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Heather Otto

What is your official title?

I don’t know if I have an official title. Yes, I’m a nurse, yes I’m a massage therapist, but I just like to see people have good things happen to them. That means taking care of people in the hospital, it means helping people heal their bodies, and helping people find their path. I’m a lover of life.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

There is no average day with a nursing schedule; some days I’m sleeping during the day, some days it means waking up to work with massage clients, some days it’s training for whatever triathlon is coming up next. I have no 8:00-5:00, get up and go; it really depends on the day. I work in the evenings, so I’ll get home, and run or swim, then go to sleep in the afternoon.


What is Bhakti Chai?

I was in Arizona training for an IronMan and someone introduced me to their chai, and I really don’t like tea, never been a tea drinker, but I was addicted right away. I came home after the race was over and sent them a Facebook post and was like, my heart is broken, there’s no place up here where I can get your chai! And they told me, if you’re willing to share it, we’ll send you some. So I get a free delivery every few weeks and I just share it – I bring it to the hospital, ChocolaTea sells it now, The People’s Food Co-op sells it, and hopefully Waterstreet will start selling it.

It’s a non-GMO product. It’s a great company that was started by a woman who made some chai in India and brought the recipe back with her. They’re a small company in Colorado, and nobody knew about it here until I brought it back. I just started bringing it around to share it, and people love it. You all know this, Kalamazoo is like a mecca for good things and good people, so I started sharing it around and it really picked up.


Tell us about your triathlons.

I haven’t been doing them for very long. I was in nursing school, and a friend of mine said hey, why don’t we do a triathlon, and I was like well, I don’t swim or bike, but I can run. He started to encourage me, and I had just gotten off of a rare diagnosis of breast cancer and needed something, so it was a really good way to escape. We started swimming, and it was comical; I could only swim one length of the pool. Then I started biking and continuing to run.

My first race was a half IronMan in Muncie, Indiana. It was amazing. My friend had a dream to go to New Zealand, and I had a dream to do a full IronMan, so we took a couple of months off and trained and flew to New Zealand in March to race, well, participate, actually. It was incredible. I had lived there when I was a kid, so I got to see family and friends and travel for a few weeks, then raced, didn’t die, crossed the finish line, and came home and started life again.

The biking was definitely the hardest. It takes a long time to develop those muscles to be a good biker. It took me eight and a half hours to get through the biking portion; it takes the professionals that long to do the entire race, but it was just unbelievably painful. The streets were cobblestone, old country roads, and it was just not something I could’ve prepared for. I’ve done three halfs and one full.

I would say, though, that if you ever have a chance to just go and watch an IronMan, it’s really phenomenal. To just be there, and see the athletes and cheer them on as they are racing is an amazing experience.


How has your cancer diagnosis impacted your life?

I was diagnosed with a really rare form of breast cancer, 0.05% of all breast cancer tumors, and there’s barely any research and no treatment other than to excise the tumor. It grows super fast and reoccurs, so there’s not a lot that doctors can do. Being in the medical field, I searched high and low across the country for a place that treated it, and so I turned to food and diet. I was already super healthy, but unfortunately cancer is a part of life and it’s uncontrollable.

I learned a lot. I think the greatest lesson I learned was to stop assuming you know what something is like until you live it. I had taken my mom through breast cancer before I was diagnosed, and had multiple friends who had breast cancer and supported them; I was in the medical field, I thought I knew what was going on, but until I knew what it felt like to have to tell your parents and to tell your friends that you were sick. I had no idea what that was like; I thought I did, but honestly I didn’t, and I learned that in any situation, we owe it to people to just step back and give some space.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

I feel like I started some place and have landed somewhere completely different. I have an awesome family, and my parents have just taught me so much. They run a small business, and have failed and succeeded, and I watched my dad start over in his 50s and rebuild a business from the ground up; they’ve always taught us – me and my two older brothers – that life is meant to be lived, they just instilled that in us. We’ve all followed our dreams.

My initial goal was to save souls from Hell and damnation in Africa. I found some more enlightenment beyond that, and that’s all changed and I now have a completely different outlook on life; they all probably would have saved me instead. I got a degree with the intent to do that, and then ended up never making it to Africa.

I migrated to Kalamazoo because I finished school and needed a job, and it dawned on me that the way I looked at life was a little close-minded. I got this degree to see the world as a missionary, but then when I realized I needed a job things changed. I was trained to facilitate ropes courses, team building and human dynamics, and asked the guy who trained me where I could find a job. He put me in touch with this place up here called The Adventure Center in Mattawan, and I started working with them in team building; that was my first career as a facilitator, then started working in fund development.

I facilitated for a long time, and also was a massage therapist, but it was time to find something new after doing it for about nine years. I thought nursing sounded fun, and went to nursing school, ended up staying in Kalamazoo and buying a house after commuting from Chicago for years. I thought I’d never move here, but look at me now – I have a Michigan license plate.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

There are so many things. I don’t think I could’ve moved to any other small town. I think true to my nature, I love to watch people create things; I’ve watched my parents create a business with their passion and watched my brothers go after their dreams doing what they love. We have those things here, and we promote supporting local and small business. There are just good things that happen here, and there are good people.

Bronson is a big hospital, but they try very hard to promote local and support their employees. I feel like everywhere I look, there’s someone new doing something great to help and support each other and make this place better. Like, Team Taylor that’s raised over $2 Million for Make-A-Wish; I worked in the PICU and saw those kids get their wishes granted. Meeting people that are a part of that kind of thing, it’s just phenomenal. There are so many great things that are happening all the time; I can’t pick one.


What can be done to improve Kalamazoo?

That’s a hard one. I love kids with cancer and want to help them with everything that I have. Especially the adolescent population, because they typically don’t have a great support system. Some day, I plan on creating a non-profit to take adolescents with cancer out on nature adventures who are in stages of treatment; it’s a population that needs its peers, but when you’re an adolescent going through cancer, how can you relate to your peers in school who don’t have it? I want to get them together and help them overcome challenges. There is a program in Canada, On The Tip of The Toes, that I want to model it after, but that’s down the road. It was a lot of my motivation of getting into the hospital and into nursing to give back to pediatric oncology.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

A little bit of everything. I’ve been listening to Hozier, and my boyfriend just took me to Iron & Wine at the State Theater, they were fantastic. I have very eclectic taste; sometimes I just put it on Pandora and hit ‘select all’.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

I don’t. I take my Bhakti chai. I don’t like coffee, and I even worked at Starbucks back in the day. I love coffee ice cream, all day any day, but no coffee, just Bhakti chai.


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Relax, trust the process. I was pretty high strung, but facilitation taught me a lot. My mom always said you’ll find yourself in the profession or relationship where you have the most to learn, so pay attention. I started facilitation knowing, okay, I have something to learn, so pay attention.


What’s next?

The transition that’s happened in my life is that I’m ready to settle down and have a family, and I think that’s what’s next, to figure out what that looks like.

As far as the non-profit dream goes, I’d like to touch base with DeVos, because they’re a bigger children’s hospital. The problem is getting connected to a pediatric oncologist who believes in a holistic approach. On The Tip of the Toes, they’ve done a bunch of research and have case studies on the benefits and they know how it works, but it’s finding people who believe in it. If the physician doesn’t believe in it, the parents aren’t going to believe in it. Some day!


Heather, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.