My name is Renaissance Marie Austin and I have finally built up the courage to tell my story. But first, let me lay the groundwork. I am a returning adult student at El Camino College in Torrance, California. My major is Music with an emphasis on Classical/Broadway Voice and in the spring semester of 2017 I received my first music scholarship. I am a 4.0 student with a current GPA of 3.6 and growing. I'm sure you can imagine how amazing I feel with the progress I am making in my education career. However, life was not always this way. To assume that this is another rags-to-riches story would be cliche. Instead, I will say that it is more of a “riches-to-rags-to- victories-to-let downs-to-will I be homeless tomorrow” kind of story and the easiest ways to tell it is to start in the present time and work my ways backwards.
In the Spring of 2016 I returned to El Camino College after a 15-year gap due to an epiphany I had when I was recovering from major surgery in the fall of 2015. I never imagined I would step foot onto a college campus again, but undergoing surgery became very significant to me. I realized I had been given a second chance to regenerate my mind and my talent by going back in time and starting afresh an educational journey I began many years ago, but could not finish. I began to coin the phrase “my post surgery life” to indicate how different and amazing my life had become and how wonderful I felt physically. Yet, three years and a few months prior to having surgery my health and mental state were the poorest they had ever been.
Between 2011 and 2015 I was growing more sick than I could have imagined, but did not know what was happening to my physical body and mind. In the midst of my own medical research I traveled back and forth to my doctor and unfortunately my vital signs always came back normal and nothing out of the ordinary could be found, until a heart murmur was discovered during one of my later visits. By this time I had lost an unbelievable amount of weight, becoming a very thin 130 lbs. from my normal 187, and in the midst of my health issues I pushed and continued working and living my life. Through my fatigue, dizziness, and pain I continued to search out answers to my health problems and at that time I was managing and teaching crochet at a burgeoning yarn shop in Los Angeles where I was the only employee to start, accomplishing up to thirteen tasks a day. We were on the second floor, so it was important for me to take my time going up and down the stairs as not to faint or get overly nauseous. I carried large shipping boxes and stood on top of tables to hang samples. Even I was not aware of how ill I was and thinking back to those days I realized that I had put myself in danger by taking those risks. My only thought was that I was finally working a job I liked, and I was loyal to it and did not want to lose it because I had been in and out of jobs before and the list of companies I had worked for was growing. By this time I was on my fifteen job, it being right along my career path. However, I could have fainted or blacked out at anytime and anywhere because when a proper diagnosis came in, it was confirmed that I had uterine tumors that were literally taking my blood and life from me.
Through a partnership with my doctors and a very intuitive feeling one day when I was viewing You Tube I had the strongest notion that the symptoms I experienced were the same as those of the various women I watched tell their story. From this point I knew my next step would be to get a pelvic exam, but I never made it to the pelvic exam by my own will. I was forced into it indirectly on a Sunday evening when I was participating in a rehearsal for a play I was starring in. I did not have a car at the time so I would catch the bus and train to Sherman Oaks. On this particular day I was late and could barely walk two or three steps without having to stop to catch my breath. During the rehearsal, which was upstairs, I could not sing the songs I was leading. I broke down in tears because I was so tired and still did not fully understand what I was going through. I had lost all color in my skin which had become pale yellow and on that night when my flamboyant director was taking me home he yelled at me very loudly and told me to, “GO SEE A DOCTOR, RENAISSANCE!”. He surely convinced me to see my doctor yet another time and I was glad I listened! When Monday came I made my appointment first thing in the morning and was surprised that I received one so fast, in only eight days. Usually appointments were given for the next month, but it was clear God was working things out. In a matter of eight days I took myself off of coffee which I had become addicted to and fell into a routine of going to work and church and resting. I cut out all extra activities solely to focus on my upcoming appointment. When Monday came around again I felt a little more energized than usual and once at the doctor’s office I was able to walk up the stairs okay without losing my breath too much. My brother accompanied me and I am thankful he did. I felt certain I would be able to go home that day, that I would get my pelvic exam, a diagnosis, a surgery date, then wait. This was not the case once I sat down to have my blood count checked. Immediately things changed and my doctor began asking me if I could see or if I was dizzy. It turned out my hemoglobin was only 2, which was completely unheard of! Normally people are dead before they can even reach a blood count that low and because I was sitting in the chair smiling and feeling okay, they thought that maybe the machine misread the test. So, a second test was administered after they warmed my hand up a little and it came back as 2.3. I was ordered to go to emergency that instant because my doctor knew that I could drop dead within any second that passed. This is where I became slightly alarmed and when I walked out to the seating area to let my brother know he was even more alarmed. By the time we drove three minutes to Cedar Sinai and walked into the lobby of the Emergency Ward the message that a young lady with a blood count of 2 who needed a massive blood transfusion right way had already preceded me.
I became miraculously famous throughout the hospital that day. No one so far in its history had a blood count that low and were still living. When the nurses came to escort me they grabbed my arms as if I needed help walking, they asked if I needed a walker and again, if I could see, if I was dizzy or lightheaded. I smiled and told them I was fine as if what I was experiencing was no big deal at all. See, I was not aware that I should have been dead a long time ago and that I had about 1 pint of blood left in my body. That was where the heart murmur had come from. There was not enough blood pumping in and out of my heart to keep me alive. When I was laying on the bed in the emergency room waiting for the doctor I saw that my vision was beginning to turn salt and pepper, but because I was determined to live I spoke to myself and said hold on, clear your vision, now. Previously I blacked out in the dark of night while on a retreat with my church in Joshua Tree and on three different occasions my heart stopped, causing me to keel over but every time I came back. It is obvious that I was extremely anemic at this point and because the machine could not detect my blood type the doctor administered the universal blood type to get blood pumping through my veins again. Something amazing and spectacular happened. When I felt the blood flowing through my body I understood what it meant to become alive again. It was the most amazing feeling I had every felt, so amazing that I began to giggle quietly in relief. The doctor said to me that our bodies are like cars and blood is like gas. If you don't have enough gas then the car will not work. I realize I was just operating on fumes and while in the emergency room I finally received my pelvic exam and my diagnosis was confirmed. That night and the next day I received seven units of blood. I was told the body carries eight. I rested and thought about my life and the people I needed to call, my job, my director. I was used to going and going, but at this juncture I needed to stop everything I was doing to focus on a healthy mind and body. I was replaced in the musical, of course, and the job I was so loyal to I discovered was not so loyal to me. With a needle in my vain I found out that my employee status was changed to an independent contractor to bypass paying payroll taxes. I was out of disability and unemployment benefits because later through a phone call with the IRS, my wages were never reported. It was the most crushing thing I could have experienced at that time. Not only would I not be able to work for a while, I would not have any financial support. My future looked bleak yet again.
I want to stop just for a moment to recognize the director who screamed me into a doctor’s appointment and saved my life. I found out a year later, that following October, when I was a guest vocalist at his church, that he died only eight months prior. This news came to me in between my first song and me being asked to sing a second song. When I stood in the pulpit the second time I had the opportunity to tell the congregation how thankful I was that I’d met him and what he did for me in my time of illness. If it had not been for that Sunday evening, I am not sure I would even be here, but I am and he’s not. Life is filled with such irony.
Making it through surgery successfully changed my life and gave me the sharpest mind and most pristine voice I ever had. My thoughts were extremely clear and I no longer woke up in pain or had to consider everything I ate hoping it would not cause me more pain. Recovery for me was a time where I reflected deeply about my life, the good and bad experiences, my deep wounds and mental scars, my future and what I would do next.
I am being candid here, and I must be in order to be authentically honest with myself. I exited the hospital as a homeless woman without even a place to recover. People gave money and church members created a food train for me, but it was always interesting to me that the people you expect to give more never do and the people you don’t expect to give, do, and an old gentleman friend of mine who caused me the worst hurt I ever felt some years prior was the first to send 1,000 dollars for me to recover at an Extended Stay for four weeks. That was just a portion of the cost. Again, the irony of life.
In my room there was not much I could do but sit, stand, crochet, and watch golf on television, my favorite sport. And then, there was thinking. What was my life? And what was I doing? Why did my mother have to die so tragically in that car fire when I was a baby and why can’t I remember her at all? Would it have been too much to ask God just for an inkling of a memory? So many questions with no one right answer. I thought about how amazing my father was and how he was my greatest support. He died suddenly when I was fourteen, leaving my brother and I as heirs to our estate and also wards of the court as no one took over guardianship of us. However, being an heir and a minor is not a good combination when it comes to adult relatives. What was left of our money was taken and by 2008 I had completely lost everything, my property and home which I tried my best to manage and hold on to, yet I was learning life on my own and by age 18 paying a mortgage. It all happened so suddenly with no one stepping in to do right by me or tell me how the world worked and operated, only pointed fingers of blame were directed toward me for things I didn’t know relatives were hurt about, things that came up decades later that no one ever talked of.
I thought about my career and all the jobs I had to make ends meet, the business I started to keep me afloat every time I was let go from a job or had to leave one. Why was I continuing to take positions at companies where I did not fit in and diverting from the path that was created for me, that I could see and knew existed since I was a little girl? And more importantly, the actions of my most recent job caused a gaping hole in the pit of my stomach causing much hurt. I put all my worth into that position. You see, I was never confused about the overall vision of my life. It was the fine details and the step by step process that was bewildering at times, especially when there was no guidance, support, or advocacy from anyone in my life.
I thought about right before I landed in the emergency room, about how my band had a residency for a year at a local dive bar in North Hollywood and how on the last performance I finally sang in front of an A&R of a subsidiary music label under Universal Music Group. The interest was immediate and they were ready to start negotiations. Finally, it was the moment I worked my whole life for! I figured things could only move upward. I put two music videos together and put out one song on internet radio for a trial with the label, but my health caused it all to come to a halt. And then the great epiphany came. I would be returning to school. It hit me like a leap of faith as well as a daunting thought, because what was I to expect? I had already told my job that I would not be returning and more than anything I was starting a brand new life that needed a change of pace and new opportunities. This was about revival and although I warred with myself about the decision to negotiate or return to school, I eventually followed my gut. Education was the better choice for me at this stage of my life.
After being out in the world working and building my professional and entertainment resumes, performing and running my business, I would return to school to study music, revive my talents and update myself on what was going on in the world of education. Previously when I attended El Camino, I did not receive a clear path as to how to go about fulfilling my dream of pursuing music, but when I rested in my recovery room the vision was very clear, even down to the fine details. I felt at peace while reflecting on my successes and the memories that made me proud. My knitwear design company, Raghouse International, thrived online when I open my doors on Etsy.com which led to over 30 blog features and articles written about me, as well as online magazine features. I gained friends online all over the world shipping products along with my music globally, and I created a strong local and social media following and landed a crochet hair accessories collection in four Nordstrom across the country. I have sang on television, film, and in commercials, at live events, private parties, and celebrity weddings. I did background work, hairstyling, and model dressing for Los Angeles Fashion Week and have rendered my services for trade or little to know money. I believed in paying my dues and that I have done, because that is what I was told I must do, but none of my overexerted efforts elevated me high enough to keep me from homelessness. I decided that it was time for me to make a mental change. When looking at all the great work I had done on various jobs, I knew that it was time to value my talent and skills much more than I had done in the past. I was worthy of that value and with my new mindset I felt confidence walking toward my new journey.
After recovery, house sitting, living out of my suitcase, my car, at the overnight spa and moving around to five different places for the past two years and five months, the weekend of September 30th 2017 was a huge milestone for me. I finally moved into my new studio apartment . My brother helps me to keep a roof over my head and I am very grateful for that, but as a mature woman who once had her own independence and home, who housed people in need, hosted and cooked for people, who has served people her whole life, now needs serving. I have a great desire to rise up and stand on my two feet again and cannot do it alone. I need your advocacy and I need you to become a part of helping me spread my talent to the world. I need you to support my businesses and my educational career because I have no one else to reach out to. I will be honest and say that I grow more tired and I grow older for suffering is tedious, but I will not give up or stop amidst the purpose God has created for me. Now that I am a new member of the El Camino Chorale it is my desire to make it to Carnegie Hall in the Spring of 2018.
I have heard my whole life how wonderful and amazing my mother was and I often wonder how much of an advocate she would have been if she were here.