Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Heather Cheeseman

Sarah & Robert - June 19, 2010

“It is only YOU who gets to make the choices about your own time and what you do…and you need to make the time for what DOES matter. It’s okay that that may not be what everyone else says matters…”

After growing up in Burlington, Ontario, Heather Cheeseman completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Queen’s University. In the fall of her fourth year, she was recruited by the international tax, audit, and advisory services firm, KPMG, and became a Partner in KPMG’s Canadian Mining practice by the age of 32.

Over the course of her career, Heather has visited over fifteen mine sites on six continents, and has significant experience providing internal and external assurance and other services to companies at all stages in the mining life cycle. Although she’s experienced tremendous career success, Heather still struggles with a sense of “impostor syndrome” in the workplace.

“No matter what success you reach or no matter what you do, you always think that someone else is going to figure out that you’re really not that good at what you’re doing.” 

During her undergrad, Heather also met her husband, Dave, while they were both working in their hometown of Burlington for the summer. As Dave attended Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Heather and Dave maintained a long-distance relationship for a few years before eventually moving to Toronto where they both currently live and work.

“I think the thing with love…a big part of it is seeing beyond all the good stuff and seeing them for who they really are and accepting that…and knowing you’re not perfect and they’re probably not perfect, but accepting that about them… and being there through it…

…The good stuff’s easy.”

Despite her busy schedule as Partner for KPMG, Heather has learned to balance her personal and professional lives and make room for other things that are important to her, like spending time with her family and friends, traveling, drinking wine, and going to the gym.

“There’s always more work to do if you want to do it….so it can be A LOT if you forget about what else is going on in your life.”

It has taken her several years to establish boundaries at work but Heather believes that letting go of “work that doesn’t actually need to get done” so that she can put herself first has actually helped her to perform better at work. It has also improved her relationships, as she has learned to invest her time and energy into the people who matter the most to her.

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the stories of the many women who have inspired me in my life or who have inspired the lives of others. You can subscribe to the Inspiring Women Series podcast in the iTunes Store and can listen to my conversation with Heather below.

What does it means to be “strong”?

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Eva & I team teaching Body Pump 99!

As a part-time fitness instructor, it’s my job to motivate participants to become stronger. Don’t give up. Keep going, stay strong. I cheer them on with cheezy one-liners and upbeat music, and I try to inspire them to challenge themselves physically by lifting heavy weights and pushing my body to the limit.

Physical strength has always been important to me. It’s enabled me to take on physical challenges, like a 24-day backpacking expedition in the Alaskan wilderness and cycling in Italy and Spain which have taught me discipline, resilience, and the power of positivity.

But lately, especially as I’m trying to figure out how to balance pursuing my passions and paying the bills, I’ve been wondering what I really mean when I’m encouraging people (and myself!) to be strong?

In North America, we tend to glorify independence, invincibility, fearlessness, and perfectionism. So in the past, I believed that “strong” people were fiercely independent, and void of vulnerability or imperfection. This definition of strength guided the way I lived, worked, and loved.

I rarely asked for help. I didn’t take care of myself enough. I prioritized my independence and career over some of the the relationships I valued most. I strived for perfectionism, and was overly hard on myself and the people I loved when I/they didn’t meet my unrealistically high expectations. When I played rugby, I taped up a sprained ankle to play in a championship game while my teammate played with a hairline fracture in her elbow, even though these choices put our bodies at risk for long-term chronic injuries.

Through some recent experiences teaching, writing & traveling, I’ve learned that being strong means something quite different than I had originally believed it to be. Here’s what “being strong” involves for me now.

Vulnerability

The work of Dr. Brené Brown has also really challenged my perception of strength. As a self-professed “recovering perfectionist,” Brown’s research reveals that instead of being a sign of strength, that perfectionism is rooted in fear. Fear of not being enough. Fear of unworthiness. Fear of disconnection.

Her books, particularly Daring Greatly, have made me realize that vulnerability is not weakness. Rather, strength lies in embracing our vulnerabilities and having the courage to be imperfect. If you aren’t familiar with her work, I encourage you to check out this TED Talk.

Learning to embrace vulnerability has helped me to gain a better sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. It has made me a better teacher because when I allow myself to take risks and make mistakes, it gives my students permission to do the same, providing them with greater learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom.

In addition, it’s allowed me to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships. When I’m able to find the courage to speak and act from the heart, my friends and family members are more likely to engage in the relationship honestly themselves.

Humility

After living and working as a teacher in the Arctic, where society is centred around the community and not the individual, I learned that being strong doesn’t necessarily mean being able to do everything on your own. Instead, it’s having the humility to accept our limitations as individuals and ask for help and/or support from others when needed.

In the Arctic, the communities are small and isolated (in Pond Inlet, where I lived, there were only 1500 people) and resources are scarce, so people depend on each other for survival. Instead of admiring my independence, many of the local people felt like it was really sad that I would want to live so far away from my family. I couldn’t do many of the things, like running and cross-country skiing on my own because of safety concerns with extreme cold and polar bears, so I had to ask people to help me do these things. I depended on co-workers to help me understand the local culture and way of life and build relationships so that I could be accepted by community members.

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I was a ‘teacher’ on this school land trip, BUT students were definitely teaching me!

Even though it’s still really hard for me to ask for help, I no longer see it as weakness. Living in the north taught me that relationships can make us stronger and that we gain strength through connection.

Faith

In addition to accepting help and embracing vulnerability, for me, strength also involves faith: faith in myself, faith in others, faith in the universe. It’s about trusting my intuition, letting go of the need to control everything all of the time, or having all of the answers right away. Connected to faith is resilience: getting back up when I’ve been knocked down, despite the obstacles that get in the way.

While writing my first novel, I struggled daily with self-doubt. Who am I to think I can write a novel? Will I even finish it? Will my book ever get published? Will anyone read it? Is it terrible?

There were days when the doubt was so crippling that I couldn’t even type a word. I’d go for a walk, clear my head, meet a friend, go get groceries, work at the gym, do ANYTHING else to avoid writing…because if I AVOIDED writing and never actually wrote the book, then I would never have to confront the fact that it might not get published, might be terrible, might humiliate me. But then the desire to write the book would eventually outweigh the doubt and I’d give myself a little pep-talk and continue writing.

I finished writing the book. It isn’t published…not yet anyways. But through the process, I learned how much I love the act of writing itself. Regardless of whether or not this particular book gets published, I have faith that one day, I will write a book that will.

Forgiveness

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Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

In August 2015, I traveled to South Africa for my friends’ wedding and did a day trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner for 18 of his 27 years in prison.

The experience was incredibly powerful, as tours were led by a former inmate who spoke about his time in prison and the oppressive system of apartheid that he had been fighting against. The guide spoke a lot about forgiveness and reconciliation, and how he had chosen to forgive his oppressors for the harm they had caused him and his country.

After apartheid was abolished in 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as a method of restorative justice where both victims and perpetrators of violence could give statements about their experience, and perpetrators could request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The guide emphasized how the path of forgiveness as opposed to punishment or revenge, was necessary for his country to heal and move forward.

At the time, I was grappling with how to forgive a friend who I felt betrayed by. This small personal conflict was so insignificant compared to what the prisoners at Robben Island had suffered, so I felt inspired to take the path of forgiveness in my personal life. Yet it wasn’t easy at all and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the strength it took South Africans to choose to forgive on the political scale.

I went back and forth about whether forgiveness was strength or weakness. Was I letting my friend off the hook by forgiving? Did forgiveness mean I would be risking more pain in the future? How would I benefit from forgiving?

After reading Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu’s, The Book of Forgiving (a life-changing read),  I realized that true healing requires forgiveness. It takes a lot of strength to let go of the desire for revenge and retribution, but forgiving provides an opportunity for growth for all parties involved.

*

Now when I say, “stay strong” in my fitness classes, I’m trying to send a message (at least as a reminder to myself!) that strength is  grounded in self-care, love and compassion. This means being okay with taking “off days” and allowing injuries time to heal. It means I’m not obsessing about numbers on the scale or my body fat percentage, but rather am learning to be vulnerable and accept my body’s imperfections.

Being strong doesn’t mean being invincible and independent and macho and fearless and perfect. It’s about looking inside ourselves and opening ourselves up so that we can grow, follow our hearts, connect with each other, and heal.

LASIK Eye Surgery in Colombia

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“You are perfect candidate.” Dr. Echeverri smiles. “We can schedule the surgery for two weeks.”

“Ella necesita usar las gafas durante las próximas dos semanas. Voy a examinar sus ojos el miércoles y ella puede tener la cirugía el viernes …”

The doctor starts speaking in Spanish to my school’s nurse, Maria Teresa, who has accompanied me to the appointment.

“You need to wear your glasses for two weeks. No contact lenses. Then you will need to see the doctor on Wednesday for an eye examination and your surgery will be on Friday,” she tells me.

Dr. Echeverri looks at me. “¿Tienes preguntas?”

“Any questions?” Maria Teresa translates.

“¿Cuánto tiempo…uh…no trabajo?…uh…no ejercicio?” I put my hands into fists do the running man action.

Again Dr. Echeverri smiles warmly, appreciating my efforts to speak in Spanish.

“Ummm…Friday, surgery, no trabajo. No work.” He replies. Yes, he can speak some English!

“One week, no exercise. One month, no swimming. Two months, no…ummm…deportes de contacto…” He looks at Maria Teresa for help.

“No contact sports for two months,” she tells me firmly.

*

I’ve always been curious about the possibility of getting LASIK eye surgery, but as a young Canadian struggling to build my career, pay off student loans, and scrape together the funds for world travel, it’s never been a budget priority.

“Maybe I’ll get LASIK when I’m a 30-year old professional and actually have savings,” I told my 25 year-old self. (LOL! #stillbroke)

But shortly after I moved to Colombia to teach at an international school, I learned that several of my American and Canadian co-workers had LASIK–IN COLOMBIA–and all had positive results. PLUS, at about 1, 700, 000.00 Colombian pesos (a little less than $750 CAD), it was much, much cheaper to have the surgery here as compared to in Canada or the US.

So I did a bit of research. Instead of being risky and “third-world” as I’d imagined, nearly everything I read, and people I talked to, convinced me that LASIK in Colombia consisted of high-quality doctors, cutting edge technology, and excellent patient care and treatment.Turns out, a Colombian doctor, Jose Barraquer, actually pioneered the earliest forms of the surgery in Bogota in the 1960s.

*

eyes

 

Two months later***, I’m at an ophthalmology office where a nurse is putting drops in my eyes to dilate my pupils for a pre-operative eye exam. This is an appointment that is usually scheduled a few days before the surgery so that the doctor can measure the refractive error, curvature of the eye, and thickness of the corneas, in order to create a map of the eye(s) prior to LASIK surgery.

My friend, Katie, is filling out some paperwork in Spanish for me, and answering the nurse’s questions about my demographic information for me, as at the time, my Spanish wasn’t good enough for me to answer myself. (Thanks Katie!)

After the drops set for about half an hour, an optometrist gestures me to put my chin and forehead against a metal device and look through a set of lenses. It takes him about five minutes to take the necessary photos of my eyes and measurements of my corneas in order for the doctor to get the final clearance for the surgery.

***(Unfortunately, I had to push back the appointment because I was attacked by a dog, and had to have two surgeries on my leg to debride the infection. Due to the potential risk of further infection, the doctor advised against putting my eyes in a vulnerable position and recommended waiting until the dog bite wound healed. This meant wearing my old, scratched glasses for two months instead of two weeks. While I could have gone back to wearing contacts for the time up until two weeks before the surgery, I decided to stick to the glasses to be safe. Contact lenses can distort the shape of your cornea, which could lead to inaccurate measurements and a poor surgical outcome.)

*

“Your vision will be perfect.”

Dr. Echeverri examines the results of the pre-operative exam. Using the measurement photos of my eye, he explains to me that the surgery will involve using a laser to create a flap in my cornea. He will then fold back the flap, remove a pre-determined amount of corneal tissue, and then lay the flap back in place. The whole procedure will take less than 15 minutes.

“No pain,” he reminds me.

*

At 9:30am on Friday, two days later, I meet my friend, Chrissie, in front of the building where the surgery is scheduled. Thankfully, she offered to go with me to the surgery, as I’m required to have a friend or family member take me home afterwards. Since my family is all back in Canada, so I am very grateful that Chrissie gave up her time to take care of me. She also had the surgery before with the same doctor, so understands my current state of anxiety.

“Ready?”

“I guess,” I say honestly. “I was getting a little panicked at the gym this morning. I kinda just decided that I wanted the surgery and hadn’t let myself think about what it would be like until now. I’m freaking out a bit.”

“It’s better than you think,” she tells me.

We go upstairs to the Ophthamology Office and are greeted by a friendly receptionist who asks me to sign some release forms (in Spanish) and pay the money I owe for the surgery. I give her about 800 000.00 pesos in cash and then take out my credit card to pay for the remainder (I had been told I could put half on card).

The receptionist shakes her head and tells me that the debit machine isn’t working. She says I could come back Monday to pay if I had to, but it would be better if I could go to a debit machine at the mall next door. Fortunately, I had been paid a few days earlier so have enough money in my account.

*

Fifteen minutes later, Chrissie and I return to the office with the cash in hand. Almost immediately, a nurse asks me to follow her into another room, helps me put my purse and shoes in a locker, and hands me a blue hospital gown. I wait awkwardly for a few minutes for her to leave.

She doesn’t.

Maybe Canadians are a little more modest when it comes to undressing in front of people.

I start taking off my clothes and the nurse immediately waves her hands no-no-no then helps me put the robe overtop of my clothes.

Oops.

Next, I’m led to a room where two other patients are lying on reclined leather chairs. There’s relaxing music playing and if one of the patients hadn’t been wearing little white plastic cones over his eyes, I would have guessed they were at a spa awaiting a pedicure.

I watch another nurse put drops into the other patient’s eyes. Then she gestures to me to sit in the vacant chair. I sit in the chair and join the “eye surgery assembly line.”

After I recline and try my best to relax, the nurse puts drops in my eyes as well.

“¿Alguien lavar los ojos?” I hear a nurse nearby say.

“¿Shannon?”

¿SHANNON?” ¿Alguien lavar los ojos?”

“No entiendo.” I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

I freak out a bit, realizing that much of my Spanish comprehension comes from being able to read facial expressions and body language.

“Umm…she wants….uh…to know if someone has washed your eyes yet,” the guy sitting beside me with the cones on his eyes translates for me.

“Oh, no. No one has washed my eyes.”

*

I’m wheeled into a surgical room on a stretcher and put underneath a machine with a bright light that makes me feel like I’m at the dentist.

Dr. Echeverri greets me and then tapes my left eye shut.

“Now look at the red light….uh..very important,” he says as he positions my right eye under the laser. 

“Abierto. Abierto.”

He puts some more drops in my eyes which I presume is the anaesthetic. Then he uses a device to clamp my eyelid open. I’m still starting at the red light, which is hard to avoid looking at now that I can’t blink. I can’t feel anything as Dr. Echeverri uses a tool to mark the spot where the flap will be created on the cornea.

“A little…pressure,” he warns and as he places a suction ring on top of my eye to prevent eye movements.

“Now very important. Look at the red light. There will be…uh…twenty seconds of laser. The light will be a little…uh…blurry.”

I can feel someone–one of the nurses?–hold my hand, which makes me feel more at ease. I keep staring at the red light. It’s okay, be calm, Shan. I give myself a pep-talk and try to think of my family at the cottage and of my upcoming summer travels to help me relax. You wanted to do this, it’s okay. You won’t have to wear glasses and that’s so awesome. 

CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. The red light becomes black and blurry, the way things would look after staring directly at the sun for too long. I can smell a slight burning smell. Then the red light looks more clear then it did before.

“Perfect. Keep staring at the red light.”

I can see a tool scraping my eye and my vision becomes a bit blurry, like someone has applied Polysporin directly to my eyeball.

He tells me to open and close my eye several times. Every time I open my eye the red light seems more clear than before.

“Everything was perfect.” I can hear Dr. Echeverri’s calm, soothing voice.

Then he tapes my right eye shut.

*

I’m back in the assembly line (that feels like a spa waiting room), sitting on a reclined leather chair. Now I’m the one with the plastic cones on my eyes, while two others are being prepped for surgery.

My eyes are tearing up a lot, partly because of all the drops that the nurses are putting into my eyes, and partly in reaction to having been recently “lasered.”But I feel no pain. I’m surprised that I can see.

Before the surgery, I had imagined having a day or two of total darkness, where I’d be in a state of uncertainty of whether the surgery worked, and whether I’d ever be able to see again. But this is not the case. I know my vision is perfect. I feel so lucky. No more glasses for me!

*

Less than an hour after the surgery, the nurse takes me into a room where Dr. Echeverri examines my eyes. I’m surprised when he asks me to open my eyes and look through a similar apparatus that had been used to examine my eyes in the pre-operative exam.

“I thought that I wasn’t allowed to open my eyes.”

“You are allowed to open your eyes to go to the bathroom and eat.” I hear Chrissie’s voice. So the next few days will not be lived in total darkness as I’d imagined.

“Ok, everything is perfect.” Dr. Echeverri reassures me with his soothing, caring voice.

Tears are running down my face from all of the drops that the nurses have put in, so I wipe them off my right cheek and then go to wipe my eye. Then I freeze, realizing that I’m about to rub an eye that had undergone a major surgery less than an hour earlier.

Dr. Echeverri looks at me in disbelief.

“That is forbidden,” he says calmly, yet sternly. “Your cornea might detach. Very dangerous.”

I feel so stupid.

He gives Chrissie instructions in Spanish which she writes down for my friends, Katie and Jill, who will be taking care of me on the weekend (thanks ladies!!). I have to put drops in my eyes every hour for the next few days, and then use them as needed for the next year (which, six weeks after the surgery, has been a couple times a day).

I’m not allowed to look at screens or read all weekend, so no cell phone, computer, or book, for the next three days, and am not allowed to exercise for one week. I have to wear sunglasses inside for a little over a week and can’t go swimming for at least a month. I’m allowed to shower but have to keep my eyes closed.

And no rubbing my eyes. EVER.

I will have to go back to see Dr. Echeverri in two days and then a couple more times in the next few weeks to make sure my recovery is advancing as expected. But I can go to work on Monday for my students’ graduation, and other than some slight discomfort, I should feel no pain.

Medicine is amazing.

*

One of the gifts of travel is that it broadens your perspective and helps you see the world through a clearer lens.

Well, living in Colombia has given me better than 20/20 vision.

Literally.