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  • Writer's pictureGina Greenlee, Author

When life hands you lemons, why stop at lemonade? Create an entire product line.

Sophia LaRusso
Sophia LaRusso, Native New Yorker 71-years-young

“When I walk into an unknown situation, I don’t focus on what others think about me, I focus on what I think about them.”

Building in New York

I was 17 years old and just two months shy of graduating from one of the most prestigious Catholic schools in New York City – Cathedral High School. My grades and SAT scores were good and I was looking forward to walking down the aisle at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to accept my diploma and attend a secular college. Life was good and exciting!

So, that Monday morning when I lined up with my fellow students to take a Tuberculosis test as a school requirement, I felt in top notch condition. I was young with my whole life ahead of me. What was one little test? Just a “prick” in the arm with a needle.

Well that “prick” changed all of my plans for a year because my test came back positive for Tuberculosis. That “prick” meant I would have to immediately leave high school – I would not walk down the aisles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with my classmates. Instead, that “prick” earned me a stay in New York City’s well-known Bellevue Hospital – not the psychiatric ward, although I did feel like freaking out – in quarantine with other Tuberculosis patients. It was a miserable two-month stay on the Tuberculosis ward where I, and several other teenagers, terrorized the medical staff with constant pranks because we were young, confined and bored. Then I was offered the opportunity to stay at a sanitarium in upstate New York. I didn’t even know what a sanitarium was.

Old Photo of Harlem

Before I can tell you about my stay in the sanitarium, I need to tell you who I was. In addition to being 17, I was an African-American, who, outside of visiting family in the South in the summer and going to school briefly in New Jersey, had never been away from my immediate family. Noteworthy, I lived in Harlem, a predominately African-American community in New York City. I was used to buses, subways and taxis spiriting me throughout this metropolis. I had always lived in a diverse, urban environment; I never heard of upstate New York. Manhattan is New York!

Sarnac Lake

I was told the sanitarium was in the all-white, small country town of Saranac Lake, near the Canadian border. However, after living two months on a quarantined ward, I jumped at the opportunity to “escape” and looked upon living in the sanitarium as an “adventure.”

Saranac Lake

It was like a country club in many ways, located on a beautiful lake used for ice skating in the winter and with a nine-hole golf course. There were regularly planned trips to Lake Placid, access to continuing-education courses and many social activities.

Most enjoyable was its magnificent dining room with a wait staff for each table. I shared a spacious two-bed bedroom with another “relocated” teenager. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had to swallow more than 50 pills a day, take multiple tests and be regularly pricked with needles.

Old Photo Of People On The Beach

 Sophia LaRusso, Age 17

Life in Saranac Lake taught me how naturally I trusted people and could freely strike up a conversation with anyone. As a result, my fellow residents of all ages fell in love with my uncontrollable smile, my excitement at playing golf (I had my first hole-in-one there), my eagerness to volunteer for activities and my lack of insecurity about being a “minority” in a majority environment. I learned that people mirror what you project.

I also learned how independent I could be without my immediate family. When the doctors gave me the option of returning home but having to take medication for an indefinite period of time, or having surgery and not taking any more medications, I did not ask my family what they thought, I told the doctors what I thought – surgery. I had things to do when I returned home, and taking pills wasn’t one of them.

Greyhound Bus Station

When it came time for the surgery, I deliberately told my mother it was a week later than scheduled so she would not have to travel all the way to Saranac Lake to be with me. My mother did not drive; who needs a car in Manhattan? I did not want her to experience such a long bus trip. Neither did I want her to stay at a hotel in an area that never heard of public transportation. I felt that if the surgery was successful, I would confess I mislead her but was recovering. If the surgery didn’t go well, we would deal with it then. God came through. My mother did not have to come upstate and, after a month, I went home for good.

Clouds Outside a Plane Window

In the years to come, honing my natural ability to trust people and have them trust me in return, helped me professionally both nationally and internationally. Before I retired, I worked for more than three decades in the fields of human resources and organizational development for national and international organizations. In doing business, even in the most difficult of developing countries, I saw how people of different cultures, races and religions unabashedly mirrored my positive attitude.

Silhouette of Person In Sunset

My early independence helped me to travel the world alone, not with fear but excitement. Most importantly, it gave me the confidence to believe that when I walk into an unknown situation, I don’t focus on what others think about me, I focus on what I think about them. Hopefully, we both will come out on the same page.

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When life hands you lemons, why stop at lemonade?

Create an entire product line.

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Gina Greenlee's Postcards & Pearls Book

In Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments in New York, Sophia and 34 women ages 24 to 72 join me in sharing life-enhancing experiences while traveling solo in one of the world's most fascinating cities. Whether they blitzed through a long weekend, pit-stopped en route to another destination, conducted business or decided to move in, these intrepid travelers embraced the excitement of new experiences, the opportunities that spring from resourcefulness and the life altering freedom born from being exactly who they are. Let Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments in New York inspire an adventure of your own - in the big city and in life.


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