From Inflamed Brain to Advocating Brain Health — From Despair to Grit — Building a Better World through Wellness Advocacy

Inna Ulanova
Apr 4, 2018 · 10 min read

Disclaimer: Most folks that will read this, will know me in one way or another, and if you do not, then hi! I’m Inna, and I have just jumped off of a metaphorical cliff to chase my dreams. What you’re about to read is a personal story on how I took adversity and Depression as a chance to self-reflect and pivot my life and career to find happiness again. It’s a story about grit. It’s a story about change. And it’s also to do with advocating brain health and mental health awareness.

If you appreciate, comment or reach out directly at inna@smallmeetlarge.com.

It starts with the Brain❤

When I was 12 years old, I had Meningitis. The doctors told me that if I came three hours later to the ER, the chances of me being brain dead or paralyzed were about 90%.

What was supposed to be a vacation to Florida, ended up as a nightmare. My dad and stepmom planned a trip to Disney World for my 12th birthday, and I was so excited to go on the Tower of Terror ride, with a smile ear-to-ear on the plane ride down. Upon arrival, we went out to dinner and all I remember was pizza and a peculiar feeling. I felt like I wasn’t standing straight, lacked coordination and my head felt heavy — as if I were coming down with the flu. Imagine being told to stay at the hotel and not experience your first day at Disney World, a child’s dream come true… I didn’t peep a word.

Day 1 at Disney World, in line for Tower of Terror — I vomit. Then, I pass out. Waking up in the hotel, I couldn’t move and saw my dad on the phone with the local doctors. Fast forward a few hours — Florida doctors tell me I have Strep Throat and prescribe antibiotics. Fast forward to 24 hours — I’m sent out on the earliest flight back to Philadelphia (shocking, Amoxicillin doesn’t work for brain inflammation) and midway throughout the flight my face goes numb, then paralyzed, my eyes bug out like two slinkies, and I can’t move my neck.

Touching down, I walk outside of the airport with my Mickey Mouse luggage, meet my mom who’s in tears — I feel nothing. I couldn’t smile. We go straight from the airport to my family doctor, get yelled at that we’re not at the hospital, an ambulance takes me to St. Mary’s Hospital, spinal tap, an ambulance takes me to CHOP; I wake up in-patient, bacterial ward, wet sheets, no fear, no feelings.

What happened after that was a month-long treatment program of constant MRIs, fMRIs, bed sheet changes (I sweat through everything and couldn’t make it to the toilet on most occasions), and lastly, conversations with Neurologists about brains. The conversations sounded like this:

Doc: “Inna, hello! You’re such a trooper! Want to see what your brain looks like?”

Me: “Oh, why thank you (with a crooked smile and certain bell’s palsy charm) — I’d love to.”

I was asked to participate in figuring out what was wrong with me by comparing normal brain scans to my own, like a game of Sherlock Holmes. I remember thinking everything looked like monarch butterflies, but nonetheless, the staff at CHOP walked me through what each image meant each time and it was in that hospital, my passion was born.

At 12, I would tell myself everyday that if I made it out alive, I was going to be heal minds like a Sherlock Holmes. Coming out of the hospital with a nice PICC line and crooked smile — I told my mom I was going to be a neurologist/actress when I grew up (so I can make people smile *especially since at the time I couldn’t smile on my own.*)

I also told my sister that her husband would cook us dinner because I wouldn’t have time to cook given my intensive schedule.

(Sis, if you are reading this — I still fully expect the above from you. Jayson, don’t think I don’t see your dumpling game on Instagram.)

So fast forward to now — I’m a stubborn creature of sticking to my dreams.

Here is how I got to my Round 2, and why I think we all need to re-evaluate and self-reflect our Rounds in life.

The feeling you get when you know you have to pivot in life — typically starts with a gulp, then a gasp, and hopefully ends with action.

So to understand the full picture of what your dreams were as a kid and where you are now — you have to think about what happened in between. Examine the full cycle. Here’s my story, and I urge you to think about yours as well, if you are at all feeling stuck in your journey.

Round 0: Year 2002

From realizing what I wanted to be as a child, and then facing the harsh reality — a lot changed. I was bullied incessantly in middle school, and later high school for my crooked face (and for being Russian, a tall weirdo, and other reasons I never fully understood) — however the bright side of this was I got the chance to keep to myself and develop empathy for other teens facing adversity. I was the girl that befriended other kids that were ostracized and made fun of, and started a fundraiser to raise money for anti-bullying teen programs at age 15, during my summer volunteer program at St. Mary’s hospital. Then 11th grade happened. Being 5'11" and still awkwardly thin, I was discovered on the streets of New York to model for Teen Vogue while walking to Cirque Du Soleil with my mom. At 16, I thought “Cool! that sounds fun!” and in 12th grade withdrew my acceptance to BU and moved to New York. *In retrospect, this was a major cross in the road

Round 1: Year 2008

Two years later, after realizing how messed up the fashion industry was — all of it — Paris, London, and New York — and again being probed and examined — I dropped out. Desperate for meaning, I applied to Fordham University in New York where I was living and paid my way through school, starting off on the right track— Psychology.

Finishing top in my class, I bulldozed through to my Bachelor of Science without any meaningful reflection, or even thinking about what my dreams were, due to the pressures of feeling like I had to race to some sort of finish line. I felt like I lost time, and because of that, I stopped thinking and reflecting.

During my final year, I was placed to intern at Bellevue Hospital’s out-patient Methadone clinic and then in-patient psych ward, and conducted art therapy (art, dance, meditation, talk therapy) dealing with a wide-range of patients suffering from addiction to PTSD to Schizophrenia.

What happened next? Was I making people smile? No. How could I heal someone through art if they weren’t even allowed to hold a pencil or a crayon, aka “sharp” object? It wasn’t comprehensive enough and I got scared. Demotivated due to a lack of empowerment both on my end and the patients’, I decided to pursue a career in business instead, with the thought of — there is always consumer psychology, right? Sure. Did that net out at my dream? Not immediately.

Round 1.5: Year 2012

Got my MBA, went into strategy and communications and began working as an consultant with clients ranging from Fortune 500 businesses, advertising agencies, branding firms, tech startups and other founders and CTOs. This is the part of my life where I was pretty sure I had it good. I was living out my dream, right? Bringing in over $2M capital in business, maintaining an 80% conversion rate for closing contracts, and getting in the door with prominent VCs to pitch new business ideas — it was everything I could ask for, right? No.

It took a death in the family, my first real onset of Depression to hit me where I realized I wasn’t even behind the wheel of my career, or my life. All my fears, decisions, and actions led me to a complete state of confusion and despair.

Round 2: Year 2018

The gulp, gasp, action happened in February 2018. I felt purposeless in life, recognizing I wasn’t healing anything at all. I cried on a daily basis before then and during that entire month, but one thing I was not doing, was giving up. I cried yet reviewed what went wrong in my life and how I could fix it. Self-reflection takes effort and persistence. Not an hour a week, but everyday of our lives we should wake up and ask ourselves some questions.

By end of February, I partnered with a woman on a similar mission in life, and we founded a company focused on Social Impact called Dream Nation (working with female-led businesses that focus on social good and diversity), and I realigned my business Small Meet Large to focus on advocating brain health and wellness by mid-March. At the same time, I also founded Amelia Awareness, a non-profit filing for 501c3, on a mission to inspire and empower children born with Amelia by connecting them with role models and providing helpful resources for families to learn more about the latest technology in prosthetics and artificial limbs.

I am now pursuing a full-time role to work with a tech startup innovating in the brain health and behavioral neuroscience space, to empower a human’s health (both mental and physical) outcome long-term, and am maintaining traction with my projects on the side, as I continue to grow.

Present-day. I have chosen (a keyword that marks control and action) to focus ALL of my work and expertise towards social good and health advocacy — mental health, brain health, cognitive/emotional regulations, working with learning and physical disabilities, and promoting wellness.

Round 0 — Round 2 shaped me, took me for a spin, threw me into the desert, and now I’m here. The next 10 years of my life — my choice, my realization and my happiness.

Am I scared? Yes.

Am I happy? Yes.

Am I now chasing my dreams? Yes.

Have I already been rejected w/ my business pivot attempts? Yes.

Have I been offered a chance by others to succeed? Yes.

Are grit, self-reflection and optimism key factors here? Yes.

When I started to realize that the answers to my questions were now “Yes” instead of “No” — I knew that this was it. The 12-year-old fantastical yet determined to survive self and the 29-year-old lost yet determined to succeed self have rekindled in a flame for me to chase my dream. My mission was to make people smile. And the only way I saw myself doing that was through advocating healthy communities, minds, and lifestyles— and conducting business for social good.

My strategy and business development consultancy Small Meet Large focuses on working with businesses that have the objective to improve people’s lives.

If your business does just that — doesn’t matter if it is non-profit, for-profit, startup, you’re just a entrepreneur on a similar mission, or work for a large company that is in charge of diversity and social initiatives — contact me at inna@smallmeetlarge.com.

The importance of brain health, grit and optimism in chasing your dreams

So what’s the conclusion here? What’s the takeaway?

Practice grit and self-reflection every single day.

When you are faced with adversity, physiologically your brain goes into a flight or fight mode, signaling stress hormones, that typically cloud your judgement on aspects of life that do not pertain to survival. I am a strong believer that it is in those exact moments of despair, confusion and lack of focus you need to buckle down — start owning up to the fact that rejection is good and so are the imperfections in your life. When you embrace failure and continuously work to improve, that is the true formula to success.

This is about taking a very personal and intimate journey. If you feel stuck, or are faced with a challenge in life, do the gulp, gasp, action method and self-reflect. We all wake up in the morning with the choice of how we will go about our days, and with what lenses we perceive the world. Wake up with optimism. Pessimism is not good — and pessimism and realism are not the same thing. To succeed and overcome obstacles, practice positive thinking with a healthy dose of realism, and that’s it. Practice grit. Practice self-reflection. Practice meditation. Exercise at least 3x’s a week. Read everyday. And practice self-❤.

If you need help with anything — reach out to me with no hesitation. And if you are going through a battle with mental health or any form of brain trauma, do not wait to get help. Be honest with a trusted circle of family, friends and professionals, and please understand that FINALLY the tech and healthcare community (and VCs!) are beginning to focus many of their efforts on fixing the very present issues in the mental healthcare industry (and brain health space) today. There are programs being put in place to help destigmatize mental illness as well as bolster research on brain injuries and trauma. If you feel there is something lacking your community — speak out and be bold. Keep fighting to bring this topic to the forefront of conversation, and participate in the community.

Also, you can comment below!

We’re all on the journey together, and we all have the right to live out our dreams.

Kindly,

Inna Ulanova

Contact: inna@smallmeetlarge.com

Inna Ulanova

Written by

Free bird robot techie dame. Strategy. Rick & Morty. Bear hugs. Neuroscience. Human-centered design thinking.

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