When nail tech Erin Snyder Dixon found herself in a long battle with a life-threatening disease, she knew she had to make changes so she could continue to do the work she loves — but finding the best course of action was never easy.
Here I am manning my workstation in 2006.
Like many nail professionals, I fell into the salon life while on my way somewhere else, never expecting to fall in love with the industry, the people, and my clients. It’s been more than 30 years and I still love it, but it’s taken some unexpected turns and revealed some major vulnerabilities in my original plan.
Doing nails was the perfect, flexible career to pursue while going to college. It was a natural fit and by the time I was 18, I had opened my own salon. Before long, I was all-in — competing, working in education, traveling, and writing. I finished undergraduate degrees in accounting and business management, but they soon became supporting acts to the beauty industry rather than destinations in a career. The nail business was good to me and when I wasn’t working, I was running marathons, surfing, gardening, target shooting, and cooking.
It was all a fantastic whirlwind of travel punctuated by periods of recuperation while catching up on client visits. I know that you “get it.” We burn the candle at both ends. We live big and don’t ever want it to end or to say no to clients…until.
That “until” came when I became ill — so ill that I couldn’t do much of what I enjoyed. In the beginning, and for several years, I was able to hide my illness from the outside world, but eventually I had to make big changes or it was all going to fall apart.
Looking back, I should have structured my business life differently from the beginning. Had I spent more time planning and less time thinking it would never happen to me, things would have been different. I almost didn’t agree to write this. My ego still wants to think I can tough anything out and the usual rules don’t apply. But my heart and mind know that I owe it to other passionate nail professionals to share my missteps as well as what worked.
My body turned against itself. Month after month, the flesh on my feet and legs disappeared and was replaced with wounds that traveled to the bone in places. I was in pain and spent a good amount of time carefully dressing and wrapping them so I could work. The doctors had no idea how to help, and after dozens of tests and biopsies, I was sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. I already knew that I was born with a genetic issue called vascular ehlers danlos, as well as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. What I didn’t know is that I carry a genetic mutation for factor V Leiden, which caused my blood to clot with reckless abandon. This clotting factor explained the history of blood clots that had been blamed on frequent flying. None of this explained my legs that resembled a double in a zombie movie. I had developed rampant neutrophilic activity due to a rare susbset of rheumatoid arthritis called rheumatoid neutrophilic dermatosis, as well as erythromelalgia. Until today, most people didn’t know this. No cure exists for any of them. My immune system is working against me. This four-pack of rare diseases would mean a course of drugs, including chemotherapy agents, for the rest of my life or until a cure is found. I must forever be hyper-vigilant about getting hurt — no more windsurfing or marathons. Flying is a high risk activity for blood clots — no more routine air travel. Sitting for prolonged periods, due to blood clots, was out as well — no more long client hours.
The neutrophillic activity caused gangrene on my leg.
Because of my travel schedule, it was easy to slip out of state for treatment without explanation. Only a few clients knew. It’s really hard to break news like that and it was easier not to talk about it. Keeping the line between my work and private life gave me time to figure out what I wanted. At that point, clients didn’t need to know. I was able to fulfill all my duties in the salon.
When the treatment schedule started to include the chemotherapy agents, I was able to schedule around it. I would take injections and an experimental cocktail on Saturday mornings and for several days be quite ill, but by Wednesday I was able to be back in the salon. Easy — all clients were scheduled Wednesday through Friday. I got the idea from friends who had cancer and took weekend treatments so as not to lose their job. Flying was ill advised, so I had to resign from my position as an international educator. Writing had filled more and more time, so it was a smooth transition. It was more important than ever to have an income. My expenses had just gone way up and there was a lot of uncertainty.
I didn’t want to stop seeing clients but I also wasn’t ready for full disclosure. As I continued mentoring local nail technicians, I was able to match some clients with suitable replacements should I close the salon. But I didn’t want to let go of the salon yet.
I scoured the Internet to find examples similar to my situation but found few. I was also concerned about what kind of long-term income I would have. By design, and a poor one at that, I had worked behind the table for too many years without relinquishing some of the duties. Eventually, we all need to take a sick day, or a bunch of sick days. No matter how strong or resilient we think we are, operating without backup is a poor plan.
I consulted with a disability specialist who made it clear that I needed to maximize my earnings for the 10 years prior to quitting work. Tapering off slowly until I couldn’t earn was a really bad plan. This put me in a tight position with the salon. Her advice: Close the salon and go to work for another salon while simultaneously getting a part-time job in a field that wouldn’t leave me sitting for hours and would give me a reliable income. Diversify my income earning. Protect my future Social Security benefits. Stay well enough for a cure, if one comes along.
My husband helped me dress and wrap my wounds so I could go to work.
The biggest mistake I made was in disclosing my illness. I assumed I knew how each of my clients would react. Some of my clients had followed me for decades. When it came time to drastically reduce my hours, I started to tell my long-time clients first. There was an afternoon when I told a client who had been coming for almost 25 years. I just knew that she would be one of my rocks. We had been friends since before the salon days and spent time together outside the salon. Her reaction was flat, nothing, not a word. On her return visit, she told me that she had gone home and Googled what I had told her and she couldn’t sit in front of me knowing that most vascular ehlers danlos sufferers die from a major rupture by age 48 or that none of this could be cured. I never saw her again.
It was too late. Google isn’t my doctor and even though treatment was going well, I had let the cat out of the bag and it hurt my business. Looking back, I should have waited or cut my hours without explanation. People didn’t know what to say — even though I was doing well — really well.
I visited the canals of Brugge, Belgium while traveling as an educator in 2007.
Transitioning to Part-Time Technician
With a freshly reduced clientele, now was as good a time as ever to take the advice of the disability specialist. When I wasn’t working in the salon or writing, I pursued finding a local, part-time job, doing accounting work and organizational consulting. After a string of blah choices, I found myself at a landscaping company a couple of days a week, doing a mix of whatever needed to be done. They were flexible and knew my situation from day one. That job would turn out to be the magic piece that let me continue to do nails. With an income in place, I was free to reorganize the salon into something that would work for a while. I sold the line of private label products I had developed to a friend in the industry. My assistant was ready to move on to another job and I didn’t replace her. I would be able to do nails, mentor other nail techs, write, and have some security. That was a couple of years ago.
I’m lucky to get sporadic calls for celebrity treatments and take them as I am able. Giving myself permission to take it easy and not overpromise the energy that I have has made it easier to start the days when I’m not sure I have the energy to finish. My clients have had time for the shock to wear off. I often run into old clients when out and about, and they ask when I’ll start to take new clients again. I’ve settled into the outdoor beauty industry and gotten used to being in town most of the time. Modern technology allows me to keep up with my fellow nail professionals around the world.
Today, I manage the landscaping company during the day, work in the salon and coach others at night, and write on the weekends as I recover from treatments. It’s a combination I hope I can maintain comfortably until retirement.
I wrote “Misneach” — meaning courage or hope in Old Gaelic — on my ankle in henna to remind me not to give up.
A Few Words of Advice
> Develop contingency plans before you need them. Ask yourself what you would do if you needed to be away from your position at the salon for an extended time. Do you have a trusted team to carry out all duties?
> Put together a contingency book. Include everything. Your family or second- in-charge can use this to carry on should something happen to you. Create lists of vendors, accounts, passwords, or anything else they would need to keep the doors open. The smaller your operation, the more important this is. If you are a single booth renter, this may include a list of clients and phone numbers as well as trusted technicians for referrals in an emergency.
> Be very careful about disclosing too much. Our clients come as much for the experience as they do for the nails. It may be hard for them to sit across from you knowing the situation. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back.
> Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you feel. Nobody can be positive or strong 24/7.
> Decide what is most important to YOU! Be brutally honest with yourself. What can you do and what will truly feed your soul? If you can only do a few clients a week and nails rock your world, find a way to make it happen.
A longtime contributor to NAILS, Erin Snyder Dixon is the owner of Extremities Spa Salon in Newport News, Va.