace landed us on the list: “Employees are encouraged to innovate, even if that leads to failure.” They also noted our “no jerks allowed” policy: “We look for people who leave ego at the door,” our CEO Tom Seery told Seattle Business.

It’s our second year in a row making the top 100. This year, we made a big commitment to strengthening benefits and culture as our company grew to 100 employees, making us one of the fastest-growing companies in Seattle. We grew 100% year over year, from 50 employees in 2015 to around 100 now — and we’re still growing.

Winners were announced at the 100 Best Companies to Work For Awards on June 23 at the Washington State Convention Center.

Want to spend your days at one of the best places to work? Join our team.

Building a Culture of Confidence: Why I Joined RealSelf as VP of People

Lauren
Starting in the fall of 2010, I helped build a company called
Year Up Puget Sound from three people to 50, with a focus on developing new leaders. It was my third startup, and I thought my favorite part of that experience was building something from scratch, taking a great idea and putting legs on it.

Five years later, I did it again with Canopy, where I was employee number 1. But a year in, I realized I really missed developing people, specifically new managers.

I had a bee in my bonnet about empowering people through access to information. And I wanted to develop new managers and support a company as it went from being pretty flat to having new layers of leaders.

When I first heard about RealSelf, it didn’t really resonate personally. After talking with CEO Tom Seery, I did more research and, frankly, I talked to my mom. I was looking for a moral compass, asking “Does this align with my values?”

My mom’s almost 60. She’s still in the workforce, competing with millennials. She said, “You know, I’m having to get on these video conferences, and the picture of me that comes up on the screen I don’t even recognize. I don’t know who that old lady is, but she doesn’t reflect who I am as a person and the energy I have. I know people judge me based on what they see, and I have been looking for permission to say ‘That’s not me.’ And I want to be able to make really informed, empowered decisions about how I show up.” That was a pivotal moment for me.

I thought too about my previous nonprofit life, and how so many young people I’d met were going through major gender identity transitions with such poor access to information, at a time when they were launching their careers and really needed to feel confident. It became abundantly clear to me how needed this is.

I realized that I had an opportunity to shape how this company—which helps millions of people make confident choices—instills confidence in its employees. I was sold.

I had really frank conversations with Tom about whether he wanted a traditional HR person. That’s a direction they could have gone. But someone with that background might freak out about the kinds of conversations that have to happen here and what’s on everybody’s computer screens. We came to mutual agreement that the company really needs a builder who can take a more nuanced approach.

In these first weeks, I’m doing a lot of learning. There’s a lot to be done, from jump-starting employer branding to creatively reinventing performance reviews. But the uniquely strong culture and talented people make these challenges so exciting.

A few years ago, I challenged myself to try out for the women’s professional soccer team here in Seattle. Even though I was one of the oldest on the pitch, I managed to survive all three rounds of cuts. They didn’t end up picking anybody up from the tryouts, but it was one of those moments when you push yourself past what you think is possible. You only really need one experience like that to discover a well of self-efficacy.

My goal at RealSelf is to give every employee the opportunity and support they need to push themselves and gain the confidence that comes from raising our collective bar.

Lauren Sato joined RealSelf as VP of People in April 2016. Find out more about our unique culture and see our open roles

A Lucky Day in Dehradun: Helping Burn Victims Find New Potential

Nitish and Dr. Kush
Sarah Durkee, a UX designer at RealSelf, was chosen to join ReSurge International on a trip to Dehradun, India, to help those in need of reconstructive surgical care.
Read the first and second parts of her story.

The morning after clinic day, my team met in the hotel restaurant at 6 a.m. Over breakfast, we talked about how everyone slept, with every answer the same: “I woke up at 2 a.m.” This would become our daily routine.

As I ate, the previous day ran through my head. I worried I’d taken too many photos of some of the patients. How did they feel when I asked to see their disfigured hands, or when I zoomed in on their scarred faces? I’d seen so many people with so many deformities that I sometimes didn’t recognize them when they found me later to say they’d been approved for surgery.

Several people came up to me and asked what could be done about their injuries. I would tell them I’m not a doctor, but they didn’t seem to care. They would ask again. “Will surgery help my daughter? Will this scar go away?” I wished so badly there was something I could do to help. I thought about all the information I’m exposed to every day on RealSelf. Unlike me, most of these people have no information at all. They have no way of knowing what their options are or what it could cost or where they can be treated.

Father and Daughter at the Clinic

I couldn’t help but wonder if the doctors were also running through the previous day in their minds. Did they wish they could have done more? Did they regret that a particular patient wasn’t able to be granted surgery? Did they worry they had made a mistake? As I listened to them talk, they confirmed my concerns. They wished they’d written something else down on a chart or that asked different questions. They obviously cared deeply about doing things right.

When we arrived at the hospital, we were told the first patient hadn’t shown up. Did they change their minds? Were they just too scared? Dr. Kush knew of someone local who was in need of surgery. He contacted them to tell them that if they could make it to the hospital, he could fit them in.

Less than an hour later, a familiar face arrived: the same little boy who’d been introduced on the first day. Though Nitesh had already undergone one surgery to correct the burns on his legs, there was still some scar tissue around his groin that prevented him from going to the bathroom normally. Today was a lucky day. Because of that cancellation, he’d finally be able to get the surgery he needed to be fully healed.

Nitish and His Dad at the Cllinic
Shortly after Nitash’s surgery began, I was told I’d be making a trip up to Jangle Mangle, a permanent ReSurge clinic run by Kush’s father, Dr. Yogi Aeron. Typically, this is where the surgery camp takes place, but this year they decided to make it more accessible in the center of town.

I had heard a lot about Jangle Mangle. It’s a medical clinic set on a five-acre garden in the mountains of Dehradun, with room to feed and house people while they’re receiving medical care. Dr. Yogi led us in through a small hallway that opened up into a modest living room. Behind that room was another, just large enough to fit a bed, where he could catch a few hours of sleep during overnight stays.

Down another light-filled hallway was the an operating room with marble walls, a stark contrast to the one we’d seen at the clinic. Past the operating room was a large open air studio, where Dr. Yogi made plaster casts of his patients before surgery. Past that was a large covered porch with a row of beds and a view of the valley below. Patients stayed here as they received their care.

A Girl and Her Dad at Jungle Mangle
Each part of the property was more magical than the last. There were fish tanks that had been made into kaleidoscopes, where fish became a living part of the geometry. There were giant metal structures used to train trees, twisting them into topiaries. Dr. Yogi had even created an elaborate tree house for his guests, with the plan to one day add a staircase, washbasin, and fresh fruit you could pick from inside.

Dotting the edges of the property were small, simple huts overlooking the ravine. These huts provided homes for a few former patients who needed a job or a place to live. Perhaps these people were rejected by their families after being disfigured, or their injuries had left them unable to work. No matter the cause, they had nowhere else to go. Here, they’re given work and a place to stay, often helping out new patients in need.

Jungle Mangle
I imagined 100 years from now, people being taken on tours of the garden. The guides would tell the story of a man and his clinic, which drew people from all over the region in the hopes that they could be healed. Maybe they still would.

“No one has an appreciation of things that are unfinished,” Dr. Yogi told me. “No one has any imagination to see what something could be.” Although he’s 75, the doctor’s work is far from finished. Just as his garden is a work in progress, so are his patients. He can imagine the potential of what they can become through reconstructive surgery, even when they or their families cannot.

* * *

The next morning, the doctors reported that they’d completed six successful surgeries at the clinic. Scars on necks, arms, legs, and hands — scars that had often led people to be rejected by their communities — had all been repaired with skin grafts and flaps. More important than the physical changes were the mental and emotional transformations. Through the work of ReSurge and its doctors, these people had a new sense of who they are and what they can become.

— Sarah

 

 

 

Clinic Day in Dehradun: Afraid to Look, Afraid to Look Away

India Crowd
Sarah Durkee, a UX designer at RealSelf, was chosen to join ReSurge International on a trip to Dehradun, India, to help those in need of reconstructive surgical care.
Read the first part of her story here.

The first day at the hospital is “clinic day,” when doctors and staff evaluate hundreds of patients who’ve shown up in hopes of receiving free, potentially life-changing surgery. It’s an emotional day, filled not only with stories of tragedy, but of having to decide who can be treated and who must be turned away. More than 500 people showed up to be seen, roughly 400 more than we’d expected.

Little Boy Treated for BurnsOur van pulled up to the hospital to a waiting crowd. Hundreds of faces stared as we were escorted to a stage. Dr. Kush Aeron, one of the local doctors and a director of ReSurge’s Surgical Outreach Program in Dehradun, addressed the audience in Hindi. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I noticed everyone looking around at others in the crowd. That’s when a little boy and his father began to make their way to the front.

I later learned that the child had undergone a previous surgery performed by Dr. Kush to correct the damage a fire had caused to his legs. The burns formed webs of scar tissue behind his knees, causing his legs to be permanently bent. Before his surgery, he’d been unable to walk. Now he was just like any other child.

After these introductions, we were escorted through glass doors with the words “Operation Theater” above in red paint. Behind the doors was a large room with a series of smaller rooms opening into it: the examination room, the break room, the OR. Walking into the operating room, we were met with an overpowering smell of disinfectant. There was a large sink that was more brown than white, with three faucets dripping into it.

Operating Theater and Sink

We ripped open the boxes of medical supplies that had shipped along with us, while the head nurse scrubbed down the OR. Before we were even ready, the first patient walked through the door. She was so badly burned and disfigured that I was afraid to look her, but I was also afraid to look away. Her skin was shiny, with thick threads of scarred flesh running across her face and down her neck. Her mouth was pulled open, her bottom teeth permanently exposed, and her scarred hands forced her fingers into the appearance of claws.

SanjanaAs the day wore on, the rooms filled with people and lines snaked out the doors. The smell of bodies overwhelmed the space. Doctors and prospective patients were all tired from their travels. Some from mountain villages had traveled for a day or more to get there. Many brought their families with them, some with deformities of their own. During the examinations, they were asked about their medical history, mostly to determine if they were healthy enough to be placed under general anesthesia. It quickly became clear that the majority of these people had never been to a hospital before. Many were born at home and had never had any medical care at all.

As the doctors continued with the screenings, members of the Indian media interviewed the hospital staff and people on our team. As I looked around at the cameras flashing from the local press and faces lit up with bright lights for television interviews, I realized we were a part of something big here. For weeks it had been advertised on flyers all around town. Hundreds of little pieces of paper with before and after photos and information about the “surgery camp” were scattered across Dehradun.

Indian Media
Eventually, things began to settle down. The doctors worked their way through hundreds of patients, while I wandered through the waiting crowd. As I smiled to the people who had traveled all this way to get here, I was struck by the warmth and sincerity I received back. I remembered a friend telling me about the traditional Indian greeting, Namaste, meaning “The goodness in me bows to the goodness in you.”

India ExaminationsBack in the “Theater,” doctors would occasionally step into the makeshift break room, a small set-up with a few chairs and a gurney, where they could catch a few minutes of peace from the chaos of the day. They were sleep-deprived, hungry, and felt they were getting behind. Never before had they had this many people show up for a clinic day. They expected 100 and got five times that amount. They were faced with having to accept the possibility that they might not be able to see everyone in need.

In my last walk through the crowd, I caught a glimpse of someone’s disfigured hand for a brief moment before it was tucked away behind the drape of a shawl. I slowly realized that many of these burned faces were hidden behind headscarves and veils. Scalps that once had hair were covered with hats. Many of these patients were living their lives in the shadows, hiding the shame of their deformities.

At the end of the day, I packed up and got ready to leave, but the doctors and medical staff were still working hard. Some of the patients had pushed their way through the glass doors and into the examining room, restlessly waiting to find out if they’d be able to get surgery.

Later, I asked one of the doctors how the day went. He said that the true test would come tomorrow. “The first surgery is always the hardest,” he told me. “If something’s going to go wrong, it will be then.” We were all going to have to wait and see.

— Sarah

India Scars

 

The Longest Day Is Only the Beginning: Seattle to Dehradun With ReSurge International

IndiaSarah Durkee, a UX designer at RealSelf, was chosen to join ReSurge International on a trip to Dehradun, India, to help those in need of reconstructive surgical care. She’s pictured here (third from left) at the airport with the volunteer team of doctors and staff.

We traveled more than 36 hours to reach Dehradun. At 36, I stopped counting. There were four flights and a van ride, and it was an adventure, to say the least. But before I tell you about my purpose in coming here, I feel like I should tell you how I got here in the first place.

I never thought I’d go to India, and I definitely never thought I would experience it with a humanitarian organization. I feel honored to be here, witnessing what I am. I feel exceptionally lucky to be an employee of RealSelf, a company that feels so strongly about helping people — people on the other side of the world whose problems could more easily be ignored.

Through ReSurge International, a nonprofit organization that provides reconstructive surgical care in developing countries, RealSelf sponsored a team to travel to India. This group of plastic surgeons, nurses, and other volunteers donated their time and talents so those who have been severely scarred due to burns and accidents can be given much-needed medical care.

The night before I came, serendipitously, I met an Indian woman who described her home country as raw. She told me I’d see some of the poorest people I would ever see — many missing limbs and begging for food — right next to those whose lives oozed opulence. I forgot these words before boarding my plane to Dubai, but my experience on that first leg of the trip served as a stark contrast to what I would later see.

The plane itself was a double-decker, advertised as “the largest in the world.” Stairs reached up into a second level, where first class passengers enjoyed private suites complete with showers and a butler. (Or so I heard. I wasn’t actually allowed up there.) Even for those of us who didn’t shell out $20,000 for a plane ticket, economy was unlike any other I’ve experienced. We were given warm towels, served more food than we could eat, and provided other conveniences like sleep masks, toothbrushes, and 14-inch LED screens to watch any of the hundreds of movies available.

After more than 20 hours, four movies, and a plane-swap in Dubai, we touched down in New Delhi. I immediately noticed something different about the air. There was a heaviness to it — almost a smokiness — and a slight haze I couldn’t quite place.

When we stepped outside, it was still night. (It had been night for us for nearly 24 hours.) Local time was 2:40 a.m., though you never would’ve guessed it given all of the activity happening outside the airport. Horns blared, people crowded at the entrance, and men tried to carry our luggage so they might earn a small tip.

That’s when I realized what was different about the air. Through the glaring airport lights, the sky hung heavy with smog, a thick gray curtain that capped visibility at 20 meters.

A shuttle took us to the domestic airport, where we waited another eight hours for our next flight. We boarded a small twin-engine plane, where flight attendants served Dixie cups of water on a plastic tray. Finally, we landed in Dehradun.

The van that picked us up didn’t have enough seats, so two members of the group sat on the floor. As we sped past motorbikes and dodged oncoming traffic, I stared out the window, taking everything in. Hundreds of small shacks cobbled together from scraps lined the street. There were people selling snacks and produce, while others sold hot food cooked over stoves made from barrels. Judging by appearances, most of the people in this area were extremely poor.

We arrived at our hotel, where we dragged ourselves and our luggage upstairs to our rooms. I plopped myself on the bed and stared mindlessly at my phone for a few minutes. Then the lights went out. It was midday, but I was sitting in complete darkness. I realized my room had no window. I got up, found the door, and went up to the roof of the hotel. I gazed out over the tops of trees and the buildings of Dehradun. They looked abandoned, like modern ruins surrounded by jungle.

I wandered outside, where there were no sidewalks, just clumps of haphazardly parked vehicles and piles of garbage and rubble. I wove in and out of parked motorbikes, occasionally being pushed out into oncoming traffic. Within a few feet, I saw a bearded man sitting at the side of the road hunched over a fire. There was a blanket spread out on the ground nearby. I wondered if he lived there, if he called the side of the street his home. I contemplated giving him money, but kept walking. I felt guilt wash over me. I told myself I’d check on him the next day to make myself feel better about doing nothing to help.

I went back to the hotel to have dinner, where I kept nodding off at the table. The next day would be clinic day, where all of the people who traveled — some for days — in hopes of getting treatment would be screened by the surgical team. We’d have to get an early start so the doctors could have a chance at seeing the hundreds of people who needed surgery. I excused myself from the table and I walked to my room, where I poured myself into bed. The longest day I’d ever had was over, but I knew this was just the beginning of what’s sure to be a life-changing experience. I hope you’ll follow along with me in the coming days.

— Sarah

ReSurge Transformations Gala 2015

RealSelf Supports Global Humanitarian Efforts at the 2015 ReSurge Transformations Gala

It’s not every day you get to wear a ballgown to work. But that’s exactly what I did the night of Saturday, October 10, when RealSelf CEO Tom Seery generously invited me and five other RealSelf employees to join him at the annual ReSurge International Transformations Gala in San Francisco.

One of the cultural values we’re most proud of at RealSelf is the company’s commitment to giving back. As a partner of the medical aid nonprofit ReSurge, RealSelf has raised more than $159,000 to bring reconstructive surgical care to the developing world, including a trip last year to Vietnam. This year’s destination: Dehradun, India.

When Tom first announced the 2015 trip, he had a surprise: One RealSelf staff member would accompany RealSelf TV’s executive producer to see ReSurge’s work in person. Tom’s the first to admit he was surprised by the overwhelming response for an opportunity that, while unarguably life-changing, involves thousands of miles of travel, weeks away from the office, and (perhaps most daunting) airports over Thanksgiving weekend. Despite the huge commitment, 14 people applied.

ReSurge Transformations Gala 2015

RealSelf staff members Elizabeth and Grayson join CEO Tom Seery at the gala.

Weeks of deliberations narrowed the field to a final choice (you’ll hear more in coming months), but our leadership team was so wowed by the response that they offered the others a consolation prize. That’s how I and five other employees found ourselves at a three-course dinner at the Four Seasons in downtown San Francisco.

While not everyone could make it, those who did will tell you the 2015 Transformation Gala lived up to its name. Throughout the evening, ReSurge shared images of men, women, and children whose lives have been forever changed by one short visit from a plastic surgeon. Former patients took to the stage to share their stories, and at one point, the auctioneer had to pause to thank the room for the overwhelming outpouring of support.

Ultimately, ReSurge raised hundreds of thousands of dollars — some of it from our own table — to fund transformative work all over the world.

It was an evening that celebrated what many of us at RealSelf already hold dear: the transformative power of surgery and how confidence can impact a person’s quality of life.