Words by Brandy Herr

Photography by Shad Ramsey Photography

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” never rang truer than it does for Paula McDonald. In a life fraught with difficulty, McDonald chooses to turn each obstacle into an opportunity for growth. From health issues to heartache, she has now become a published author, a revered motivational speaker, a leading real estate agent, and a general inspiration for women everywhere.

A Granbury native, Paula McDonald’s struggle began at eighteen, when, upon applying for college, she noticed an anomaly on her birth certificate. Upon bringing it to her mother’s attention, she discovered the shocking confession that the man who had raised her was not her biological father, and that he had passed away two years earlier. She learned that she had a grandmother still living, however she was in a coma in a Houston hospital. Filled with the determination that she must see this newfound relative before she passed, McDonald boarded a Greyhound bus in Fort Worth.

Paula McDonald arrived at the hospital and nervously approached the side of the bed where the frail woman lay as if sleeping. She lifted the woman’s hand and placed it, palm first, against her own, marveling at their identical size. As she stared, captivated by the hand of the grandmother she had never known, the elderly woman’s eyes fluttered open as she breathed, “Hello, Paula.” Her grandmother, who had been on her deathbed, lived on for six more years.

The doctors and hospital staff had called it a miracle. Paula McDonald, however, believes it to be an act of God. Though she had not been raised in a Christian household, she had always been drawn to the church and could never understand why. Her grandmother, with whom she became very close, had told her, “I have been praying for you for eighteen years!” McDonald knew, then, of the power of such a deep familial connection. According to McDonald, her grandmother “had prayed this bubble of protection over” her, standing in as a real-life guardian angel.

Because of this protective guidance, Paula McDonald went on to graduate from college with a degree in biology, never once being tempted to use drugs or otherwise stray, despite growing up in the tumultuous 1970’s. The high school biology teacher married and had two children, living the ultimate idyllic life, complete with a literal white picket fence.

Paula McDonald transforms a life of intense struggles into one of empowerment and inspiration.

A self-proclaimed “health nut,” McDonald was an avid runner, gymnast, and all-around athlete. That is why, in 2003, when she first felt a pain in her back, she dismissed it as part of living an active lifestyle.

A friend, concerned about the pain, urged her to see a cardiac doctor. She trudged to the doctor, convinced it was a waste of time. The doctor assured her that her heart was fine, though he did hear something in her chest that caused concern. She consented to an X-ray, and then headed home.

The next day, Paula McDonald received, as she put it, “that phone call that changes your life.” The X-ray indicated an enormous mass in her chest, and she was immediately referred to a thoracic surgeon in Houston. She arrived at his office, stunned to see people from all over the world in his waiting room. This surgeon was among an elite tier of doctors, having worked alongside the likes of Dr. Michael DeBakey. Still in denial that anything was wrong, especially anything that would warrant the need to visit such a high profile doctor, McDonald shook her head and thought to herself, “I shouldn’t be here.”

When it was her turn, an older man, bald, with bright blue eyes and cowboy boots protruding from his scrubs entered her examination room. He put her immediately at ease, and she knew that he would take good care of her. She was admitted to the hospital, where she underwent three days of tests with no results. The doctors finally theorized that it was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma of the thymus gland, and the dangerous surgery would take place the following morning. The outlook was bleak as the staff told her, “We don’t give you much hope, so get your affairs in order.” That night, McDonald was joined by her husband and children to say good-bye. After they left, she stayed up to plan her own funeral, making music choices and writing out letters to loved ones.

When the anesthesia wore off, Paula McDonald found herself wide awake in the hospital bed with a different doctor at her side. He explained that he was a neurosurgeon that had been called in because, as it turned out, the tumor was not on the thymus gland, but instead was completely wrapped around her spinal cord. He told her that he was amazed she wasn’t in a wheelchair with the severity of such a tumor, to which she laughed and said that she had just been running three days ago. She would require an additional surgery to remove the tumor from the spinal cord, which happened three months later.

Paula McDonald spent one long year recovering from both surgeries, making improvements little by little and working through the pain. Finally, after several excruciating months, she began feeling better and celebrated her new lease on life. Then, one day, it all came crashing down around her as her marriage of twenty-one years crumbled. As she fell into a stupor of self-pity, a friend encouraged her to join her at a women’s retreat. Fellowship with other, seemingly happier women was the last thing she wanted to do, but she begrudgingly agreed.

On the first night of the retreat, the speaker told each of the ladies to find a place alone with their Bibles, open it up to the first page they came to, and find a name that spoke to them. Paula McDonald flipped her Bible open with an air of petulance, convinced that God would not be speaking to her then. Her eyes landed on Deuteronomy 33:12, which includes the word, “beloved.” At the sight of that word, McDonald’s world suddenly came into focus. Her divorce had left her feeling abandoned, with the belief that no one could ever love her. But she knew that she was wrong. She wasn’t just loved by God, she was beloved.

Paula McDonald’s newly developed strength led her to transform her life. She took a risk and left her full-time teaching job with benefits to jump into real estate, a field she had always had interest in, but was never encouraged to pursue during her marriage. She remarried and moved back to Granbury to further her entrepreneurship. Though her life has still been far from easy, from another surgery that involved the entire removal of a lung to the formal adoption of her own grandson, McDonald maintains her positive outlook on life. Her experiences, and what she has chosen to take away from them, have led her to publish a book and become a life coach. In a sweet example of life coming full circle, she is now often asked to speak at women’s retreats just like the one that had changed her life.

Challenges may still arise in the future, but Paula McDonald won’t let that stop her from living for today. As she says, “People are so terrified, wondering when the next shoe will drop, that they forget to live.”