Grab a nice, warm beverage and curl up with this gem of a story. I am excited to introduce my amazing and inspirational friend, Desiree, as the first Survival to Sacred interview on self-actualization. Let’s get to it.
Desiree LaBeaud is a physician scientist who conducts global health research studies on mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and Zika virus. Aside from her work onsite at Stanford as a practicing pediatric infectious diseases physician and at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, she currently leads multidisciplinary teams at Stanford and in her field sites of Kenya, Grenada and Brazil. She has worked on international field epidemiology projects since 2003 and her current projects include both school and community-based studies. Her overarching career dream is to work with others to improve the health of communities worldwide through education, empowerment and research, while we concurrently work to improve the health of the planet. In her view: “The health of all is intricately connected!”
This interview took place in Desiree’s kitchen in San Mateo, California. Over the course of an hour, the youngest of her three boys marched around the kitchen with a snack while her middle son fluttered by, his mind always buried in a book, this time pretending not to listen as he soaked up juicy tidbits about his mom’s past. Her oldest son sat at the piano in the next room while Desiree’s childhood friend came by to teach his weekly music lesson. Few words were exchanged between her son and his teacher as they free-flowed jazz from the piano and guitar together which provided a beautiful backdrop for our exploration together. Desiree’s kitchen counter is full of eclectic primary colors with navy blue cabinets and green-toned walls and this is how I think of her – abounding, unstoppable energy, passion and light. I would be remiss if I didn’t say – and always, lipstick.
AT: Desiree, thank you for allowing me to interview you. We’ve become friends over the last three years and I see you as someone who is a constant self-actualizer. Tell me a little bit about your work.
DL: Right now, I work with children in Kenya and Grenada and lead research studies on mosquito borne viruses to learn about them and how we can help. I work in communities and schools. Kenya is my oldest field site and we have many studies ongoing there. I usually visit two-three times per year. I work at Stanford. A rewarding but difficult part of my job is the 5-6 weeks per year I spend at Stanford’s pediatric hospital seeing children who are hospitalized with different infectious disease problems, some of whom are very ill.
AT: I can only imagine what that is like. I remember seeing you after one of those weeks. We talked about how you talk with the parents and how they are doing.
DL: I would describe myself as a super kid lover. It’s rough.
AT: When I look at the work you’re doing, I’m constantly astounded at its importance and impact. Do you think you’ve reached your full potential?
DL: I have not gotten there yet. I definitely try hard at doing my best but sometimes I fall short. I’m at a place where I’m trying to dig in, calm down, and slow down, and be more present, and realizing more about myself. I am trying to grow more self-awareness and self-compassion, and be able to actually face my demons. Truly seeing myself. I want to be whole, more and more. Have you read the book “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers?”
AT: I haven’t, I’ll add it to my list. Tell me how about how you came to this need to know yourself more fully?
DL: I realized for a long time that I lived for external validation – even though I’m 44, for so many years I lived for external validation – for my parents, for their praise, to make them proud. All of a sudden, you realize you’re empty because you’re not doing the things for your own self to feel alive. Now, I try to hold myself to my own rubric.
AT: You do seem, as some parents describe their children these days, “strong-willed.” [Laughter]
DL: I have made choices for myself. Recently my brother said to me: “You’ve done great things with your opportunities.” I worried that my family thought I was selfish. That is a word that I personally run from! Then I realized: We live In a society that perpetually tells women we have to do things for everyone else above ourselves, or that we’re not doing enough for others. If you take care of yourself, you are seen as selfish. I was telling a good friend about my worries about being viewed as selfish and she said “That’s great! Finally, women are making it to a place where we can take care of ourselves. Let’s all be selfish!”
I have to tell you about my latest revelation. I was in my bathroom, just washing my face, and all of a sudden I realized, oh my god, I can choose things. I can choose my life! I can decide where I spend my time and energy, and I can decide to do or not to do something. I could quit my job. I could go to Spain for 6 weeks, blister my feet visiting churches on the Camino. I could bake a chicken.
"I can choose my life! I can decide where I spend my time and energy, and I can decide to do or not to do something. I could quit my job. I could go to Spain for 6 weeks, blister my feet visiting churches on the Camino. I could bake a chicken!"
I think the generation younger than us get this. That’s why they seem so entitled and noncommittal. Now I see people going through this and I have no judgement.
AT: I love realizations like this – they sound simple, but there’s something about the sense of a realization in every cell of your being that makes it truth for you, from that point on. It’s powerful. By the way, I call selfishness one of the biggest myths of self-actualization. Choosing what you do with your life-force energy is not selfish.
DL: What do you mean, “life-force energy?”
AT: I love when your Stanford doctor brain and my energy healing brain come together. Every day you wake up with a limited amount of energy and the purpose of that energy is to serve your soul-purpose (not that of others). I'm constantly re-learning this.
DL: Yes. I totally feel that. I used to always go with my gut, but almost as if I was rushing. Now, I’m trying to be intentional and plotted around where I spend my time and energy. I stop and check in and feel more. Before I was on the train, 1,000 miles an hour, and then there was this feeling like, “What is this train? Who’s driving this train? Where is it going?” I’m naturally impatient, so it has taken a lot for me to see this way. Now I am paying attention.
AT: I have witnessed this in you. You balance your high energy with moving deliberately through life. Do you know what your soul-purpose is?
DL: I have glimmers. I feel like I’m being called to a revolution. I like the work that I do, it brings me a lot of joy, and my team and I are helping people. And, I have this big desire to do the next thing. My next business idea is to build a community center where we’ll have goats, grow food, we’ll teach scientists, the community, and children. My vision is the building will be made out of plastic water bottles!
AT: That sounds like a very happy place and a world-changing kind of place.
DL: I have always felt that – I want to change the world. The last two years, if I boiled it all down, what I’m realizing is these are the moments of my life. I can choose to do A or B. For a long time, I thought I had to follow some certain path.
AT: Yes, there are lots of ways to change the world. I’ve realized it is about following the passion. I have to share the poem, “The Appointment” with you by Mark Nepo. It’s exactly this.
Even with all of this amazing work, I’m sure it has not always been easy. This is another myth about self-actualization, that because it’s so purposeful for a person, that it just falls into place and everything is roses. What sacrifices have you had to make to do this amazing work?
DL: I cry about this sometimes. I have to travel and spend time away from my three boys. I crave time with my boys, and with special people in my life. Sometimes I wonder if I’m not that close with certain family members because I have been pursuing my own path. I’m always in another country and city.
AT: Isn’t it funny. When I look at you and your boys, I only see closeness. Like you’ve known each other in past lives, and your relationships are beyond time. I can relate though, I used to travel a lot for work myself. I’m curious to know what are you most proud of? You have accomplished so much in your life.
DL: I’m most proud of my three boys. I also have a really wonderful network of incredible people that I won’t let go of. I have friends from 6th & 7th grade, high school, college. I find these gems and I keep collecting them.
AT: I always call these my golden people. I’ve had a vision of these people who have a pile of gold and they see right where your cracks are, and they get a shovel and start filling.
DL: Yes! I might seem bold, or like I’m brave or go out on a limb, but it’s because I have a network of amazing individuals who love me. At work, I’m proudest of the people I’ve mentored and all of the wonderful things they’ve done. It takes a lot of time and it can be exhausting, but when they succeed it’s so much better than your own personal success.
AT: I’m interested in your spiritual path. Do you consider yourself “spiritual?”
"I believe that both science and spirituality are on a similar quest for eternal truths bathed in the awe and wonder of our universe."
DL: As I age, spirituality becomes more and more important to me. The connection with humans and this sense of something greater than just you. I was born into a Catholic family, baptized, and confirmed, but I hated the way they treated women in the church. When I got to college, I went through a huge growth phase where I only wanted to be associated with and say things I believed in. I got interested in Zen Buddhism then. Later in medical school, my husband introduced me to Unitarian Universalism and I loved the welcoming aspect, learning from all different parts of the world’s religions, and the concept of the web of inner connectedness of all life on the planet. I love our UU church for its community and the work it constantly is doing for others. I still love beautiful Catholic churches. I do believe in a greater force. The times I feel closest to God are when I’m in nature. So much of my awe and wonder comes for me in nature. I also believe that is why I am a biologist and scientist. I believe that both science and spirituality are on a similar quest for eternal truths bathed in the awe and wonder of our universe.
AT: You know, you’re an interesting type of physician because I think deep down you’re also an artist. You have this natural way of seeing color, making art, and personal expression, and I love that about you. I love your new kitchen, it’s full of vibrancy!
DL: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I do love my new countertops in my kitchen. My problems are very first world. I can feed my children, I have shelter and warmth, I don’t have to worry about it. This is always top of mind for me – that my life comes with a privilege of not worrying about these things. I’ve never really been into money.
AT: I don’t see you as the materialistic type.
DL: My father was very rich when the great depression hit and then got very poor. He was a little boy selling peanuts on the street. My mom was from a poor immigrant Sicilian family and so was never too focused on material things, although my mom and dad did like the “finer things in life”, they would say. I recently had to get a new iPhone and was very annoyed. My joy doesn’t come from material things. I get joy from the beauty of nature, being in a position to help other people, a bath, a nice glass of wine. It’s the sweet, delicate moments – even watching a caterpillar inch along. I think about what that money could do – my new iPhone was $500 – that could help a lot of people within the communities I work. My work is focused on improving the lives of children who get a cup of rice at school for lunch and then run home to share that small cup of rice with their brothers and sisters. Sometimes I feel that my life is very hypocritical.
AT: It must be a real brain maze, to live between the two worlds that you do. Do you feel called to live with less?
DL: I want to live more gently and where the things I possess feel like they’re not in misalignment. This year, for 2020, I am not buying anything for me. I can give gifts, but I don’t need to own anything more. I’d like everything I own to resonate with me.
AT: Let’s do that together. I recently cleared a bookshelf of all past books. They’ve been there for years and provided me with a lot of joy and depth. But I am excited about where I am going. I want my bookshelf to reflect what’s next.
DL: Yes! Amen, sister.
AT: Desiree, thank you for spending time sharing your innermost-ness with me. You’re on fire. I love you.
Update: Since the time of this interview, Desiree received a philanthropic grant to continue research on Zika virus in Grenada and to start up a new school project there, which includes teaching school children how to properly wash their hands. Perfect timing for COVID-19….
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