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New Careers: Where Tragedy Became Triumph

Daniel Bukszpan

After living through an accident, illness or loss of a loved one, many people find comfort in going back to the predictable rhythms of their old, familiar routines. Losing themselves at work can offer escape from these events and help set them on the road to recovery.

For others, the response is exactly the opposite, and going back to their old lives after a traumatic, life-changing event is out of the question. The only thing that seems right to them is to create a new plan for living, one that acknowledges the hardships they’ve endured and the wisdom they’ve acquired since their lives changed.

CNBC.com presents this list of people who survived tragedies and responded by creating new careers and businesses. These new ventures not only helped them cope, but may have served to inspire other people going through similarly challenging times.

HALO Innovations

In 1991, Bill Schmid and his wife experienced what most parents only go through in their worst nightmares — they lost their daughter Haley to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. While some of the causes of SIDS remain unknown, loose crib bedding is a known risk factor, and Schmid, an engineer, vowed to put his skills to find a way to eliminate it.

He founded HALO Innovations, and the company manufactured sleeping products such as the SleepSack swaddling blanket. The blanket is now sold at Babies R Us, Target and Walmart, and its success has prompted the company to create other products, such as the Active-Airflow crib mattress. According to the company’s website, “the mattress is the only product proven to reduce the risk of ‘rebreathing’ for infants, a condition associated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).”


Fans of the MTV show “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” will remember Diem Brown. She was cast to appear on the show at age 23. Everything in her life seemed to be coming together, but then she received a devastating diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

The illness inspired her to found MedGift, an online registry and social media site specifically for patients. It allows them to solicit donations for medical care; lists needed items that can be purchased for the patient; and provides a forum for patients for emotional support, visits and prayers.

Global Tattoo Orthotic Prosthetic Innovations

When Dan Horkey was 21, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that cost him the lower half of one of his legs. The injury took a major emotional and physical toll on him, which he turned around when he emblazoned his prosthetic leg with painted flames.

He received enthusiastic feedback on his unique prosthesis, and the boost to his self-confidence inspired him to found Global Tattoo Orthotic Prosthetic Innovations, a business that creates tattooed prosthetics for others. “I really want to help fellow entities open up and not be ashamed or hide their prosthetics,” he says on his company’s website. “I think that having a prosthetic they are proud of, can really help them feel better sooner.”

Nami Design Los Angeles

Sarah Ahn earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2006, and there was no question that she had an impressive career ahead of her as a brain surgeon. That all changed when her brother was involved in a motorcycle accident. He survived, but the accident affected her so deeply that it made it impossible for her to go back to work. “All of a sudden I couldn’t go through with it – it slowly killed me,” she told the University of California, Los Angeles Daily Bruin newspaper.

Ahn decided to study fashion design, and after attending the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons in New York, she founded Nami Design Los Angeles, an interior design company. She has also since founded a fashion line called Nami.

The Human WakeUp Call

A little over a decade ago, Mike Jaffe was the unhappy employee of a Fortune 500 company in New York. One morning, he decided that he would get to work 20 minutes later than usual so that he could spend some precious extra time with his family. This decision saved his life — his office was on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center, and the morning was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

Jaffe responded by leaving the corporate world behind. He founded The Human WakeUp Call, a business and personal leadership coaching company, and he says that for the first time he loves his work. In 2011 he released the book, “Wake Up! Your Life is Calling: Why Settle for Fine When So Much More is Possible?”

Click here for the full slideshow of New Careers: Where Tragedy Became Triumph.

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