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07/01/2015 08:00 AM

Dr. Susan O’Malley Shares Her Message of Perseverance

Madison resident Dr. Susan O’Malley, founder of Sonas Med Spa in Madison, overcame several personal and career challenges to become a successful doctor, and now shares her message through public talks and her recently published book. @SPN Cut credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan O’Malley

When Susan O’Malley started medical school, she was 35, single, and six months pregnant.

Now she’s Dr. Susan O’Malley, 63 (but still looks 35,) and has lived and worked in Madison for six years. She started her medical spa business in 2002 in Trumbull after working as an emergency room doctor for many years.

“At age 50 I got a little too tired to do that,” she says. “After lots of thought, discussion with other people, and brainstorming, I decided I wanted to open a medical spa dedicated to non-surgical results. Part of that was because, at 50, I was starting to notice changes on my own face that I didn’t like, and I was having off-the-cuff conversations with plastic surgeons and I just didn’t like what I was hearing. I just thought, ‘There has to be a better way, a non-invasive way.’ So my practice is dedicated to non-surgical alternatives to help women look younger.”

She adds, “When I was an emergency room doctor, I saved lives, and now I save self-esteem.”

Sonas Med Spa in Madison takes its name from sonas, the Gaelic word for happiness.

“When I decided to open this business, I had no business training whatsoever,” she says. “Nobody in my family owns a business. I jokingly tell people I didn’t even have a lemonade stand when I was a child. So I opened, put a $75 ad in the newspaper, and I sat at the reception desk myself. It was just blind optimism on my part. I really thought, ‘Women will come.’

“It turns out that you have to build a business—people don’t just show up,” she says with a chuckle. “Advertising was a good start, but I realized quickly that I needed to get a little more creative. I started giving talks and joining organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and those kinds of things.”

Three years after opening her business in Trumbull, the doctor moved to Branford to be with her now-husband, and moved her business, Shoreline Aesthetic Care, to the Stony Creek Medical Center, where she stayed for about three years before Susan and her beloved got married and bought a house in Madison.

“I knew that I always wanted to be here. I was able initially to rent a space on Samson Rock Drive, and I was there for a little over a year when this space [at 869 Boston Post Road] opened up. I’ve been in this location for five years, and in Madison for six.

“I love being in Madison because it’s a beautiful place to live and there’s just such a sense of community. I lived in New York, I lived on Long Island, I lived in Branford, and they’re all sort of the same. You could be anywhere. But in Madison, you really feel you’re in Madison, and that’s a great feeling. Madison women are very loyal to Madison businesses, and that is uplifting as a business owner to have the support and the town behind you. So I love it here.”

Never Too Late

Susan also wrote a book, Tough Cookies Don’t Crumble: Turn Set-Backs into Success.

“The book outlines the strategies that I used to transform myself from a college dropout and a secretary in New York City into an emergency room doctor, an entrepreneuer, and now a public speaker,” she explains.

The book, published in February, was launched at R.J. Julia at the beginning of March. It’s also available at Breakwater Books in Guilford, on Amazon, and signed copies are available right at the med spa. Anyone can download the first chapter for free on

On her long road to becoming a published author, she says, “From the first day that I decided I wanted to do it until I finally did it was five years. The first four years, I was writing the wrong book. I was writing a book that was really about me, and my story, and my experiences. And it took me a long time to figure out why I was writing the book, who the book was for, and what the book was really about: It has nothing to do with me. The book is loaded with my experiences—and those are unique to me—but it’s not my story, it’s everybody’s story.”

Once she clarified her audience in her mind, “it just flowed out of me in about six months, and then it took another six months to go back and edit it, clean it up, and move things around,” she says. “It has been very well-received, and it’s heartwarming when women come up to me who have read the book or who have seen me give a presentation and tell me how it changed their life when I said this, and it touched them when I said that.

“[The message is] not, ‘If I can do it, you can do it, too!’ it’s ‘Here’s how I did it, and here’s how you can do it, too.’ Every chapter is a strategy. Simple things, like asking for help. As women, we get all hung up on, ‘I can do it, I know how to do it.’ It’s a trap, and we fall into the trap sometimes face-first. I was the queen of self-sufficiency until I got to medical school with a baby, and then I realized I wasn’t going to get through it with that formula anymore. I went through eight babysitters and a daycare center, and realized this was just an untenable situation.”

She swallowed her pride, packed up her bags, and moved back to Long Island to the carriage house behind her parents’ home so they could watch the baby while she worked overnights in the emergency room. Problem solved.

Never Too Old

Along with being afraid to ask for help, another way people can inadvertently serve as their own worst enemies, she says, is by thinking they’re too old to do something. She has firsthand experience with that trap, as well.

“I had gone to college for one year when I was 18, but I’d had no goal or no direction, and I just didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “I decided to drop out and I became a secretary for 11 years. I went back to college at 29 and initially decided I was going to be a nutritionist, which is an honorable and a noble profession, but I realized very shortly into my studies that it wouldn’t be a good fit for me.

“When I decided I wanted to be a doctor, I thought initially, ‘Great idea! I’m going to do it. I finally figured out what I want to do,’ and very shortly thereafter, the self-doubt crept in. ‘What am I talking about? I’m 30 years old, I still haven’t finished college. That means I’ll be 33 by the time I go to medical school. People start medical school at 23, not 33! What if I can’t do it? What if I’m not smart enough? What if I’m too old? I think I’m too old.’ It just went on and on in my head.

“My poor mother was the sounding board, and finally one day she said to me, ‘Susan, one day you’ll be 50 years old. You’ll either be a doctor or you won’t, but you’ll still be 50. That’s your choice.’ And just like that, I knew. She was right and it didn’t matter how old I was, and I knew that I had to do it, and I did it.”

A Successful Family

Her baby, Ryan O’Malley, is now 28 years old, lives in Washington, D.C., and works as the assignment editor for Fox News.

She says, “He went to college in D.C. and loved it and stayed. He’s made a very nice life for himself. He has a great girlfriend and a good job and I’m very proud of him. Growing up in a single parent household was not easy for him, especially because I was out of the house so much, working through internships and residency, through years in the emergency room working around the clock. I’m very proud of the young man he has become. He has a good heart, and he’s smart, and he’s funny. He has good morals and values, and he’s a hard worker. I’m not only proud of him, but I’m proud of the job that we did together.”

Her husband, Dennis Perkins, “is the smartest man I know,” she says. “He has a leadership and consulting firm upstairs from the spa called the Syncretics Group. He gives keynote presentations on teamwork and has written two books. He’s kind, loving, smart, and generous, and I’m the luckiest woman in the world,” she says with a smile.

As for Susan, she has given presentations to local Chambers of Commerce and the Women in Business groups. She was also elected on June 1 to serve as vice-president of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Association of Speakers.

“I’ll give presentations to anyone who wants to listen,” she says. “The talk that I give is ‘How to Turn Try Into Triumph.’ If I have an hour I usually outline five strategies from the book, and if I have half an hour I will outline three strategies from the book. I like to tailor each presentation to the audience I’m speaking to. I have things lined up. I’ll be at the Happiness Club in, I believe, August. I enjoy public speaking. There are people who are afraid of public speaking—luckily I’m not one of them.”

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