true WELLth Podcast: Sharon Epperson Episode Transcript

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Announcer:

The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Brighton Jones is the financial wellbeing firm that helps you align your wealth, your passions, and your purpose. Learn more about how you can live a richer life at BrightonJones.com.

Sharon Epperson:

I was at what I thought was the top of my game professionally, and I was preparing for the busiest fall of my career in the fall of 2016, and then it all came to a full stop. So now my focus is in every moment to be present in that moment and appreciate that moment, to be mindful of what I’m doing in that moment. I’m mindful of what others are feeling in that moment also, and to be so grateful that I’m here to experience that moment, because you just never know when things can change.

Manisha Thakor:

Hello, I’m Manisha Thakor and welcome to season two of the true WELLth podcast. As we tape this episode we’re in the midst of the global COVID-19 panic, and thus this episode is particularly poignant as it deals with the way in which a severe health issue can throw your entire life as well as your families into one heck of a tailspin. Today we’ll be talking to an exceptional woman who in September 2016, sustained a ruptured brain aneurysm and nearly lost her life. She shares with us the personal and financial lessons that she took away from this completely unexpected experience.

Sharon Epperson:

In September 2016, I was going to the gym, I was working out exercising and I was stretching. I wasn’t doing anything too hard with, but I felt the worst sensation in my life. I felt the worst headache, the worst sensation in my head that I’ve ever felt before, just in the middle of doing a stretch and I decided that I needed to get out of that studio as fast as I could, get out of the exercise studio and I went straight to my car and then I realized that I couldn’t really turn my head, and the pain and the sensation that I felt was so excruciating and I said… I texted my husband in all caps and I said, “You need to come get me, this is where I am I can’t drive.”

Manisha Thakor:

Who is speaking? Our guest today is Sharon Epperson, CNBC’s senior personal finance correspondent. Sharon has been named one of 12 to watch in TV news and for years has been seen regularly on CNBC, NBCs today show and NBC nightly news and a wide range of other media platforms including the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and many others. To give you a sense of just how wide the respect is for Sharon’s work, during president Obama’s administration she was asked to the white house to speak about financial literacy, and to moderate a public meeting of the president’s advisory council on financial capability at the U S treasury department. Sharon earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and her masters from Columbia. You get the point, when Sharon said at the start of this podcast that she was at the top of her game professionally and was preparing for the busiest fall season of her career, she was talking about a career that many only dream of. I could go on and on about Sharon’s accomplishments, but let’s get back to her personal story and what we all can learn from her harrowing experience.

Sharon Epperson:

This is where I am, I can’t drive. Thankfully he was local and he was able to get me pretty quickly, and he took me home and told me to put my feet up… and note to self, I should have gone straight to the ER at that moment but I didn’t know. I thought I had just had a really bad headache or something, but it wasn’t like any headache I’d ever experienced before. So I went home I put my feet up, I had some coffee felt very, very nauseous and my husband said, “Definitely tell work you can’t come in today I’m taking you to the doctor.” The primary care physician that I saw got me immediately to the emergency room, and there I had a CT scan at the local hospital and it showed bleeding in my brain.

Manisha Thakor:

Oh, my heavens you and your husband must have been so scared. What happened after the CT scan?

Sharon Epperson:

That’s when I started to go more in and out of consciousness. I knew that was something bad and I also knew from this local hospital telling me that they couldn’t even deal with that situation at that hospital, and I had to go to another facility that it was something that was very serious, but I didn’t really have a sense of how serious it would be and exactly what it means to have a ruptured brain aneurysm. That it was a critical artery in my brain that had literally exploded, and it had to be repaired quickly every moment counted and when I got to the hospital I had… I went into emergency surgery. I had open brain surgery and I have two clips in my head that repaired that ruptured artery and stopped it from bleeding. I’m told that the imaging since then has shown that I don’t have any others, any other balloon like things that could burst which is what an aneurysm is, but it was a very, very touch and go situation for the two weeks that I was in the intensive care unit.

Sharon Epperson:

During that time I was not able to sit up. I was not able to of course walk or anything like that.

Manisha Thakor:

So after spending 14 days in the ICU, what happened next?

Sharon Epperson:

So after those two weeks I had to learn how to walk again, I went to a rehab hospital for two weeks. Me learning how to walk, keep my balance, climb upstairs. I had speech therapy, I had occupational therapy as well as physical therapy, and after a month in hospital I was able to go home. But that was just the beginning of a long recovery process where I was unable to walk upstairs in my house. So I was relegated to the first floor and having to… my job during those few months of recovery when I was at home was to get to an outpatient rehab center, and to do the rehab that I had to do. So it was a long process and I’m so fortunate be here because the statistics are that half of people that have a ruptured brain aneurysm die instantly, and two thirds of them have serious neurological deficits. I’ve had deficits but none that prevent me from walking or prevent me from speaking. So I find myself extremely fortunate to have suffered what I did but still be able to do what I’m doing now.

Manisha Thakor:

Sharon, how old were you when all this happened?

Sharon Epperson:

I was 48 years old. The other thing that is important to know is that I didn’t have some of the common risk factors that are… that create a higher incidence of having an aneurysm or a ruptured aneurysm. I didn’t have high blood pressure, I don’t smoke, my cholesterol is great and it was great at that time, I exercise, I try to eat right and I didn’t have a history of having headaches or migraines or anything like that. What I did have were the demographic risk factors of being someone who is between 35 and 60, someone who was a woman, women are more likely than men to have an aneurysm and to be African-American because African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to have an aneurysm rupture. So all of those things statistically were not in my favor.

Manisha Thakor:

Sharon, you have deep expertise in personal finance. You’ve written a highly allotted book called the Big Payoff, which was a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award which honors works that have changed the lives of millions. How did all this time in hospitals, rehabilitating physical therapy and what I imagined was a plethora of followup doctor visits during your recovery period affect you financially?

Sharon Epperson:

So one of the most frustrating parts of being on medical leave and being ill was dealing with the financial issues surrounding it. I’d planned and I had planned well for the worst case scenario. So I had great medical insurance, disability insurance. The problem was dealing with the insurance companies in terms of paperwork, in terms of making sure I had all the forms in and that all of my providers also got the forms in and in a timely manner. So that I could get disability payments on time, to figuring out how that payment schedule work which was very different than my pay schedule… my payroll as an employee from my company. So it was a very, very frustrating time and I think when someone is ill, particularly with a brain injury requiring loads of paperwork to be filled out is just not what we’re really capable or are really best suited to do.

Manisha Thakor:

Oh, that could not have been pleasant to put it mildly. What advice do you have for listeners from this experience?

Sharon Epperson:

I would urge people to also… even if you have not gone through the [inaudible] planning of having a healthcare proxy or power of attorney, have a person in mind that can be your advocate and can help you. So, while my husband is my healthcare proxy and my sister is the successor, she lives out of town and it took me just being very vulnerable with a close friend and neighbor to say, “Listen, I know that you’re really, really good about paperwork and getting bills paid and also talking to people and making sure that you negotiate, or advocate for yourself when it comes to healthcare and other type of bills, can you help me?” And so she would come on Sundays for a month at least, maybe a couple months and we’d go through the bills because when I was in the hospital, my husband was so focused on making sure I was okay and all of that and that nothing was [inaudible] There were no bills, they were all paid so thank goodness for auto-pay and all of that to make sure that the bills were paid on time.

Manisha Thakor:

So that’s how you handled the bills that were coming in. What was your experience with activating disability insurance?

Sharon Epperson:

When I came home and it came time to apply for the longterm care, it was the longterm disability insurance I had to apply for social security disability, all of that. It’s very, very frustrating and very humbling, and I know that there are… as reporters we do stories on scams now and then and there are people that are out there to try to scam the system. But as someone who is a survivor, I would never wish what I went through on anyone and I would never, never try to save it. It was any worse than what it was cause it was bad enough. So having to then document everything and kind of feel like I had to prove my every request or my request for having this and qualifying for this insurance, it was just… it was difficult. It was very difficult.

Manisha Thakor:

Oh, my gosh. Questioning just how sick you were and having to document it over and over again, when you just had brain surgery. Okay, that’s nuts. How did you make it through all of that?

Sharon Epperson:

I think you just have to have a great team. You have to have a great team and part of that is how you live your life today when everything’s great, and being that friend, being that colleague that people can go to, being… even if that’s not normally your personality try to be more open, try to be more friendly, try to be more understanding whether it’s with your colleague, your employee, your supervisor, your neighbor, you just never know all of those people were so key to my recovery and to helping me join my recovery. I had a great village in my town, I had a great village of people that all stepped up and cooked meals for my family, took me to doctor’s appointments. I remember in dealing with one of these disability insurance issues, my provider had written something that seemed to allude to the fact that I was a hundred percent fine after two months.

Sharon Epperson:

And it was that my surgery had gone very, very well, and it was really… he thinks and he thought at the time that I was 99% sure of never having a ruptured aneurysm again which is wonderful. That did not have anything to do with the recovery time of what had just occurred, and so we had to make sure that that was clear to the insurance companies. So, as I’m freaking out thinking I’m about to get denied this coverage, I had a friend that I called who was a breast cancer survivor, and she was working from home that day and she got in her car and she took me and spent two or three hours in the car as I went to the doctor’s office had another exam, had another report done that I could take to the… that I could send to the disability insurance company. So having that network of people was absolutely critical, and being humble enough and being vulnerable enough to ask for help with something I wasn’t… I hadn’t done really before, but I knew it was important for me to do not just for myself but for my family.

Manisha Thakor:

Sharon, if I recall correctly you touched on this in your book The Big Payoff, right?

Sharon Epperson:

So I’d say from the personal finance point of view, I’ve thought this for a long time and when I wrote my book over two years ago… 10 years ago rather, and one of the last chapter on leaving a financial legacy of strength was my favorite chapter. It was about estate planning and people were like that so morbid, why are you writing about this? Or why do you care about it? And then fast forward a little over 10 years after the book comes out and I have this huge medical emergency that if I hadn’t had some very key things in place, I would have… my financial life would have been ruined. So I urge everyone to consider and make sure that you draft a will. If you have children make sure you’ve assigned guardians, have a healthcare proxy or a healthcare power of attorney so that someone can make financial decisions…. can make healthcare decisions if you’re unable to do so have a general power of attorney, durable power of attorney for your finances.

Sharon Epperson:

So someone can make financial decisions for you if you are unable to do so. Also, make sure that you have a living will or an advance directive so that the decision to give you whatever type of support you may want or not want is already made by you, and that you don’t have to put that on a loved one to try to make that decision.

Manisha Thakor:

Sharon, as we put together this episode of the true WELLth podcast, we’re in a period of extreme market volatility and that’s top of mind for a lot of people. How does what you’ve just shared with us rank in importance to walking your portfolio drop 10, 20, 30% or more?

Sharon Epperson:

There are very few things we can do with our financial life to ensure that we are in a position of strength, but one that is nothing to do with market turmoil and has nothing to do with how disciplined you are with your saving and your spending, or whether you have credit card debt. The one thing that you absolutely have total control over is protecting your finances, is protecting what little or how much you have. So I think that part of financial planning is often overlooked but it’s so very important. So making sure you have disability insurance, life insurance and then those four key documents, your will, your power of attorney for healthcare, your power of attorney for finances and your living will. I think that if you are able to do that you should feel very strong even if you don’t have a ton of assets, you’re still in a position of financial strength that is far beyond many, many wealthy, wealthy people.

Manisha Thakor:

Sharon let’s shift gears and talk about how this affected the way you now think about your career. You and I are roughly the same age and so we both grew up professionally at a time where working 60, 70, 80 hours a week was considered normal, and even I’ll put this in air quotes, “a badge of honor,” and I’ve got to believe you put in exactly those types of hours to reach the stature you have in the industry today. What are your thoughts on the role of work in one’s life after your brain aneurysm?

Sharon Epperson:

I think young people… many of the young people I’ve met have a much better handle on how to… balance is not the right word, but how to fit work into their overall life plan and life journey. I think that it has to fit in it and it’s a part of your journey and it’s not the entire journey. So as much as you want to excel and as much as you want to maintain your employment, excel in your employment and build your brand, it’s very, very important to realize that that brand is not just about your occupation or your profession or your vocation. It’s also what you’re passionate about just in life. Maybe it’s reading, maybe it’s hiking, maybe it’s cooking maybe… but making sure that you fulfill yourself in other ways I think it’s really, really, really important. People look at professional success and professional excellence as success or as having really made it, and I just really would beg to differ that it’s not just about that.

Sharon Epperson:

There are a lot of people that have fantastic careers and terrific jobs, high powered professions that are very unhappy. So it’s important to make sure that you’re… think of your life holistically as work being a very, very important part but not being your whole life.

Manisha Thakor:

So against that backdrop, how is your life different today?

Sharon Epperson:

Well, I’ll just talk about what I do and how I structure my day now as opposed to before. The different things that I do now is I don’t wake up and immediately look at my phone for Twitter or emails from work or the news of the day. I look at my phone but I’m looking at a devotion or I’m looking at a prayer or I’m just taking a moment for… without my phone to take time just to be at peace and to just give thanks for waking up. Then throughout the day I do try to take moments that… where there’s no noise around me if I can, its difficult cause I work in a television newsroom but to be able to take just five minutes to take a walk away from my desk and away from my computer, away from the TV is very helpful.

Sharon Epperson:

Then I relish the times that I’m in the car when I can just listen to music and just… or just not listen to anything and just be in my own space and in my own head. I try to be mindful when I go to sleep of not having my phone near me, of not… I do like some of the meditation apps I do use them sometimes, but other times I find myself I’ve used it and then if I haven’t fallen asleep or I’m not sleeping enough yet, then I find myself grabbing the phone and looking at it. So I actually try to put the phone in another room and I read before I go to bed as a way to kind of calm myself and before I go to sleep. So I didn’t do any of those things really before it was just you get up you’re on, you hit the ground running and you go to sleep when your head hits the pillow cause you’re just so exhausted, but you checked in and sent an email right before he went to bed. I don’t do that anymore.

Manisha Thakor:

Sharon’s story is instructive on so many levels. My first takeaway is you never know when life is going to bite you in the [inaudible 00:19:54]. So be prepared to make the best of whatever might come. Of course, this is not a new idea, for example the ancient philosopher Epictetus spoke often of a concept he called a [marefati 00:20:05], a Latin phrase which means love of fate or love of one’s fate. In Sharon’s case rather than dwell on the pain of her experience she sought out different ways to live her life, including paying it forward with something we didn’t have time to go into in our podcast conversation. Specifically in September 2018, she and her family established the Sharon Epperson Chair of Research through the Brain Aneurysm foundation, to provide grants for research and early detection and innovative treatments. My second takeaway is from a financial viewpoint, and that is how very, very important it is to have all the essential estate planning documents in place and ensure you have appropriate disability insurance for your situation before you ever need them.

Manisha Thakor:

As Sharon pointed out while we can’t control the markets, we can control our preparedness in these two areas. My third and final takeaway is from a personal viewpoint. What really hit home for me on this front was Sharon’s advice about having hobbies, spending time with loved ones, creating and nurturing your tribe and giving back to the community. Well, this is timeless advice for having social, emotional, physical and financial stability. And of course, those are the four elements that comprise our definition of true wealth and are the very reason for the existence of this podcast. As we put out this episode in the time of the global coronavirus pandemic, this need to come together and support each other has never been more apparent. As always in our show notes at truewellthpodcast.com we’ll have Sharon’s full length bio as well as links to her book The Big payoff, eight steps couples can take to make the most of their money and live richly ever after.

Manisha Thakor:

We’ll also have links to Sharon social media coordinates on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as links to two great CNBC resources Sharon has helped create, the Invest in You website and the Money101 guide. Again, that’s truewellthpodcast.com where wealth is spelled W-E-L-L-T-H. Lastly, if you know of someone who could benefit from listening to this episode, please take just a few seconds to use the share feature on your podcast player to pass Sharon’s insights along to them, and if you’d like to support the show please take a moment to leave us a five star rating and or written review. Those quick simple steps go a long way towards helping other folks who share your interests to find the show. I’m Manisha Thakor and that’s it for this episode of true WELLth.

Announcer:

The true WELLth podcast, made possible by Brighton Jones. Whether you want to save for the future or celebrate today, give back to the community, or explore the globe, Brighton Jones believes your values are every bit as unique as your fingerprints. Brighton Jones aligns your time and resources to those values, so you can go after the things that you truly care about. Explore your richer life at BrightonJones.com. Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall alongside the rest of our true WELLth team Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy, and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team, visit trueWELLthpodcast.com.