Meet Five of Indy’s Toughest Women Who’ve Shifted Health Nightmares Into Their Life’s Work

Health scares and nightmares discriminate against no one, and when a devastating diagnosis arrived for these five Hoosier women, they chose to fight and use their journey as jet fuel for their life’s purpose.
A photo of a woman in a hospital bed with all the kids

One day, you’re going through life where traffic on the way to work and your kid refusing to put on their shoes is your biggest headache. But then you’re slapped across the face with the reality of a life-altering diagnosis, and those headaches don’t sound so bad.

“We’re sorry, but the results have come back worse than we’d hoped.”

Just reading the words can make your throat tighten, your pulse race, and tears to well up in your eyes. But moments like this happen every day as women hear the news first-hand of a new diagnosis with life-changing and even life-threatening results. Soon, a treatment plan is created and life as it once was is changed in an instant.

While the daily battle of living with a diagnosis is a job by itself, some find renewed purpose given the new lens through which they see the world. Some of these women go on to support others going through similar battles, and others finally leap into their dream careers, now starkly reminded of how finite life is. Their stories are compelling, inspiring others to look forward, no matter how dire today seems, because tomorrow may reveal itself as even more beautiful and promising than ever expected. Here are five inspiring stories of Hoosier women who have faced personal health battles with grit and determination and are applying their passions toward something incredible.

Carolene Mays: A Medical Miracle Who’s Dedicated Her Life’s Work to Inspiring and Serving Others

An Indianapolis icon, Carolene Mays has been a fixture in the business world, among political circles, and on several major boards and committees responsible for establishing the city’s reputation for excellence. While success seems synonymous with Carolene’s name, her achievements have been hard-won, navigating business as one of the only Black women in the room, and finding her strength after being the victim of domestic violence. But nothing compares to the fight she faced in 2016 when she had a level five ruptured brain aneurysm which left her paralyzed, with severe pneumonia, and MRSA. She wasn’t expected to live, was placed on a vent, and her organs were planned for donation to transplant recipients.

A photo of a woman in the hospital
Carolene Mays

But after one month of being in a coma with her family fighting to keep her on life support—and lots of prayers—Carolene woke up during a special prayer service at Heartland Church. From there, she made it through the ICU, the hospital, in-house rehab, and completed outpatient rehab, all in four months after her miracle. Her community and family including her daughter and three stepsons were in awe of everything she’d been through; even the fact that she’d managed to call 911 for herself had been a miracle.

She was back at work in four months, in a high-profile role as the Executive Director of the White River State Park Development Commission, a position appointed by the Governor that she’d held for less than a year at the time of her aneurysm. After the placement of a stent in 2017 to resolve additional bleeding, accompanying the four coils placed after her rupture, Carolene’s recovery has gone well. Her neurosurgeons cite her as the only living and functional patient who’s been able to recover from her type of level five rupture. With a new lease on life, Carolene capped off her government service with the completion of the $30 million TCU Amphitheater and then retired to step into her purpose in 2021.

“God has been tapping me to do more since my healing. I have had a lot of experiences to share from my career, as a Black woman in major positions, as a domestic violence survivor, as well as being a medical miracle. I’ve been very blessed. It’s important to share hope. I’ve been and currently am blessed to be at a lot of tables and in decision-making positions. I often hear how leadership has difficulty finding Blacks for leadership positions—whether in employment or for board seats. There are so many talented Blacks, so I decided to create a platform to help position these outstanding leaders. I also want to help in the area of generational wealth,” Carolene says.

A photo of a woman at Indy Football with a #2022Indy sign
Carolene Mays

Her purpose has manifested through the creation of Carolene Mays Inspiring Leadership, LLC (CMIL) and a nonprofit, Black Leadership + Legacies, Inc. (BLL). Through CMIL, she does public speaking and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consulting. BLL specializes in training in leadership, board governance, and generational wealth for aspiring Black leaders. Carolene continues to host Community Link on WISH-TV, a segment she created 20 years ago. As she walks in her calling, Carolene has perspective on all she has to be thankful for and the opportunity she has to make a difference for others.

“I hope to inspire people to be gracious and kind, to appreciate the blessings they have, and to persevere. My hope is to be able to share my testimony and help others know that they can make it through challenges. Life is a gift and God still does miracles.”

Connect with Carolene for speaking opportunities, DE&I collaborations, and just to stay in touch on her website, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

Kelli McLaughlin: Cherishing the Gift of Each New Day While Doubling Down on Social Entrepreneurship
A photo of a woman with a cap on her head
Kelli McLaughlin

Most people spend Labor Day weekend soaking up the last moments of summer. But Kelli Abell McLaughlin spent hers learning that she had a benign brain tumor (meningioma) in 2021. Encouraged by her benign diagnosis, she continued her daily life as a wife and mom of four kids aged four to 21 while running her boutique, e-commerce website and social entrepreneurship venture Clothes With A Cause, a dream made a reality after finding frustration with school fundraising efforts and being inspired by her brother and sister-in-law’s fundraising success for their son’s adoption.

“I’d done every type of fundraiser possible —purchased the yard gnomes, cookie dough, pastries, wrapping paper, and candy bars! But none of it was practical. So, I thought maybe if I sold practical things at practical prices, maybe this concept would be a fun way to go about fundraising. I also decided to see what would happen if 100% of the profits would get donated to the initiative at hand instead of the usual 10-25%. And somehow, someway, almost five years, two storefronts, and an online presence later, we’re still here. We’ve supported everything from animal rescue initiatives to PTO fundraisers, show choir and sports fundraisers, veterans affairs, medical funds such as surgeries for cleft lip/cleft palate, clean water initiatives abroad, local children’s book drives, medical funds, and more,” Kelli says with pride.

Her daily grind was quickly halted in Oct. 2021, thanks to recurring seizures which brought out the latest reality about her tumor: It needed to be removed. Once her surgery was complete, they found that the tumor was actually an aggressive grade IV Glioblastoma, which comes saddled with a 12-18 month life expectancy after diagnosis—and no cure.

Thankfully, her surgery was a success, removing at least 98% of the tumor, but the medical team was unable to guarantee a full removal, due to the size and location of the cancer cells. After surgery, she did a 42-day stint of chemotherapy alongside targeted radiation.

A photo of a family
Kelli McLaughlin and her family

Today, Kelli’s treatment includes monthly chemotherapy and wearing the Optune brain magnet, the only FDA-approved non-invasive Glioblastoma treatment available. This groundbreaking device creates magnetic fields in the brain to help slow the reproduction of bad cancer cells, magnetizing them to pull them apart, causing cell death. A game-changing addition to her treatment plan, Optune has been proven to increase life expectancy over the course of 2-5 years.

Now, Kelli’s managing her increasing physical limitations, walking with a cane, and preparing to transition to a wheelchair part-time, her mobility a casualty thanks to the nerve damage done from the tumor’s location and removal. While her diagnosis and increasing daily challenges could easily get even the most positive person down, Kelli presses on, focusing on her family and how she can leave a legacy through her life and Clothes With A Cause.

“Honestly, my illness has reaffirmed my commitment to wanting to spread as much goodness in this world as I can. Prior to my diagnosis, I was starting to wonder if what I was doing really mattered in the grand scheme of things. But now, realizing that each day I am given is truly a gift, it makes me want to spread as many seeds of kindness and love as I can. It is truly the legacy I want to leave behind me,” Kelli says.

As she pursues treatment Kelli remains hopeful, for her future and her ability to make an impact, all while loving on her family, who she calls the light of her life.

“When you are diagnosed with a terminal illness, hope is really the only thing you have left to hold on to. My hope for myself is that I do my best each day, that I give myself grace on the days that are hard, and that I embrace the good days and live in the moment. My hope for those around me is that they will slow down and realize the goodness that is all around them. This is something I didn’t do enough of until I was forced to with my illness. And I missed many, many opportunities to live my life to the fullest because I was simply too busy to see them.”

Connect with Kelli at her upcoming fundraiser on April 23, 2022, First Annual Kelli’s Kegs N Eggs Run/Walk at Bier Brewery North in Carmel, whose profits will fund brain cancer research and a scholarship program for Hoosiers diagnosed with Glioblastoma to assist with mobility needs, and at her website and Instagram and Facebook accounts for Clothes With A Cause.

Cari Hahn: Healing Through Creativity While Giving Back to First Responder Mental Health
A photo of a woman sitting on stairs
Cari Hahn

An innocent itch back in 2016 set Cari Hahn on a trajectory that’d change her life, at times in ways that caused her to question, “Why me?” as she faced workplace discrimination and challenges after being diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer at just 40 years old.

After receiving surgery, chemotherapy, and daily radiation for over six weeks, all while working full time, Cari was spent. Finding survivorship harder than treatment, she needed a creative outlet. Inspired by her twin daughters’ love of candles, they created and blended fragrances together, healing along the way.

“I grew up creating. My grandfather was an artist, and my mother and sister both paint. Creating got me out of my head as I entered survivorship. It sometimes feels like you are waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Cari says, an effort that allowed her to use her degree in Art Therapy.

A photo a woman and her husband
Cari Hahn and her husband

Her creative outlet became an accidental business that now allows her husband, a full-time firefighter, to work in the business on his days off. Her product line, Clutch and Kindle, has expanded beyond candles to include earrings, housewares, and items made from decommissioned fire hose with 10% of the proceeds funding first responder mental health initiatives.

“My biggest goal when I was diagnosed was to see my twins graduate high school. I am moving the goalpost to say my next goal is to be here to see them graduate college. I needed my twins to see that life can knock you down, but you have to get back up and fight. You might need to rest, but anything is truly possible if you work hard,” says Cari.

Today, Cari looks toward hope, even though there’s a 30% chance her cancer could metastasize in the next four years. Along the way, her husband found the strength to get sober and celebrated four years of sobriety in 2022.

A photo of a woman holding a pink smoke stick
Cari Hahn

“My hope is that my business continues to grow and inspire people. I started my business with very little money and I had stacks of medical bills. Now, we’re ordering products in quantities of thousands, and our items are shipping all across the US, all of which are made in small batches by hand in Carmel, Indiana. It is truly a labor of love. Creating has been my highest form of hope.”

Consider Clutch and Kindle for your next candle fix or for great gift items that give back and fuel hope. Find them on Facebook and Instagram to follow along with the latest creations from Cari and her team.

Jessica Limeberry: Renewed Focus on Family While Growing a Business Celebrating Love
A photo of a family
Jessica Limeberry and her family

Southside business owner Jessica Limeberry had finally hit her stride, having purchased her successful business, Sophia’s Bridal and Tux, in 2014 after falling in love with the wedding industry. Life married to her high school sweetheart (who is in the Army) and their four boys was practically perfect until she was diagnosed with a carcinoid tumor of the lung in April 2018.

A photo of a woman taking a photo in the mirror
Jessica Limeberry

She’d suspected something was wrong back in 2017 and had to convince doctors to take her seriously to finally get her diagnosis and eventual lobectomy removing her lower left lung. In the thick of her surgery and recovery, she was forced to step back, leaning on her team to manage the business, which at that time had one location in Southport.

“I was forced to slow down pretty quickly, which has been such a blessing. Having a large family and growing a successful business isn’t easy, but I have learned to delegate, trust my team even more, and accept help. I am forever grateful for them! Since then, we have opened three new locations, and I’m able to empower my team to create careers, serve others, and have a life that includes this passion as well,” Jessica reflects.

A photo of a woman in a hospital bed with her husband
Jessica Limeberry and her husband

Today, Jessica focuses on being present for her family, friends, and team at Sophia’s, ensuring that everyone feels loved and valued. This is no easy feat, especially while running a successful business, mentoring her team, wrangling her boys, now aged seven to 14, all while managing the mayhem of her husbands’ deployments. All the while, Jessica works to cherish and celebrate everyone around her.

“If I can have any impact on people, it would be to make sure they know how amazing they are!” Jessica says.

Follow along with the daily happenings of this inspiring entrepreneur on her personal Instagram and on Sophia’s Bridal & Tux and XO by Sophia’s profiles.

Kate Shaughnessy: Celebrating the Beauty in Others Every Day After a Life-Altering Disease Was Almost Dismissed
A woman in a black dress leaning on a white door
Kate Shaughnessy

An errant tick bite Kate Shaughnessy experienced years ago was written off after her physician advised her only to be concerned if a bullseye-shaped rash were to appear. Years later, while focused on growing Lash & Brow Design Co., her successful beauty business that she was inspired to pursue after navigating high school with cystic acne, Kate knew that something was off. She sought a second opinion and learned that she had Lyme Disease, which if left untreated can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Her particular diagnosis included a secondary affliction, eosinophilic esophagitis or EoE, which causes impacted individuals to experience difficult or painful swallowing, vomiting and nutritional problems.

“At the time, I was still working on clients and training my staff. The way Lyme Disease had affected me messed with my memory as well as my body; I was in a lot of pain. Extreme fatigue was also a huge issue for me and with the EoE, I could not eat a lot of food because it would get stuck. Many people in my industry already struggle to take breaks to eat lunch, so having a quick lunch was never really an option,” Kate says.

Kate sought treatment from Dr. Lisa Miller at Excell for Life, whose practice she credits with saving not only her life, but that of her daughter’s after she contracted PANS disease. Even after two potentially life-altering diagnoses for her family, the single mom of four continues to pursue her dreams, making clients feel beautiful through lash and brow enhancements as well as speaking on her expertise with the Enneagram.

“I speak at conferences about the Enneagram and I always tell people I am an Enneagram three, so the only way I learn is through failure. I have had so much failure. Sometimes it’s taken me failing at something more than once for me to really get it. I think so many of us believe that either life is all good or all bad, but I’m learning and watching that it’s simply not true; beautiful things can happen even when you’re in the midst of hard times and devastation. That’s a beautiful thing about life. At any moment, you can make the decision that you want to change.”

Kate’s experience with Lyme Disease is not uncommon, so for those navigating the illness or auto-immune disease, she recommends reading How Can I Get Better? and The Body Keeps the Score. Connect with Kate at her website or on Instagram.

Natalie Derrickson is a communications professional, strategist, and writer who’s inspired to cherish the gift of every day thanks to the graciously-told stories of grit and determination from these five women featured in this piece. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and on her website.

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