September Eleventh, Chronic Illness and Change!

If you would have asked me in the year 2000 what I would be doing in the year 2017, I probably would have told you “Running a trendy and successful hair salon!” A lot has happened since that time. A series of events that completely changed the course of my life and would eventually lead to my running a successful language services & bilingual safety company instead.

When I was twenty years old, I moved from Florida to New York.  I worked on a scaffold doing exterior building maintenance. It wasn’t long before I was in rigging school and became a scaffold rigger. At the same time, I was placed in charge of safety, inspecting scaffolds, training new workers and programming safety meetings. Eventually, I married Emily and moved on to owning my own painting business.

After years of painting, I decided to change careers and pursue a passion. This change required me to go to beauty school. Imagine that! I changed from construction work to becoming a hair stylist! Only at this stage in my life it was obvious that specialized training was required if I were to be successful in my new endeavor. For this reason, after beauty school I became an apprentice at the most famous salon in the world, Vidal Sasson.

Although I loved Vidal Sasson very much, I found my real home with Lance Lappin Salon in Tribeca. There I finished my training and reached my goal of become a stylist at a high- end salon.

The morning of September 11, I stepped out of the train station at the World Trade Center when the first plane hit and exploded right above my head. I walked several blocks to the salon thinking it was a bomb. Lance informed me that it was an airplane.

I don’t need to explain all the details. What the rest of the world was watching on TV, I witnessed up close. It was the second worst experience of my life!

However, I also witnessed the human capacity for goodness as well. Once the salon re-opened, we did our small part by offering free shampoos and head massages to the volunteer workers at ground zero. We had no phone service and could not accept credit cards. We simply cut hair on the honor system and not one person cheated us.

Shortly afterward I found myself with a permanent terrible cough. I also found myself catching one cold after another. A chest x-ray revealed that I had chronic lung disease. My doctor recommended that I see a pulmonologist.  After begging the doctor to tell me what he thought I had, he finally told me the based on the image he suspected cancer. According to him, if that were the case I might only have six months to live.

That was the worst day of my life! I didn’t want to die or leave my family abandoned! I pondered my priorities and my life decisions and especially my relationship with God.

My pulmonologist eventually had to perform a lung biopsy. This basically means that she had to cut my lung open and take a sample. I have the scars to prove it! It turned out that I didn’t have cancer and I would not die in six months! What a relief!  I do however have a chronic disease called sarcoidosis that affects my immune system and my breathing.

At this point, my pulmonologist now gave me more bad news as if it wasn’t bad enough already. She said “Jeff, you shouldn’t be working in the salon any more. You have to breathe in too many chemicals that are in the air.” This bit of news hit me like a massive boulder! I thought about how I changed careers from scaffolding to painting and then finally found my passion working as a stylist. What would I do now?

I was angry and scared when I asked her indignantly, “What? Recreate myself? Like that is so easy?” Her matter of fact answer was, “I didn’t say it is easy, I said it is what you need to do.” I was devastated and angry at her for being so brutally honest.  However, it helped me land in reality. This new realization allowed me to plan the next steps for the future.


In New York, I began to do odd jobs as a medical interpreter. As an interpreter, I could help people and breathe clean air. I also realized that being an interpreter was more than just being bilingual; it is a serious life impacting responsibility.  I had to learn ethics and medical terminology. All of this required me to go back to school again and take more courses. I joined professional associations and took any training I could get.

In 2007 with the support of my family, we moved to Greenville South Carolina and incorporated Alfonso Interpreting.  Just as I had to recreate myself and learn the skills of my new career, I wanted to be sure that every interpreter working with my team received continuous training. Being a medical interpreter with chronic illness allows me to understand what many patients are going through. For the sake of being unbiased, professional ethics prevents me from getting too close to patients or giving them personal advice. However, when a case is over and I am no longer their interpreter, I have reached out to some people devastated by serious injuries and shared with them how they too can recreate themselves with retraining and effort instead of giving up.

A couple of years after opening my business in South Carolina I received a call from a construction company requesting that we interpret for an OSHA safety class. After so many years of changes, I realized that no knowledge that is acquired over our lifetime ever goes to waste. I found myself now interpreting for safety classes, something I was familiar with from my first job working with scaffolds.

In time, I found myself back in school. This time I was at Georgia Tech becoming an OSHA authorized safety trainer. I discovered that South Carolina has no companies offering safety training directly in Spanish. Companies either hire an interpreter or import Spanish-speaking trainers from out of state.

My language service company now naturally offers bilingual Spanish and English safety training as well as interpreting and translation. As a safety trainer, I work to prevent so many injuries I have seen over the years. I work to prevent others from being exposed to contaminants that could cause others to develop lung disease or other ailments.

All my life struggles have now brought me to a point in my life where I work to save lives and improve them. Just like New York City could rebuild, so have I.


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