Empowering Every Woman to be Beautiful

Rest In Peace, Dr. Nielsen

A decade ago, I received a call from my agent asking if I could fly out immediately to do makeup for a story for Newsweek Magazine. At the time, my career mercury was rising. I'd worked at Fashion Week, done Mariah Carey's makeup and booked a six day shoot in Iceland with Elle Magazine.

My dreams of working with celebrities and reading my name in the fold of a fashion magazine as "makeup artist" were finally coming true.

So what was this Newsweek gig?

"You'll be working with a doctor who was rescued from the Antarctica - the story has something to do with her cancer," my agent said.

Hmmm. Definitely not my usual fashion job, but I'm a closet reporter (I still think I should have studied Journalism in college), who gets high from listening to the adventures of others. I figured if nothing else, this doctor would be an interesting person to meet.

A few hours later I was in a cab jetting to a tiny airport in Jersey where I was whisked onto a plane that seemed barely bigger than a Hyundai Sonata. Are you kidding me? While fastening my seat belt, I counted six other passengers and about 14 empty seats.

Our plane bobbed and dipped from Jersey to Pittsburgh where we switched to a smaller plane that whisked us to Ohio. The Newsweek staff met us at the airport and drove us to a private home with a photo studio attached.

The setup was very "high school portrait studio" - nothing like the giant white boxes flooded with daylight where I normally worked in the West Village. The photographer who flew in with me from New York was "borrowing" a local photographer's studio for the shoot.

I was given a simple stool and a light on a stand to work my magic. Dr. Nielsen was a little nervous when she realized I was there to do her makeup. She'd not been told this would be "so fancy." She informed me she didn't normally wear much makeup.

As I prepared her for the shot, I worked at calming her nerves. I asked to hear her story. She gave me sound bites as the crew was hovering, waiting for me to be done so we could all hop back on planes bound for New York.

After a quick shoot, Dr. Nielsen turned to me and asked, "Are you hungry? Would you all like to go out for something to eat?"

Thankfully the photographer had the same curious gene I did. I saw the sparkle in his eye. He wanted to hear her story, too. We packed up our stuff in a flash then drove for fifteen minutes in the rain until we came to a rundown, Italian restaurant with checkered plastic tablecloths.

We ordered spaghetti, ziti, garlic bread, etc. When I said I'd never had Italian Wedding Soup, Dr. Nielsen insisted I try hers. Loved it.

Then the discussion began. Dr. Jerri Nielsen had been the only doctor assigned to a scientific expedition in the Antarctica when she found a lump in her breast. She performed a biopsy with the help of those at the research base with her - not a single other person had any medical experience.

She taught them what they needed to know by practicing on a raw chicken! After the news got out, it was determined that Dr. Nielsen needed to get out of her current position so she could get home for treatment. In the meantime, Dr. Nielsen administered her own chemotherapy.

Dr. Nielsen recounted to us how a brave crew flew into the Antarctica ("almost blind because of the weather!") to get her. Her gratitude was apparent.

I leaned across the table and asked, "What's it like to do what you do?" OMG. How glad am I that I asked that question? For the next two hours, Dr. Nielsen shared with us the crazy, wonderful life she led. She recounted stories about her world travels, the people she'd met and helped and all of the amazing things she still wanted to do.

Every now and again, she'd stop a great story to say, "Are you sure I'm not boring you guys with this stuff? You work with such glamorous people normally."

NO! We were anything but bored. As I listened to this woman, I couldn't help but think, I hope I live my life as fully as she does. And I pray that at her age I embrace my challenges and my joys with the same attitude that she has.

Our talk with Dr. Nielsen was so fascinating we lost track of the time. We missed our plane back to New York. But as the photographer and I sat in the airport on stand-by with a big commercial airline (thank God), he turned to me and said, "It was worth it."

I totally agree.

Yesterday Dr. Nielsen died. Her breast cancer, after many years in remission, spread to her liver, her bones and her brain. She was only 57. She will be missed. You can read more about Dr. Nielsen here. To check out the movie based on Dr. Nielsen's experience (with Susan Surandon in the lead role) click here.