Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a freelance business journalist based in New Orleans. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finding Inspiration in Your Darkest Moments
Washington real estate pro Renee Uribe thought being diagnosed with a brain tumor would end her career. But it only helped her thrive.
April 13, 2022
In the first week of COVID-19 shutdowns in March 2020, Renee Uribe, a sales associate with John L. Scott Real Estate in Bothell, Wash., was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A large lump had grown in the space in her brain responsible for critical motor and sensory functions. Although noncancerous, the growth could become life-threatening if left untreated and carried the risk of lifelong facial paralysis, deafness, and loss of balance. “I remember sitting in my office, and I was like, ‘That’s it. My real estate career is over. I don’t know what’s going to happen,’” Uribe recalls.
Since then, the 38-year-old mother of three has not only survived but thrived, having sold $23.6 million worth of real estate in 2021—her best sales year yet. That’s more than double the transactions she completed in 2019, the year before her diagnosis. Those who know Uribe say her comeback is a testament to her tenacity and grit. “She persevered,” says Katie Kendall, Uribe’s repeat client and friend. “She was resilient and would not let anyone tell her she had limitations. I have never seen determination like she had.”
Adversity and Opportunity
Uribe’s story of survival and success is the culmination of a nearly decade-long journey of personal hardships. In 2011, she escaped an abusive relationship, leaving with just the clothes on her back and her two daughters, Giselle and Olivia, then 7 and 3. At the time, Uribe worked 60 hours a week at two jobs to afford her family’s rent for a one-bedroom apartment. For a year, she slept on the couch so her daughters could share the bedroom. “I was basically the working poor, working paycheck to paycheck, trying to make it,” she says.
One of Uribe’s jobs was as an emergency room technician. Though it was physically demanding and mentally challenging work, it led her to an opportunity that changed the course of her life. In 2015, Uribe had a chance encounter in the ER with Theresa Dzwonkowski, the woman who would later become her designated real estate broker. Uribe learned that Dzwonkowski was a real estate agent with Property Brokers Inc. and wanted to know more. “She was dressed very fancy with her high heels. She looked gorgeous,” Uribe recalls. “I said, ‘I’ve always been interested in real estate. What’s that like?’ She said, ‘Here’s my business card. Come talk to me,’” Uribe recalls. She followed up a week later and decided to quit her job and get her real estate license.
A Life-Altering Diagnosis
It didn’t take long for Uribe’s new career to take off. She got eight transactions under her belt in the first year; by her second year, she more than tripled that number. Then, in 2017, she got into a head-on collision on her way to a closing. She totaled her car and suffered a concussion. For two-and-a-half years, she experienced headaches, dizziness, and nerve pain but chalked it up to symptoms from her injuries.
But in March 2020, an MRI detected in Uribe’s brain a 2.5-centimeter acoustic neuroma, a rare type of tumor that encroaches on important cranial nerves controlling facial movements, hearing, and balance. “[The doctors] said, ‘You will need to set up an appointment with a neurosurgeon. You’re going to have to have this removed.’ And then that’s how the conversation was left,” Uribe says.
Finding a surgeon with the special skills needed for the surgery seemed nearly impossible. Because Uribe’s tumor was benign, removing it was considered an elective surgery. “I was fighting my way in to see neurosurgeons,” she says. “I had to hand-deliver my medical records to try to get an appointment.”
She ultimately found a surgeon in San Diego and flew there for surgery in May 2020. Until surgery, doctors had no way of knowing which of Uribe’s cranial nerves they would be able to save—if any. “You’re basically going blindly into this surgery, not knowing if you’re going to wake up with facial paralysis,” Uribe says.
She spent six days alone in an intensive care unit after the operation. She couldn’t see her family because of COVID-19 restrictions at the time. To her relief, doctors were able to save the nerve that controlled her facial muscles. However, she suffered permanent hearing loss in one ear and lost her vestibular nerve, which controls balance. She would have to relearn how to walk.
The recovery process was brutal. Twice a week, Uribe traveled two hours to undergo vestibular therapy. “She was an absolute trooper. She was religious with her treatment and her therapy,” says Kelly Nutt, owner and managing broker of Uribe’s real estate office.
One silver lining for Uribe was that because her surgery was scheduled while much of the Seattle area was still on lockdown because of COVID-19, her real estate business wasn’t as intensely busy as usual. During her hospitalization, she had all of her listings pending, and her transaction coordinator helped keep things on track for her.
Meanwhile, Uribe’s current husband, Ray—then a newly licensed broker—coordinated Uribe’s showings and kept tabs on her email while she was away. “When I took possession of my email, he was so happy,” Uribe says. “He said he did not realize how much work it was.”
Uribe’s co-worker, Linda Nguyen, also assisted with some of the showings. “During this time, I learned that it was possible to coordinate showings from another area in the country if you had a strong support system and office standing behind you,” Uribe says. “My managing broker, Kelly, was able to also step in and help with any missing pieces and questions.”
In the months before her surgery, Uribe feared for her hard-fought real estate career. “During that time, I lost a client,” she says. “She fired me when I got diagnosed because she thought I had too much on my plate and couldn’t take her to the finish line.”
After that experience, Uribe kept quiet about her diagnosis. Still, she remained upbeat and steadfast, and she was determined not to let her clients down, says customer Melissa Hall. “She was just bound and determined to prove to herself that this wasn’t going to stop her, and it sure as heck didn’t,” Hall says.
Six months after the surgery, Uribe started feeling like herself again. She used her new lease on life as a jumping-off point to relaunch her real estate career and embrace her newfound strength. In 2021, she closed 44 deals, and her gross commission income surpassed $500 million. “Her business exploded like wildfire,” says client Katie Kendall. “She overcame and was beautifully resilient.”
The experience also made Uribe want to give back to her community. She’s spent the past year mentoring and volunteering with local community groups. “She was already a great connector,” Nutt says. “But I think the situation she went through probably adjusted her perception of life in general, and I think it pushed her to be even more involved.”
Uribe continues to volunteer two to four times each month in the same ER where she worked 11 years ago. “I don’t want to forget where I was and where I’ve come from, and that’s what I feel like has really kept me grounded,” she says.
Having experienced a foreclosure in 2012, Uribe thought she would never own a home again. Today, she and her current husband own four properties, including land they want to develop into a tiny-home park. The couple have a 5-year-old daughter, Isla, in addition to Uribe’s other two children, now 17 and 12.
With a decade of hardships behind her, Uribe says she’s forging ahead: “When I think things are tough, I just do a reflection: ‘OK, this isn’t brain surgery. I’ve got this.’”