Why My Medical Journey, Including 9 Surgeries, Didn’t Stop My Businesswomen Prowess – Even Though it Tried

By Heather Petaccio,CEO, Adwanted USA

This International Women’s Day, I wanted to reflect on my story – one that doesn’t focus around my gender, but around my medical history. It’s the story of how I overcame a car accident, a divorce, nine surgeries and a lot of pain and heartache.

From the Beginning

I started my career at The New York Times, working my way up from a temp position in the production department to becoming a strategic sales account manager for many prestigious category groups. I was young and just starting out at my dream job. I helped launch careerbuilder.com through NYT when I was in the recruitment category, and helped inject new business into suffering advertising categories, building many sectors of the business while moving up. I always envisioned I would be a writer for NYT, but I became a businesswoman and fell in love with that world.

I grew professionally and personally at NYT. I endured 9/11 with my fellow colleagues, and joined hands in rebuilding the confidence in the city we all loved. At that time, I became pregnant and had my first child. I decided to take a break from the big apple and move to Pennsylvania where I joined publications like Philadelphia Magazine, Lamar Advertising and Kapp Advertising. It was there that I joined the SRDS team, where the company underwent several changes, under Kantar Media.

It’s while working at SRDS when I knew I needed a break from advertising and pivoted to join a company working with Talent Assessments. In 2020, I came back to SRDS, under Adwanted USA, first as Director of Sales and quickly transitioned to President and a year later, CEO.

Sounds like an empowering journey, right? But throughout all of these years, life tried to stop me in my tracks.

The Surgeries Came Knocking

As an athlete growing up and a tennis player, I always had a competitive edge, and adulthood didn’t put that fire out. I ran my first marathon in 2010. While training for my second, life decided to slow me down. During training for the Chicago marathon, I was unable to run as well as I could before, and fatigued easily. My husband at the time said it was burnout, but I knew instinctively that it was something else.

Well, it turned out I had two herniated discs in my neck (most likely from a car accident in college) and needed emergency surgery. Which, with my luck, ended up with a staph infection and a second surgery. I was devastated. My running career was over; I was weak and couldn’t do what I loved.

What else could I do, but adapt. I changed course and my mindset, picking up a love for walking and weight training. I always loved to workout, so it was a seamless switch.

Pile on the Heartache

Until life knocked me down again and I went through a divorce. It was amicable, however devastating, especially to my kids. I now had two children and lived in PA – a lovely place, but not one I loved. I missed New York.

I was now a single working Mom, with two amazing kids. I met my now husband and life was looking up. I was a strong, successful businesswoman and had just bought my own home. I was proud of the person I had become.

Then in 2016, my life dramatically changed. I was in a freak accident at the gym. I was using the cable machine, doing a squat row pulling 80 pounds of weight and the carabiner clip reversed, coming apart and throwing me across the room. I landed and immediately knew I was in trouble.

I could not feel my arms and my legs were completely numb. My ego bruised, I got up and brushed it off. However, it proved to be worse than I thought. Over the next two years, I endured two more surgeries – a neck fusion and a back surgery. But I survived, and I made a comeback. I worked and supported my family. I pushed through, and got back up, stronger each time.

Surgeries #5, 6, 7, 8 and 9

In 2019, I had additional issues from the accident and had to endure two more neck surgeries, one that landed me in a level one trauma hospital for a week with a 5-level neck fusion.

I got back up, I got stronger, I worked, I worked out, I made it through. I knew that the surgeries would not be over. I recovered. I made another comeback. I got married again.

In 2020, I joined SRDS again. I was thrilled to be back in advertising. I loved working in media! I began to grow with the company, becoming stronger and stronger. Since my tenure with SRDS, I have become President and then CEO. During this time, I’ve been rebuilding the SRDS business, integrating people (legacy and new) to grow the SRDS business while introducing the Adwanted US presence and launching new products in the US market. I’ve built a strong, talented team to help build and grow the business. I’ve surrounded myself with people that I can not only learn from but whom I can help mentor.

Unfortunately, the surgeries did not stop. I knew they wouldn’t. The severity of the accident puts me at risk with the instability in my spine. In 2021, I had my second lower lumbar spinal fusion. In 2023, I underwent a knee replacement. Most recently I underwent a lower lumbar microdiscectomy.

Each time, I bounced back stronger with a shift in mindset. Determination, perseverance, persistence mixed in with a bit of stubbornness has gotten me to where I am today. I still love the gym, getting up every day (except weekends) at 4 am to get a workout in which keeps my body and my mind sharp and ready for the day.

All that is to say I’m not here for a pity party. It’s hard to feel that way when life keeps knocking you down, but as a businesswoman and mother, I had to always fight and get back up. For those who are struggling – with whatever you have going on – know that it will get better.

I’ve learned to adopt the philosophy that everything happens for a reason. Life will knock you down a million times. Take the hits, have a good cry, recognize your emotions because they are valid but always get back up. Don’t let the set back define who you are, let it fuel the fire and help you grow.

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