Portland trader trades career for own business after losing father to COVID-19

For virtually all working Oregonians, the pandemic has caused a profound change. The Oregonian / OregonLive spoke to four people who have turned their careers upside down, whether out of necessity or choice.

Wendy Combs has worked long hours over the past six months trying to grow her business as an interior designer. But every day after leaving school, she insists on shutting down her computer to greet her daughter, Lennon, at the bus stop.

This afternoon break with her daughter is a daily reminder for the Portland mother of why she quit a 20-year career in marketing and regular pay in May to start a business. In his old job, Combs worked in a windowless office. She had pictures of Lennon on her desk that she could look at while she worked, but she was never able to meet her daughter after school.

“I’ve worked with amazing people and miss my team very much,” said Combs, 44. “However, the working conditions, not just my job, make it very difficult for people to put their lives, their health and their families first.”

Over the years, Combs and his family have relocated several times, purchasing homes that had been neglected, which allowed Combs to embark on a redesign of their new home. Every time they went to sell, houses received multiple offers. Still, she didn’t consider interior design a career until a tragedy struck her family last year and forced her to reassess her priorities.

A month before the pandemic, Combs’ mother-in-law died after a year-long battle with cancer. Six months later, her father contracted COVID-19. He died the same month. Both were in their sixties.

Combs’ father, Bobby, was an Air Force veteran who spent his career in a stressful job for the State Government of Texas. It wasn’t until his retirement in 2015 that he finally bought his first home, a townhouse near a golf course and lake. But just as he was getting closer to home, he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a condition that causes muscles to become weak and quickly tired.

Instead of spending his final years enjoying the lake and the golf course, Combs said his father was confined most of the time to his recliner, watching TV with his dog.

“I’ve learned that life is short,” Combs said. “We weren’t promised tomorrow and wanted to create a life I want now rather than wait for a magical date that might not come.”

As the owner of Wendy Combs StudioCombs said she finds joy in helping clients redesign their living spaces after they move in. She also has the opportunity to prepare her schedule like she never did in her marketing career.

When she works weekends, Combs often takes Lennon with her to her clients. The 10-year-old will have the chance to watch her mother at work and will often make suggestions, especially when her mother is rearranging a room for another child.

“I feel amazing,” Combs said. “I feel like this is the best gift I can give to myself and to my daughter. I am confident that by continually serving people I will start a business and am so happy doing it now instead of 20 years ago.

– Jamie Goldberg; [email protected]; @jamiebgoldberg

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