Published October 17, 2006
Volume 14, Number 10

Compassion and Generosity are a Way of Life For Jennifer Milne of Marzel’s

By Jay Hipps

For some people, generosity and compassion are ideals, qualities to be strived for and occasionally achieved. Marzel’s owner Jennifer Milne counts herself among the fortunate ones who get to express those human traits on a daily basis.

Her work at Marzel’s, a company that she owns with her mother, Georgette O’Brien, deals mainly with cancer survivors who are beginning to put their lives back together, after the doctors have done their part. “Things are thrown at you when you’re diagnosed with a disease, and you have to accept things, you have to face things, and the recovery is to move forward. And so if we can help in that by providing someone with good service and products and knowledge, it’s going to help their road to recovery a lot more.”

Many of Marzel’s customers, though not all, are women who have had mastectomies in response to breast cancer. The company also provides custom compression garments for people with diabetes, circulation problems, and other health issues, as well as other products.

Milne was born in Oakland and grew up in Danville, later majoring in physical therapy at Cal State Hayward and San Jose State. That field was crowded, however, and with the first of her three daughters keeping her occupied, she decided not to pursue a health-related career at that time.

Her opportunity to do so came after O’Brien, then operating a small store in Walnut Creek, befriended a neighboring retailer who owned Marzel’s. (The store’s moniker comes from the names of the two women who started it, Mary and Hazel.) “Mary was getting ready to retire and she sort of hand-picked my mom to succeed her. We had a family meeting and we said, ‘It’s a no-brainer,’ because my mom had a background in science as well—she had studied dental hygiene—and also breast cancer had touched many levels of our family. It was something we felt part of, in a way, and we could do something about it. It just felt right. So when I had the opportunity, I began working in the store in Walnut Creek with her. That would have been about 15 years ago, because 10 years back is when we branched off with the Pleasanton store.”

It takes a special calling to work with women who are rebuilding their lives after the physical and emotional trauma of breast cancer, but after a somewhat nervous beginning, Milne discovered quickly that she has that talent.

“I wasn’t nervous about what somebody might look like physically; I was nervous about how I might interact with them and if, because I might be younger than that person, they would look at me differently,” she recalls. “But I armed myself with my knowledge of the skills that I had learned, with the fact that I wanted to help, and the fact that we’re all just human beings and we all have to function on a day-to-day basis. Once I got started, I didn’t really have any issues. I just felt like ‘This is it,’ like there wasn’t anything I would rather do in my life, that this is really what I want to do and what I’m meant to do. I’m totally comfortable with that. And it only got better because with experience, I became more confident.”

Her experience over the years has only confirmed those initial feelings. “I found that this was something that filled the need of helping others and doing something slightly medical and slightly scientific. It’s very, very rewarding, and that’s not why you do it, but that adage about when you give you receive back two-fold is so true. It’s really a gratifying profession.”

Not all of her work is cancer-related, but it seems that nearly all her work can be a life-changing experience for her customers. “It happens daily where we feel like we’ve touched someone and helped them. We’ve helped a lot of teenagers who have had an instance where their chest has not developed evenly or equally, and that is not as uncommon as a lot of people think because it isn’t something that we all talk about regularly. It exists and we can help, and when we have, it’s such a great thing because it’s a time in that teenager’s life when self-image is so important. If we can help make that girl feel like she can wear her clothes and look normal just like everyone else and not be intimidated and so forth, that’s going to help her self-esteem, so that’s really a great thing.”

The most challenging part of her work, she says, is the bureaucratic part of the business. “Insurance and paperwork and new laws and Medicare, the different guidelines that we have to follow in that realm make it more challenging. That part of the business is constantly evolving and we always have to have our ear to the ground to hear what’s coming down the pike as far as new laws and reimbursements for products and things.”

What Milne really loves about her profession is the miracle that occurs on a daily basis. While many of us are grouchy and unable to face the world until our first cup of coffee, Milne has discovered that working with people who are facing their own personal crises provides her with a unique spiritual nourishment.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Is it not depressing working with cancer patients,’ and it never has been. Of course our heart goes out to people, but I do keep my own self buoyant by looking in their eyes and seeing what they’re doing, and that gives me increased awareness and hope and the realization that life is precious and we have to live it to the best we can, fully, and it’s short, so we have to live for today.

“I want to be strong for them so I maintain that strength, but I in turn am inspired by them as well, by those people who we meet. I think it’s just a re-usable resource; it feeds itself. It’s a strength that just comes out because you are recharged constantly. It comes from within but it also comes from without. I feel that that sense of uplifting and happiness or strength is there, it’s just there, it’s there for the taking. It doesn’t cost anything, it’s there, it’s free, it’s about living.”

In that way, Milne’s joy in her chosen profession can be an inspiration to anyone.

“I think the wisest of people have had the worst scenarios and are such good examples of how to live fully, even with restrictions. You have to just keep going and you have to make the best of things and you have to look on the bright side, so how could I not be that way? I must.”


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