From ICU to LAWYER and ENTREPRENEUR
Hi, I’m Dafina and I would love to share my story with you. Before becoming a successful lawyer and entrepreneur, I was this 23-year-old girl in ICU fighting to survive. Let me start my story in 2001…
2001 – Starting College
In 2001, I started my college years and attended Bucknell University. At the time, my parents were divorced. My dad was a blue-collar worker and didn’t value education like my mom. My mom pushed me to go to college and helped pay for a lot of my Bucknell tuition. However, I still needed to take out student loans to cover the rest.
As you may have seen in the movie “The House” starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler (such a funny movie…lol), Bucknell is a really expensive school.
I battle with sickle cell disease, which is a blood disorder that causes chronic debilitating pain. It is a genetic disease that I was born with.
Throughout college, I would have a sickle cell crisis every few months. A sickle cell crisis is pain that can begin suddenly and last several hours to several weeks. It happens when my sickled red blood cells block small blood vessels that carry blood and oxygen to my organs and bones.
This usually leaves me handicapped because the pain is so severe I can hardly move. When I have a sickle cell crisis, I usually have to be hospitalized anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Through it all, I somehow managed to push past these setbacks. In my junior year at Bucknell, I decided I wanted to go to law school and start the next chapter of my life.
2005 – Fighting Through Law School
In 2005, I graduated from Bucknell University and started law school at Duquesne University School of Law. I took out more student loans to cover the cost of law school.
Law school was very hard for me. So when the time came, I was just so happy to graduate! The next obstacle to overcome…studying for and passing the bar.
2008 – The Worst Sickle Cell Crisis Of My Life
When I was 23 I had one of the worst sickle cell crisis of my life. Several things that can trigger a sickle cell crisis such as a change in the weather, dehydration, physical overexertion, infections, and stress. I believe this crisis happened because it was a particularly stressful time in my life.
I had just graduated from law school, and I was studying for the bar. Looking back, I think I became so sick because I was obsessed and stressed about passing the bar. I was even studying for the bar from my hospital bed.
It is normal for me to be hospitalized during a crisis, but for some reason with this particular crisis, I just kept getting sicker and sicker. During my hospital visit, I developed pneumonia and acute chest syndrome. Acute chest syndrome is a leading cause of death for patients with sickle cell disease.
I was eventually taken to the ICU because my condition was becoming life-threatening. It’s very scary hearing your doctor say “We need to move her to the ICU.” I remembered thinking to myself “Oh my goodness, this is serious and I’m probably going to die in here.”
I started crying, and I guess the doctor could pick up on my energy because she looked at me and said “Don’t worry, I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” I will never forget those words. It somehow gave me hope when I was feeling morbid.
After spending about a week in the ICU, I was well enough to go back to a regular floor in the hospital; however, I was not well enough to go home. I spent a total of about 3-4 weeks in the hospital at that time.
What also made this particular time in my life hard is I was living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is about 8 hours away from home. This made it very difficult for a lot of my family and friends to visit me in the hospital. I also missed a lot of monumental memories with my family, such as my sister’s wedding.
My health eventually got better and I was discharged from the hospital. Although I was discharged from the hospital, there was still a lot of recovering to do at home.
Imagine being confined to a hospital bed for almost a month and not being able to walk or move much. I had to teach my body to walk and move again. I started out using a wheelchair, then a walker, then crutches, then a cane, until I was able to fully walk again on my own.
Later that July, I took the bar. A few months later I found out I passed the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bar (yay!). I was officially a lawyer that was licensed to practice law! 🙂
I got a job offer in Kentucky to work for the public defender’s office. They offered me a salary of about $30,000. Kentucky had one of the lowest starting salaries for public defenders in the region at the time. Although the salary wasn’t good, our country was in a recession and I was just happy to have a job.
After working in Kentucky for a few months, my boss approached me and told me I needed to take Kentucky’s bar. At that point, I decided I was not ready to make that kind of commitment to stay in Kentucky.
I’m a city girl from New York City, and I just wasn’t happy living in the small rural town of Cynthiana, Kentucky. I was grateful for the opportunity, but I decided to move back home to New York at the end of 2008.
Early 2009 – Studying For The Bar…AGAIN + My Father Is Diagnosed With Cancer
I moved back to New York and was lucky to get a job at a small immigration law firm. The pay was still pretty low (around $36,000 a year), but again…I was just happy to have a job.
I looked at it as a way to build my resume and gain some legal experience with my Pennsylvania and New Jersey licenses. Since immigration law is federal law, you don’t need a New York license to practice it. You can practice immigration law with a license from any state.
Although I was licensed to practice law in two states, it did not help me because I wanted to practice criminal law in New York. To practice this type of law, I needed to be licensed in New York because criminal law is state-specific. So I had to study for and take the New York bar.
The next exam was scheduled for February 2009. I wasted no time studying. I tried my best this time not to get stressed out, because the last time I studied for bar I almost died…literally! I took two months off from work to study and focused all of my energy on this.
Unfortunately, two weeks before I was scheduled to take the bar exam I learned that my father was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The doctors told us he had about two months to live. I was devastated!
At that point, all of my plans to take the bar in February were canceled. I wanted to focus on helping my father get any treatment that could prolong his life a little bit longer.
About a week later, my father had to get surgery, which went well. He was scheduled to go home in a few days. I figured once he got discharged from the hospital, I would schedule for him to start chemotherapy.
I went back to work at the small immigration law firm when I decided I was going to wait to take the bar.
For some reason, this particular day I forgot my cell phone at home. My sister called me at the office saying she got a phone call from the hospital and they told her Dad died. She said the hospital was trying to reach me and couldn’t so they called her. At the time, my sister lived 6 hours away, so she couldn’t confirm if the news was true.
I immediately left the office to go to the hospital. I was just hoping someone was wrong or that there was a mix-up. I kept thinking to myself “Dad was doing fine and was recovering from his surgery. He was supposed to get discharged soon.
What could’ve happened since the last time I saw him? The doctors said he had two months to live! It’s only been two weeks so there must be a mistake!”
It was the hardest subway ride I ever had to take in my life. People probably thought I was crazy because I was crying uncontrollably on the way to the hospital. Although I was told my father died, for some reason I kept hanging on to this little bit of hope that maybe my sister was misinformed.
I got to the hospital and saw my father still in his hospital bed…
The news was true…he passed.
Not only did I have to deal with grieving the loss of my father, but I also had to plan a funeral and figure out how I was going to pay for this funeral? I never had anyone this close to me die before. I never had to plan a funeral. I didn’t even know where to start or how much funerals usually cost.
My father did not have any money when he died. I was a broke young lawyer, making very little money. At the time I barely could even pay my student loans that recently kicked in. I had to rely on other family members to donate money to help cover my father’s funeral expenses.
I have no idea what I would’ve done without the help and support of my friends and family…both mentally and financially.
After the passing of my father, I decided to focus on studying for the bar again. I felt like my father wouldn’t have wanted me to give up on my goal of passing the New York bar.
The next exam was in July 2009, and I approached my boss again in May 2009 to ask for two months off to study. My boss said, “You can take the two months off, but I can’t guarantee your job will still be here when you get back.” I took that to mean my job would not be there after two months.
But that wasn’t going to stop me from accomplishing my goal. I thanked him for the opportunity to work at his firm and started studying.
I took the New York bar in July 2009 and later that year, I found out I passed! I was unemployed…but I passed! Lol.
Late 2009 – I Started My Law Firm
A lawyer and friend of mine from the small immigration law firm I used to work for approached me with an idea of starting a firm together. At first, I was very scared and reluctant about this idea. I liked having a secure paycheck and knowing how much I was going to get paid every week (even if the pay was low).
However, I was having a hard time finding a job. Our economy wasn’t great, and there was plenty of competition in New York. Since our economy was not doing so well at the time, I felt like the only way I would ever make a decent salary, as a lawyer is to maybe work for myself.
I figured I would give it a try and my friend and I started an immigration law firm together. I decided to stay in immigration law, instead of going into criminal law like I originally planned, because at this point I was practicing immigration law for over a year. I became more knowledgeable in immigration than I was in criminal law.
So, I guess I didn’t need to take the New York bar after all…lol.
I believe everything happens for a reason. Maybe if I didn’t decide to take the New York bar, I would still be working my “safe” low paying job at the small immigration law firm. I wouldn’t have been forced to take a chance and open my own firm, because I had the security of a constant paycheck.
2012 – Getting My Finances In Order
In 2012, I was eventually able to afford to move out of my parent’s house and live on my own.
I was finally earning a decent salary and I went crazy with the spending. I squandered a lot of money on designer items because I felt like “I earned this!” I believed I deserved all these expensive things because I worked so hard to get to this point. It was my “reward.” The problem is my financial situation was NOT in order.
I had horrible credit because of the medical bills I couldn’t afford to pay in the past. I also had credit card debt and current medical bills. At least once a year I was hospitalized because I had another crisis. Some years I was hospitalized multiple times.
Although I was earning a good salary, I was still living paycheck to paycheck.
At that point, I knew I had to get serious about my finances. But first, I had to get serious about my health. Being sick was costing me too much money.
I started watching what I ate, controlling my stress, and took my medicine religiously. Over time, I saw improvements in my health. Instead of being hospitalized every year or every few months, I would have a crisis only once every 2-3 years.
Having sickle cell, I know it’s inevitable that I will continue to have crises throughout my life, but I can do things to prevent them from occurring so frequently.
Next, it was time to get serious about my finances.
I started reading books, listening to podcasts, and reading blogs (like this one :)) to get educated on finance. I calculated my net worth to see “how bad the damage was.” And it was bad!
I had a negative net worth and so much debt to deal with…six-figures worth of debt. At that point, I knew I needed a plan to tackle such a large amount of debt and later build wealth.
I decided to make a budget for the first time ever. I finally saw where my money was going and I made a plan for where it would go in the future.
I had a goal of buying my first house. I decided I needed to make more money and save aggressively if I wanted to see this dream come true anytime soon. I took on a second job to earn more money, and drastically reduced my “lavish” lifestyle. Because of that, I was able to save over 50% of my income.
2016 – Making A Choice To Be Financially Free
(“Financial Freedom My Only Hope” ~Jay-Z)
At this time, things were going well for me financially. I paid down a significant amount of debt and I was able to save $300,000 in 4 years. I purchased my house and I finally felt financially stable.
I had an emergency fund; I was paying all my bills on time; I was investing and trying to build wealth; I paid off my credit card in full every month; and my credit score significantly improved.
Financially, things were great; however, I was no longer happy with my career. I constantly had to work. Since I’m self-employed, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. Because of this, I would miss out on so many events and memories. I always had to leave to go to work, or would cut my vacations short because I had to go to court.
Life became all about work and was no longer fulfilling. At that point, I realized I have to diversify my income. I ultimately decided I wanted more than to diversify my income…I wanted to achieve financial freedom!
I wanted to work only if I choose to and on my terms. For me, being financially free was so important because it would allow me to live my best life.
I witnessed a few of my friends die at a young age. Some died from the same disease I have, some died from cancer, and some died by tragic accidents. Seeing this made me reflect on my own life, and I knew I did not want to wait until I was 65 years old to start living it.
I almost died at age 23, but God gave me a second chance. I wanted to take advantage of this second chance and finally begin to live…FULLY. We only have one life to live, and I wanted to decide on how I would live my life.
I was tired of cutting my family vacation time or holidays short because I needed to get back to work. I was tired of doing a job where I did not feel fulfilled. I was tired of being stressed over my high demand legal job—which sometimes led to me getting sick and more hospitalizations. Therefore, achieving financial freedom became an avid goal of mine.
Spring 2018 – Officially Financially Free
After I decided I wanted to be financially free, I continued to work a second job to earn more money. I was saving aggressively and I invested my money. Finally, I got rid of my BMW (which was paid-in-full) because I wanted to reduce my monthly expenses.
Although I would have been able to “afford” all of the luxuries I gave up, I could only afford them if I continued to work for money. However, my definition of what I can afford has changed over the years. The way I determine if I can afford a luxury item now is I look to see if my assets can purchase it—not my earned income.
Having financial peace of mind is worth more than buying material things to impress other people. I know today that if something happens to my law firm, or me and I can’t work anymore, I can still sustain myself. I no longer have to cut my vacations and holidays short. If I don’t feel like going to work one day I don’t have to.
Having financial freedom is a true blessing.
Currently, I still choose to work and practice law despite being financially free. Some of you may wonder, “Why do you continue to work although you are financially free? Wasn’t the point of all of this to quit your job?” The short answer to why I have decided to continue to work is because I have not reached the level of wealth I want yet—which is Financial Abundance.
Financial Abundance is the ultimate level of wealth you can achieve. It is when your monthly passive income can cover the total monthly expenses of your dream lifestyle. Although I practice a frugal lifestyle today, I like having luxury items. I hope to repurchase that BMW one day, but with my passive income :).
To attain this ultimate level of wealth, I have to continue to earn money so I can have capital to invest. The more money I have to invest, the more money my passive income generates. And the more passive income I have, the closer I am to my goal of Financial Abundance.
Summer 2018 – Starting My Blog
Once I achieved financial freedom I felt like a big weight was lifted off of my shoulders. It became natural for my friends and family to come to me for advice about money.
I decided I wanted to start a blog and write about my journey. Maybe I can even help some people outside my immediate circle of friends and family.
Not only have I turned my financial situation around, but I’ve also helped those closest to me do the same. I want to help as many other professional women with their money as possible and find the same peace of mind I’ve found.
I know how it feels to be broke. I know how it feels to have a negative net worth. I know how it feels to have a ton of debt and bad credit. I know how it feels to make very little money while working long hours. I know how it feels to live paycheck-to-paycheck even when you’re making a decent salary (and when your not). I know how it feels to have no idea where all your money went.
But I also know how to make a plan for my money to turn my life around.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope it gives you an idea of who I really am.
Where To Go From Here?
I would love to hear from you and know your story. Tell me what brought you to my blog or what problem you need help with the most. You can email me here. I’m an actual human being, and I read every email I get.
Let me show you how you can manage your money better and attain financial freedom or retire in a short period of time if you choose. Sign up for a FREE 15-minute financial assessment call with me. After learning a little more about you, I can tell you what financial steps you need to get your financial life in order.
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You deserve to live a life of abundance, and not be stressed over money.
Thanks again for taking the time to read my story.