How she did it: Med school at 35, single and 6 months pregnant

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Dr. Susan O'Malley is pretty awesome. With her thick New York accent, this lifelong underachiever, secretary with no more than a high school diploma, set out at age 30 to become a physician.

She did it.

In this interview, I interview this amazing, charming woman who did not let her age, marital or family status or the zillions of naysayers hold her back from her mid-life dream of medicine.

Dr. Susan O'Malley shares about:

  • How she got over her low-self image to preserver through rejection from every medical school in the country, and eventual acceptance and matriculation at 35
  • Romantic disappointments
  • Powering through one of the most rigorous academic paths as a single mom of a newborn to become an emergency room physician.
  • Her eventual move to cosmetic medicine and entrepreneurship with the opening of Sonas Med Spa in Connecticut
  • The power of physical beauty
  • Dating as a single mother
  • What she does with her money
  • Her daily schedule while in medical school while raising her tiny son

Listen to her gush about the 15-year romance with her husband (hear what she said when I asked how the sex was after all those years, and now in her 60s).

Related: Kickass Single Mom $1,000 Grant Winners:

Tiara Caldwell's experience as a young, African American mom inspired her to build a career and business supporting healthy births and breastfeeding for her community.

Shawnta Creech went from homeless to culinary school graduate with a salad dressing business in the works.

Sheri Hopkins started Black San Diego. “I wanted my daughters to grow up seeing strong leaders who looked like them.”

Loving this podcast? Follow on RSS or  iTunes. Leave a review, me love you long time. Muah! 


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Transcript interview with Dr. Susan O'Malley

Emma: Welcome to Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. I’m your host, Emma Johnson, you can find me, that’s what I’m best known for, where I speak to professional single moms about dating and sex, career and money, and parenting. But this show, it is not just for single moms, even though I’m fond of saying, “There’s a single mom inside of every married mom.” And one of my most, most, most favorite parts of being a journalist and being the host of this show is I get to meet awesome women. Just, women just inspire the crap out of me, doing amazing things, and today’s guest is a perfect example of that.

Doctor Susan O’Malley, girl from Queens, from a working class, Irish Catholic family, Catholic school, just kind of floundered around for the first decade of adulthood, until she was 30 and she decided she’s gonna go to medical school. Fast forward a whole bunch of rejections later, she muscles her way into medical school and she’s 35 years old, pregnant, zero husband. What’s she gonna do? Well, I’ll tell you what she’s gonna do. She’s gonna kick ass, become an emergency room doctor, raising her son on her own, and then eventually becoming an entrepreneur and a cosmetic physician and opening up her own day spa. And we’re going to hear from her in just one moment. In the meantime, check out her book, Tough Cookies Don’t Crumble – Turn Setbacks into Success. In her story, you’re gonna see it is not a rags to riches story. It is really a story about perseverance and just sticking to it. She’s such an unlikely hero, but she is indeed a great hero.

Super excited about today’s guest. Dr. Susan O’Malley, great, great single mom story. It’s a great success story. Flashback 35 years old, pregnant, medical student, no husband, Dr. Susan O’Malley, thank you so much for being here. I cannot wait to hear about your success journey. Do today you own a very successful day spa, you are a physician, you have a successful son, you are doing so many amazing things, but it’s this remarkable journey. You are a late bloomer, to say the least, and we have so many things to learn from you. Thank you so much for being here today.

Dr. O’Malley: Thank you so much for having me. I am so excited about this.

Emma: Let’s start at that moment. You are in medical school, you’re 35 years old, you’re preggers, no husband, right?

Dr. O’Malley: That’s right. I was a little trendsetter.

Emma: And this was 30 years ago, right?

Dr. O’Malley: It was 1986. Just for the record, I didn’t plan it this way.

Emma: Right, that’s what I always say about single motherhood, no little girl like, sits and plays with her Barbie Dream House and say, “One day I want to be a single mom.” Like, no one’s living their Plan A, right? We’re at least on Plan B, if not, on Plan Q, right?

Dr. O’Malley: That’s exactly right.

Emma: Before that moment in medical school, let’s just dial this back a little bit. You’re a New York girl, you dropped out of college, you’re working in the city as a secretary, and what happens? Like, how do you wind up in medical school? What’s the story there?

Dr. O’Malley: The story was, it was in the early 70s, and I was working as a secretary, I had dropped out of college, I went to college for one year. I was hoping to find myself. That didn’t work. So, I dropped out and I got a job using the only marketable skill I had, which was that I could type 35 words a minute, and so I became a secretary. And, noble profession, it was never for me.

“As I look back, my job was to be a secretary, but my goal was to find a man to marry me.”

Emma: Right. What were the messages growing up that put that on you? Because you grew up in Queens. You’re a Queens girl. I live in Astoria, I’m a Queens girl. You grew up in a working class family. Your dad was really– your mom was a stay at home mom and a waitress.

Dr. O’Malley: And a waitress, and to supplement his income, and what was the message? So, it’s very interesting because the message was, you can be anything you want to be when you grow up. But, it didn’t mean anything to me, because as I looked around, I had 12 years of Catholic education so being a teacher was tied into being a nun. That wasn’t for me. Being a nurse was tied into blood and guts. That wasn’t for me. And at that time, there really weren’t any real role models of women. And so, even though I knew I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, that message was so open-ended that it meant nothing.

Emma: That’s interesting. You had an embarrassment of choices, in a way, in a way, but then again you said you didn’t have any role models which I think a lot of women of your generation can identify with.

Dr. O’Malley: Yeah. There were no strong female characters on television. There was nothing. And I also had very low self-esteem, so you combine that with no direction and it’s not a good recipe for success.

Emma: And why did you have low self-esteem?

Dr. O’Malley: Well, when I was younger I had a very bad accident that caused me to have big dental problem that I think I learned early, to be part of the background noise of life, and I got very comfortable there.

Emma: Because you embarrassed about your physical appearance?

Dr. O’Malley: Yeah.

Emma: Really? And what was it? You had, missing teeth?

Dr. O’Malley: So, when I was a little one, about a year old or so, and my mother, my father, and I were living in an apartment, actually in Astoria, we were on the second floor of a two story house, and the apartment floor had a faulty lock, so that if someone came in downstairs a gush of air would come up the hallway stairs and ever so gently push our apartment door open. Well, one Saturday morning, my mother came home with bags of groceries and forgot to lock the door and someone came in downstairs, our door opened, and boom, down the flight of stairs I went.

Emma: Every parent’s worst nightmare, right?

Dr. O’Malley: Every parent’s worst nightmare. And I was traveling head first and smashed my little tiny baby face into the steel radiator at the foot of the stairs. The impact sliced my baby teeth in half, halfway on the dirty hallway floor, the other half got jammed into my gums. Everybody was holding their breath to find out what would happen. Would there be damage to my permanent teeth or, you know, what would be? My teeth grew in when I was five years old, which is premature. They were horrific. Instead of both facing forward, one was on a 90-degree angle, the other was on a 45. They were brown, they were pockmarked, filled with little holes, they were jagged, they were horrifying, and I remember.

So, now you have to remember it was 1958-1959, and my mother, of course, has taken me from dentist to dentist, no one had ever seen anything like this and every dentist told her the same thing, “Pull them out and give her false teeth.” Now, here’s my young mother, dentist after dentist is telling her the same thing. Imagine the courage that it took for this woman to pull me out of one dentist chair after another saying, “No, that’s not the answer. I don’t know what the answer is, but that is not the answer.” And she finally found someone who had an idea, and he said, “Listen, why don’t we put braces on them so they both face forward, and then we can file them down and fit her for a crown.” Which is what they did. And so, at nine years old, for the first time in my life, I smiled without holding my hand up to cover my mouth.

Emma: But you said you had low self-esteem, but there must be something else there because it sounds like you had a pretty smile after age nine?

Dr. O’Malley: I did–

Emma: And I will say, people will look on your website Dr. Susan O’Malley, your spa is Sona Med Spa in Connecticut, you’re a gorgeous woman. I mean, you’re tall, you’re thin, you’ve got gorgeous black hair, you’re just a natural beauty. I’m sure you take care of yourself too, but you are an unusually pretty woman.

“She's not living up to her potential”

Dr. O’Malley: Oh thank you so much. That is so sweet. You know where else I think it came from, I heard, the message I heard from the time I was young in school is, “She’s not living up to her potential.” Everybody said the same thing to my mother. So as I looked back on that and examined that, actually, when I was writing the book I realized you know, as a little girl I was probab– I just wanted to probably keep my mouth shut. The last thing I wanted to do was probably draw attention to myself, and so, I probably sat in the classroom like a mute not saying anything, and I guess, maybe I reinforced it for myself, I’m not really smart, I’m not really smart.

Emma: Yeah, it’s very interesting, those very, very early notions of ourselves. It’s so hard to break those sometimes, no matter what the world is telling us. I mean, I’m sure you’ve been told that you’re gorgeous for so many years, you know, I’m sure you’ve had attention from men, all the world is like, hammering you with these messages about your physical beauty but it affected you in such a deep, visceral way that it held you back in life.

Dr. O’Malley: I think it did. It held me back, not only that, “Oh no I’m not really pretty. But I’m not smart either.”

Emma: And how– What’s the connection between those two?

Dr. O’Malley: Good question. Well, the world was kind of changing for me at that time. You know, there was a time in the world where you could really be Mrs. Somebody and make a career out of that, and you didn’t have to be smart. But now, in the early 70s-mid 70s, women were marching in the street, burning their bras, and I knew in my heart that they weren’t burning their bra for a secretary without a college education, who typed, and filed, and answered somebody else’s phone. By 25 years old, I had failed at college. I had married a guy that I had dated in high school. I had failed at marriage. I didn’t have a husband. I didn’t have a career. I didn’t have a college education. I didn’t have children. I didn’t have a future. Can you imagine?

Emma: I know. Where as now, girls, women today at 25, they’re just like thinking about maybe getting it started, right?

Dr. O’Malley: Exactly.

Emma: Right. For better or worse, that’s not necessarily the answer either, because we have biology to consider, but alright, so for you it sounds like that kind of floundering went on and on until you were 30, and what happened? What was going on in your life when you decided to go to med school? You made such a big jump and that’s what’s remarkable here.

Dr. O’Malley: So, yet another failed relationship, landed me with everything I owned in a U-Haul trailer, parked in my parent’s driveway and sleeping back in the bed I grew up in as a child.

Emma: Oh.

Dr. O’Malley: I was 29 years old, and I realized, no man has come along to marry me, I have got to figure it out.

Even though that was– I was at rock bottom, I felt like I actually had some breathing room, because I didn’t have rent to pay, I didn’t have a car payment. Everything I needed was right there and I could actually take time and think about what I wanted to do. And so, I was going to go to college and get a degree in nutrition, I was gonna be a nutritionist, and I went to college, I was having a grand time and within three months, I realized, noble profession but not for me. And that was another devastating day, because now really, is there no place for me in the world? I’m in college and my sister who’s nine years younger was living in Los Angeles at the time and she always wanted to be a doctor from the time she was young, and she said to me, “Well, why don’t you come to Los Angeles and you can be doctor too?” I said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Who, at 30 years old just says, ‘Oh, okay I’m gonna go to Los Angeles. I know. I figured it out.’”

Emma: So, because it sounds so casual, like, “Hey, I’m partying on Venice Beach, you should come party on Venice Beach.” Okay, sure.

Dr. O’Malley: Exactly. Exactly right. Exactly right. But, you know what? For the first time in my life, there was a thought that was like, “Wow, wouldn’t that be something? Maybe I really could do it.” And so, I talked myself into it. I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do it.” And as quickly as I talked myself into it, was as quickly as I talked myself right out of it because then, all the craziness started in my head. Emma, I drove my mother crazy. I want to do it. I think I’m too old. Maybe I can do it. I kept coming back to, I’m too old, I’m too old, I’m too old. And after a couple of weeks of this, my mother looked me right in my face and gave me the best advice I ever got in my life. “Susan,” she said, “One day you’ll be 50 years old. You’ll either be a doctor or you won’t, but you’ll still be 50. That’s your choice.”

Emma: Why did that resonate with you?

Dr. O’Malley: Because just like that, all the clutter fell away. You do it or you don’t do it.

Emma: And the choice is yours.

Dr. O’Malley: And the choice is yours. I say in my book, there are three kinds of people in the world, people that sit on the sidelines, people that play for participation trophies, and people that are in it to win. And I know because, in my lifetime, I’ve been all three of those people.

Emma: I’m hearing like, an undercurrent of this story, because you write in your book about your mother, it sounds like she was very typical of her time, in that she was a housewife and she was very industrious, but she also had some unfulfilled ambitions. Right? She was a creative person that never really had a career.

Dr. O’Malley: That’s true. In her later years she went on to do some acting, but that is true.

Emma: I still feel like we’re in a period of transition with my generation, I’m gonna be 40 this year, but you’re in my mother’s generation. I mean, we owe you guys so much, right? So, on one hand, you respected your mother, it seems like you really admired her and respected her, and she’s telling you, you can be anything you want to be, but she’s a housewife. And then it was really your sister. You saw your sister break free from that, and this one little nugget that your mother gave to you, and that was really what you pushed you over the edge and gave you the permission.

“When you sit around and wait for life to happen, life chooses you, you don’t choose life.”

Dr. O’Malley: It really was, because at that point I realized, the choice is mine. And the choice had always been mine. But for the 10 years, 11 years that I was a secretary, I just looked around like I’m waiting for life to happen for me. When you sit around and wait for life to happen, life chooses you, you don’t choose life.

Emma: So, you go to medical school, you apply. That was like, a little bit of a cluster. Right?

Dr. O’Malley: That was a big cluster.

Emma: How many schools did you apply to?

Dr. O’Malley: Low and behold, I was rejected from every medical school in the country. I couldn’t believe it. Every school in the country. Because now, what am I qualified to do? Oh, my goodness, it took me 33 years to figure out what my dream was, and now I was about to be shut out of it. And perseverance kicked in for the first time in my life. My mother’s perseverance kicked in for me, because then I realized, “Oh no, I am not going down without a fight.”And so I knew that the only way I was gonna get myself out of that mess was to apply to medical school again. Now, applying to medical school is a year long process. Multiple application, multiple essay questions, and at the time it was all done by hand. And now by this time, my sister had gotten into medical school, my roommate had gotten into medical school, and here I was, back to being a secretary. Very demoralizing. And I started a relationship with somebody and I became pregnant. We had different ideas about what to do, and I had been placed on the waiting list at Mount Sinai in New York, so I actually was accepted to medical school three weeks before school started.

Emma: And how pregnant were you?

Dr. O’Malley: Six months.

Emma: Did you ever think, “Oh my God, I can’t do medical school. I’m old, and pregnant, and single.” Did that thought ever cross your mind?

Dr. O’Malley: You know what crossed my mind? I don’t know how the hell I’m gonna do this, but I wasn’t willing to give up either one of them. And had I said no to medical school, then what? I’m now, again, qualified to teach science with my bachelor of science degree in biology, and do what? Become a welfare mother because I didn’t have the money to, you know, get myself off the ground.

Emma: You were back living with your parents, you were on welfare so you could afford to have this baby, and you’re huge, and med school.

Dr. O’Malley: I was back living with my parents. Yeah. It’s July, August, and here I show up.

Emma: And this was what year?

Dr. O’Malley: 1986.

Emma: Were you just the weirdest person in medical school?

Dr. O’Malley: I was. I remember one time I was on the elevator with some old professor and he looked down his nose at me, and he asked me, “What does your husband do?” And I looked up at him in a crowded elevator and I said, “I don’t have a husband.”

Emma: But what was the message? “Fuck you, I don’t have a husband.” Or, was the message like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have a husband.”

“I felt like such a fraud.”

Dr. O’Malley: You know what, I think the message was really, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Because I felt like such a fraud.

Emma: Really?

Dr. O’Malley: I did.

Emma: I seem surprised, but we all suffer from that, I think.

Dr. O’Malley: I knew I wasn’t an outright acceptance, I was picked off the waiting list. I knew that I wasn’t studying as long or as hard as other people in the class because I didn’t have the time. There were 115 people in the class, everybody came from the top of their undergraduates class. 115 people cannot all be at the top now. Somebody has to be at the bottom, and I knew it was gonna be me. I’m combining two 24 hour jobs into one. There’s only so much of me to go around.

Emma: Which, any mother can identify with, and most mothers don’t go through medical school, right? So, what was your life like?

Dr. O’Malley: At this point now, I was in, I rented an apartment in one of the buildings, and I hired babysitters, which was, you know, quite an education. Was just me and that baby, and I, the first two years of medical school are classroom work and the following two years of medical school are hospital work. So, for the first two years, I lived three or four blocks away from the hospital, and I would go to school from 9 o’clock until 5 o’clock, and I had a babysitter who would watch my son. The second two years is when life really got crazy, because I had tried a couple of live-in nannies, and that just was not working out, and I went back to my parents who were living on Long Island and stayed in the carriage house behind their property so that when I had to be on an overnight shift in the hospital, my son could sleep at his grandparents house.

Emma: Which is wonderful, except Long Island to Manhattan is, what? Like, an hour commute, minimum.

Dr. O’Malley: Yeah. So, you know, I was able to arrange a lot of things so that I was in Elmhurst, I was in the Bronx, I was in, you know because there were different hospitals, but yes, there were times when it was a heck of a commute.

Emma: Unbelievable. So, how did you feel about this emotionally? Going through this, spending long crazy hours at this hospital, and not being with your very young son. I mean, we’re one, two, generations removed from that now and women from my age suffer terribly from working mom guilt, do you suffer from any of that?

Dr. O’Malley: Oh my goodness, when you’re here, you feel like you should be there, and when you’re there you’re thinking you should be here. And it’s just, that is just how it is. There was never any balance. I was guilty all the time. And it’s so sad because I love my son, but when I was a young medical student and a new mother, I didn’t enjoy my son, and I look back on that and that is really sad.

Emma: Because?

Dr. O’Malley: Because I was so stressed out.

Emma: Yeah.

So stressed out between baby and school

Dr. O’Malley: Because when I was home with that baby, and feeling like, “Oh my goodness, I have all this pile of work, please baby, take a two-hour nap.” and I’d just feel like, “How can I do this? How can I do this?” It’s hard. It’s the same old story, it doesn’t matter if it’s medical school and a baby, or if it’s a job and a baby, or a business and a baby, it’s all the same story.

Emma: But what was your motivation to keep pushing through that? Like, did you have sort of a mantra or a message you kept telling yourself to push through those really tough years?

Dr. O’Malley: At the two-year mark, I could’ve walked away. I was so exhausted, and I have a very dear girlfriend who started business school, got an MBA from Harvard, and graduated at my two-year mark. Tripled her salary and was done and out, and here I was, owed– I don’t know how much I owed at that point. $60 thousand, $70 thousand, trained, still to do nothing, and now I’m in it. Now, what are my choices? Now, I have no choice. Now I had to keep going because that baby signed up for a life, and I signed up to give him a life. And what kind of life was I gonna give him if I didn’t keep on going? But, I could have walked away at the two-year mark. I gave it serious thought. It would’ve been such a mistake.
Emma: Yeah, okay, so you pushed through, you choose emergency medicine. Why emergency medicine?

I chose emergency medicine because it was the best choice to enable me to schedule a life with my son.

Emma: Really? Okay. Most people wouldn’t understand that.

Dr. O’Malley: Because it was shift work.

Emma: Okay.

Dr. O’Malley: And so I knew when I was on my shift I would be there, and I knew when I wasn’t on a shift I would be home, and no one would be calling me and there wouldn’t be, you know, “Your patient here is in the emergency room. You have to do this. You have to do this. What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” And so, I used to have my emergency room schedule up on the refrigerator with alphabet magnets.

Emma: So, okay–

Dr. O’Malley: And it was so interesting because, you know, listen, I didn’t have any great love of emergencies, I was so naive. I thought, “Well, I’ll see a little illness, I’ll see a little injury, and then I’ll go home.” I mean, I had no idea what I was in for. But, it turned out when I got into it, that I was perfectly suited for it, I really loved it and I did a great job. So, I guess that was divine intervention.

Emma: That’s interesting. You were just being very practical about your schedule as a mom, as a single mom, and really you were connected with the work that you were meant to do.

Dr. O’Malley: Yeah.

Emma: And what did you love so much about emergency medicine?

Dr. O’Malley: I could solve your problem. I’m a, at heart, New York girl, you know? In and out, let’s go, move it, people, nothing to see here people, you know? But in the emergency room, I could solve your problem, I could feel your pain, and then I could help you. You– You’re gonna be admitted, you’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna take that pill, you’re gonna follow-up here, you’re gonna follow-up there. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. And on to the next. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Emma: That’s interesting. Because there was resolution of some kind. Either you’re gonna live, or you’re not. Like, chronic illness treatment would not be for you.

Dr. O’Malley: That’s exactly right. No, would not be for me. I say jokingly, I don’t have a personality that’s geared for chronicity of care. I just don’t.

Emma: So, what’s your personal life, and your family life like then? For those years? How many years were you a physician, an emergency physician?

Dr. O’Malley: Oh, between residency and being an attending, in the ER, I think it was close to nine years.

Emma: And your son was then, what? Like 11 or 12 when you–

Dr. O’Malley: Nine, 10, 11, around in there. Yeah.

Emma: So, for that first decade of his life what was your family like? Where did you live? Were you in a relationship? What did your home life look like?

Dr. O’Malley: So, I was still lived in the carriage house, 'til I finished residency. And then I wanted to get out of New York and I took a job in Connecticut, and I arranged for a nanny to come from South Africa, and I rented a house, and off we went. I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured, you know what, it’ll be year. If it doesn’t work out, if I hate it, I come back to New York, and that was 1996 and I’m still in Connecticut.

Emma: And did you date during those years?

Dating as a single mom doctor

Dr. O’Malley: I did date. You know, not a lot. I did date. I actually tried getting married again, to someone that I knew from the residency program and that didn’t work. But little by little, I really started feeling my worth and standing on my own and enjoying my life, and enjoying my son, and the most wonderful man in the world came along in the year 2000 and we are married now and have a beautiful life and I’ve never been happier in my life.

Emma: Oh that’s wonderful. Go back to what you were saying, you really learned to stand on your own and enjoy your life. What did that mean?

Dr. O’Malley: I did. Because, the feeling like a fraud, you know? When I– The first day that I started in the emergency room, oh my goodness, I was so sick to my stomach I just thought, “What have I done? I’m a doctor in the emergency room?” This sounded like a good idea but here I am.

Emma: Talk about getting outside of your comfort zone, right?

Dr. O’Malley: Oh my goodness. And so I took a while. It took the first couple of critical patients for me to realize, yeah I do know what I’m doing. It’s okay. I did have good training, I am a smart girl. And then, I bought a house and my son and I settled in and you know, start to make friends in a new place and just start to feel the rhythm of life, and it took a little while.

Emma: You know, so many moms I interact with, through my blog, and social media, and on this podcast, it’s– here we are, two, if not, three generations into this huge wave of single mothers, right? And in fact, millennials, the majority of babies that are born today are to single mothers. Single motherhood is now the majority of younger people. That’s not turning around. And yet, so many of these women, I don’t care how capable they are, how professionally or financially successful they are, they really struggle with this single mom shame and single mom guilt. And it holds them back in tangible and intangible ways because they feel like they failed. They feel like they’re a social pariah, they have this idea that you can’t be professionally or otherwise successful in your life if you’re single. It still has that, such a strong stigma that women internalize. And it sounds like you certainly suffered from that, being in the elevator, almost apologizing for not having a husband and being pregnant in medical school, right?

Dr. O’Malley: It’s true.

Emma: And how did you overcome that to be able to attract this wonderful man? Or, to attract this professional success that you’ve enjoyed?

It was a natural progression because at that point, I was happy and he was happy.

Dr. O’Malley: I don’t think that there was an ah-ha moment. I think, for me, that it was just such a progression of an uphill climb, that starting school with this baby, dragging this baby through residency, and internship, and shift work in a hospital, and bringing somebody else into the house that turned out to be the wrong person, which upset everything; and we had finally come through that tornado, if you will, and got spit out to the other side where it was just me and him, in a nice house, settling into a nice life, and becoming comfortable with each other, with our life, and feeling like I had plateaued. So, it wasn’t one thing, like, it was such a natural progression because at that point, I was happy and he was happy.

Emma: I know that when I, and I was raised by a single mom, I live in New York which is very progressive, there was no sensible social pressure on me that made me feel shamed about being a divorced mom, but I remember being like, my kids were tiny, like my son was being born when I was becoming a single mom, and I remember being at like, this one kids birthday party– It was all in me, this was all coming from within me, right? That I was just like, “Oh my God. Everybody’s wondering why I’m not wearing a wedding ring. And there’s all these intact families and I’m social pariah standing over here by the fireplace.” Right? And now I could care less because, for me, a lot of it’s social. A lot of it’s because I started this project and I interact with people so much, and people just spill their guts. Like, not that many people are really satisfied in their marriages and people are always just dumping all their marital woes on me, and I’m like, “Okay, maybe you’re not a divorced mom, but you definitely have thought about it.” And that was very freeing for me. You know? What was it like for you in the suburbs? Did you go through any of that?

Dr. O’Malley: I didn’t only because there was no time for me to go. There was no social life. I didn’t have a social life. I was at the hospital, I was home, and that was it. There was no– I mean, the dating that I did, you know, especially like during my residency was you know, a date here, a date there. But there really wasn’t the time for that and I didn’t have a big circle of female friends. I wasn’t in a community.

Emma: Which might have been a blessing.

Dr. O’Malley: So, I didn’t have that.

Emma: I’m a big fan of putting your blin– Maybe it’s just like the midwestern Protestant in me where you’re just, everybody’s in denial about everything. You just put your blinders on, if you can’t see all these imaginary social pressures, then you just forge forward and you know, it doesn’t matter. I think there’s some kind of wisdom to that.

Dr. O’Malley: I guess so. Because I didn’t feel that.

Emma: Which is wonderful. I think that’s a wonderful lesson. Just stay busy, do your things. Look, you’ve been so professionally successful. So, you said after about nine years into your medical career, you took a turn and became an entrepreneur and got into cosmetic medicine.

Dr. O’Malley: I did.

Emma: Talk about this, why, why the switch?

From physician to entrepreneur

Dr. O’Malley: I think I was somewhere around 49 years old and in the emergency room, and working around the clock, some shifts that would start at midnight, some shifts that would start at eight in the morning, at 49 I was just exhausted. And I loved it until the day I didn’t love it, and then I knew it was time to go because that’s when you get in trouble. I had a good clean run. I did good by everybody, and I knew it was over for me. So, I took a job in a clinic because I wanted to be at home with my son. I wanted to sleep in my own bed at night and the work wasn’t really fulfilling, but the goal wasn’t that work, the goal was to be at home, to be at home on the weekend. And listen, I had been churning, you know, for awhile. I want to do something, I’d love to do something on my own, I don’t even know what that looks like. But, a year into my job at the clinic it came time to have my year end review, and during that year I actually saved two lives. Two people that had no business being in a clinic. One who had a collapsed lung, the other who was having, just about heat stroke. And I come to the end of the year review and sit down, and me and my chairman of my department looks across the desk at me and said, “Well,” he said, “you’re doing okay.” And I thought to myself, “Did he just say, ‘okay’?” I thought I’ve been working since I’m 16 years old, no one has ever said, “You’re doing okay.” Now, he didn’t mean it personally, but I took it personally. It was a three tiered system, you either got fired, you were doing okay, or you know, you were doing such a stellar job, and nobody ever got you know, you’re doing a stellar job. And so I knew in that moment that I was not in the right place. And I came home and I put the pen to the paper and I figured out exactly how much money I had, and how much money I would need, and I went in two days later and I said, “Listen, this just isn’t gonna work.” And I was kind of out on a limb because I didn’t have a nest egg under me because you know, I had started 15 years behind everybody else. But at that point for me, those were two separate decisions. I didn’t need to leave that job for another job because I didn’t belong there.

Emma: Yeah, where do you get the balls to just quit though?

Dr. O’Malley: I did. Well, I did.

Emma: Yeah, but so many people are like, wow, you’re probably making good money, you got some little raise, it’s– You know?

Dr. O’Malley: I was making good money and I had a mortgage, and I had a child in private school. But I knew that if I didn’t make it doing something else, that I had enough money to go for six months, eight months, whatever, and I could always go back to the emergency room. Because I was emergency medicine trained, and I was a highly desirable candidate. I didn’t want to, but I knew I could.

Emma: Okay. So, psychologically you had safety nets, even though from the outside it looked crazy.

Dr. O’Malley: That’s correct.

Emma: Okay, then that’s really what counts. Okay, so why cosmetic surgery? I interview a lot of people I’m friends with, right? You and I don’t know each other, this is really the first time we’ve talked, and I’m reading your bio and I’m like, “Oh my God, this woman’s amazing. She comes–” You’re so inspiring, you– You know, the whole thing that we just talked about, and you’re in the emergency room, you’re saving lives, and then now you’re giving Botox shots. I’m like, what is that? And I felt a little angry at you.

Dr. O’Malley: I also felt like, at the very beginning, that I had sold out and that I used to save lives, and now what am I doing? And you know, this was a mid-life crisis that I had and all of this and the other. But, the truth is, I used to save lives, and now I save self-esteem. When women don’t like the way they look, it’s a downhill path.

Emma: And you know this because those ugly teeth that you had when you were five, really shaped the course of your own life.

Dr. O’Malley: That’s right. That’s right. And another thing that before I left the emergency room, you know I had access to plastic surgery and I was starting to see a lot of changes on my face, and how would I fix this, and how would I fix that? And the things I was hearing was appalling. I thought, “Oh my goodness, there has got to be a better way.” And so, my practice is dedicated to non-surgical work. That’s all I do, is non-surgical work.

Emma: Because why? Why is that important for you?

Dr. O’Malley: Because, I just– I feel that for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time. And there was a big push towards non-surgical work. And listen, I would never be that girl to say, you know, I would never do this, and I would never do that. Never say never. If I felt like my face had reached a point like, we have passed the point of no return, would I consider a facelift? Yeah, I might. And there are plenty of women just like me. So I fill a need. I fill a big need for women because when I sit down and have a consult with women I give everybody all their options. Surgical options, non-surgical options, things I can help you with, things I can’t help you with, but here are all your options. Now, if you think I’m the one for you we can choose from how I can help you.

Emma: I just have to ask though, so here we are in 2016, there’s so much discussion. Like, I was just reading some post that was going around Facebook about how to talk to your daughter about her body, and the message was, don’t say anything. If you think she’s gained weight, don’t say anything. If you think she looks pretty, don’t tell her. You know, just taking her appearance just totally out of the equation. And, you know, that’s an interesting discussion, but that’s where the dialogue is now. And you came up in age where for the first 30 years of your life it sounds like you held yourself back because you had had, for a moment, a physical deformity. And that so changed the course of your life. And this was back in the 60s. 50s, 60s, and 70s. You know, what would you say to a woman who, or somebody who come to you and say, “Aren’t you perpetuating this over emphasis on female appearance that you were a victim of, back in the day?”

Dr. O’Malley: So, that’s a very interesting take. And I would say no because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to look your best. Whatever that translates into for you. Because I tell women all the time, “I can help you look like a more relaxed, less tired, version of yourself. More than that, I cannot do.” And I have turned women away who wanted me to inject more filler than I was willing to inject. Because I just think that gives everybody a bad name. When you look frozen, or you look overdone, that just gives everybody a bad name. But, I don’t think that I’m perpetuating any negative body image at all because I think that we all want to look our best.

Emma: Right. This is something I struggle with too. I had this really lengthy discussion on Facebook a few months ago. I work from home, so usually my kids see me in, you know, jeans and a “nice t-shirt”, right? But I do, I put makeup on every day, like, try to look presentable but, anyways I had a meeting and so put on a dress and I put on some heels and my daughter who is seven was watching me get ready, and I said, “Oh, here’s a little trick when you wear ridiculous shoes like this that are gonna hurt your feet. You wear flats on the train, and right before you go to your meeting, you get your heels out of your purse and you put them on.” And I’m like, what am I doing? I still don’t have this all sorted out. Because, hearing myself say that was just the most absurd thing ever, but I wear my flats on the train and keep my heels in my purse and put them on before– That is what I’m doing. So I’m not gonna hide that, but do I want to promote that? Or does it even matter because my daughter is seeing me do it? I don’t know that we have the answers, and I see you hesitating in your response because I don’t know that you have it figured out 100 percent either.

I think you’re making yourself crazy for nothing.

Dr. O’Malley: Yeah, regarding that whole scenario, I think you’re making yourself crazy for nothing.

Emma: Probably, right?

Dr. O’Malley: Listen, the reality of life is, you get judged by the way you look, whether you like it or you don’t. And you can take a stand and say, you know, “I don’t care what people say and I’m gonna let my roots grow in.” And, you can do whatever you want, but you’re not gonna get promoted. You’re not gonna get a date. You’re not gonna get invited to the party. So, like it or not this is the world we live in. It was that way before I was born, it’ll be that way after I die and quite honestly, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

Emma: I think I should have you back and we’ll discuss that, but what I want to leave on because this is what everybody wants to know, I want to hear your love story, meeting your husband.

Dr. O’Malley: So, I met my husband online.

Emma: Yay, I love online dating. Go on.

Dr. O’Malley: But this was back in the year 2000 when you didn’t tell people you were meeting anybody online. And I had met some very nice men, professional men, nice men, smart men, not for me. And my subscription to the dating site was running out, and I had one more week left and I was just going to let it expire, I wasn’t going to renew it. I just needed a break. And a couple of days before it was due to expire, this man reached out to me and a little conversation here or there, we agree to have a date and I was so looking forward to the date because it was going to be my last date. I just wanted to be done. And it turned out it was.

Emma: Because you were so burnt out on dating you’re like, I just have to muscle through this stupid–

Dr. O’Malley: Yeah. Yes. For those six months on that site, you know what it’s like to be on those sites. You get consumed. You’re always looking and it really takes on a life of its own.

Emma: It can be very compulsive. I have a friend of mine, he’s like, “I have deleted that app on my phone so many times and I reinstall it.” So, you meet the guy, I mean, was it a love at first sight?

Dr. O’Malley: It wasn’t really. Although I was sitting there on the date thinking to myself, “Wow this is a really nice guy. I would like to see him again.” So we did. And we had a couple of dates and then it was just turning into an exclusive thing, and we’ve been together ever since. That was in 2000, we got married in 2006, and here we are.

Emma: And what’s so special about him?

Dr. O’Malley: Just everything. He’s the smartest man I know. He’s the kindest, most compassionate man I know. He’s the most generous man I know. He is just, loving, and giving, and supportive, and just wonderful. He was made for me, and I was made for him. Because he takes things off my plate, I take things off his plate.

Emma: That’s beautiful. Is he cute?

Dr. O’Malley: Oh, he’s adorable.

Emma: And is he sexy?

Dr. O’Malley: Absolutely.

Emma: And how’s the sex?

Dr. O’Malley: Em, what kind of question is this that we’re gonna end on?

Emma: Everybody wants to know.

Dr. O’Malley: Well, how many years has it been, baby?

Emma: Still going strong. I love that. I love it. And business, what’s next for you in business?

Dr. O’Malley: Interesting question. You know, I wrote a book, Tough Cookies Don’t Crumble – Turn Setbacks into Success, I in the book, outline all the strategies and outline my whole journey.

Emma: I love it. And leave us with one bit of advice for single moms.

Dr. O’Malley: Well, I’ll give you two bits of advice, get over the guilt because the guilt just comes with the job, however, be present. When you are with your child, be with your child. And when you are at work, be present there too.

Emma: Very well said. Beautiful story. I am so glad that we connected. Dr. Susan O’Malley, you can find her online and check out her book, Tough Cookies Don’t Crumble on Amazon. Let’s stay connected. I’d love to watch you as you transform into your new phase of life.

Dr. O’Malley: I would absolutely love that.

Emma: Great, thanks, Susan.

Dr. O’Malley: Thank you. founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.


Dr. O’Malley: Because when I was home with that baby, and feeling like, “Oh my goodness, I have all this pile of work, please baby, take a two-hour nap.” and I’d just feel like, “How can I do this? How can I do this?” It’s hard.

I believe that even if your marriage was unsuccessful, then you need to store the ring. These are memories, and even if they are bad – at the right time they should help you make a difficult decision and most importantly – do not repeat past mistakes. Running away from your memories is not the best solution, even if it was very difficult. There are certainly exceptions – this is the case when money is very necessary – and there is no other choice but to sell a valuable thing for yourself. But I do not think that this is the case.

Very inspiring story. This has given me hope that i can be a single mom and have a career. I have been feeling so guilty about taking my child away from its father but i now beleive its better off with a happier more successful me than the miserable, unhappy and lost person i had become. I now have hope and alot more courage after hearing this story.

I bought the book! Onward and upward from here!!

Thanks Emma

Very inspiring! She overcame so many obstacles and still has a great attitude. I hope many women who find themselves feeling down and out listen to this. I completely agree with her that we’re judged on our looks whether we like it or not. Even though I consider myself an accepting person, there are certain women and men who I would never want to work for me because of the lack of care they take in their personal appearance. So don’t worry Emma, you’re not doing your son or daughter a disservice by wearing heels

I love Susan’s honesty and vulnerability. This was perfect for me as a single mom of three contemplating a career change after 28 years. Thank you, Emma and Susan!

Wow. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing Dr. O’Malley’s story. I feel like this was a divine intervention for me and the exact, very human story I needed to hear at age 40 as I contemplate taking on more schooling. I laughed, shed some tears, gained new hope and perspective. Thank you Emma and Dr. O’Malley. Sending my love.

Just what I needed to hear. Just got out of a toxic relationship with my son’s father whom I treated like a king and end up getting treated like s#^t for 2yrs. A man who don’t have time for me or his son. Will never settled down and marry me as old as he is. I’m now embracing the idea of a single mom and finish up my nursing degree I had to put off because I was pregnant. I’m so determined to finish and move away with my son. I will be staying put on this page so I can stay encouraged. Thanks for sharing.

Im sorry to hear of ur terrible experience. Well done for having the courage to leave and good luck with your nursing degree. Wish you all the luck in the world!

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