From escaping an abusive relationship to undergoing brain surgery: How a Bothell woman overcame it all

Renee Uribe went on to sell dozens of houses as a real estate broker in 2021.

Renee Uribe sold 44 houses last year as a broker for John L. Scott in Bothell while facing closed doors along the way.

In 2011, she escaped a physically and financially abusive relationship, and by March 2020, Uribe was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

While working as an emergency room technician as a young woman, Uribe married a military man with whom she has two daughters with. After seven years of marriage, Uribe was able to safely escape with her children.

“When he came back from Iraq, I was in my early twenties and he had changed,” said Uribe. “He progressively got more abusive with me, and that was hard. Not a lot of people knew what was going on with me because I felt very isolated from my family, my friends, people at work.”

Survivors of domestic violence are frequently pushed into feelings of isolation from abusers’ constant search for power, such as controlling one’s activities or social interactions.

Leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for survivors. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it takes a survivor on average seven times to walk away before leaving for good. Furthermore, when a survivor leaves, an abuser is more likely to lash out with physical violence at an attempt to regain control, which can sometimes cost survivors their lives.

The organization Stop Relationship Abuse states 75% of domestic violence related homicides occur upon separation, and that there is a 75% increase of violence upon separation for at least two years.

“He attacked me right before,” said Uribe. “I had it in my mind I was going to leave. I was saving money at my desk at work.”

Uribe recalls the bruises that were left on her body that day in 2011, and how the abuse continued for about a year through stalking and home break-ins. Although she is happy to have said goodbye to the ball and chain, she still carries the weight of safely making it out.

When asked if she thought there were enough resources for survivors in Washington, Uribe said: “absolutely not.”

“I remember being at a park with my daughters and I called the domestic abuse hotline to ask, ‘Can you guys help me? I really need help,’” said Uribe. “Basically there were no resources for me, and they said I would have to go and move into a shelter.”

Uribe made the decision to not go to a shelter, and said she remembers that call to the hotline as being incredibly disappointing. Additionally, her family members did not have the resources to support her and her children.

“Offering a woman a one-bedroom room inside a house where her and her kids could be safely in a home, that would be the most ideal,” said Uribe, who added that providing survivors with financial payments when leaving abusers would also be beneficial for starting over.

“That was the big hurdle: How do I put money down on an apartment without him knowing that I’m taking this money and doing that?” said Uribe.

Uribe rented a one-bedroom cottage, where she slept on a couch in the living room for one year; she wanted her daughters to have their own personal space within the cottage.

“That to me was more important than having my own bed,” said Uribe.

Even after leaving the relationship over one decade ago, a reminder of the physical abuse remains. Uribe detailed how the abuser dislocated her shoulder twice, which led to surgery and a 4-to-5-inch scar.

“My current husband tells me now, he has this saying and it’s like ‘This scar is here to remind you that whatever was trying to hurt you did not hurt you,’” said Uribe, which makes her feel good about her scar.

Brain tumor leads to uncertainty

While working as an emergency room technician full time, Uribe was barely getting by, she said. While at work in 2015, she met Theresa Dzwonkowski, who later became her designated real estate broker.

During her first year in real estate, she sold eight houses while continuing to work in the ER to pay for real estate agent expenses. In her second year, she sold 27 houses, she said.

“In 2017, I get into a major car accident on my way to a closing, and from that point on — March 2017, I start having all these headaches and they’re pretty debilitating,” said Uribe, who was having anywhere from four to eight migraines per month.

As time passed, her symptoms got progressively worse. In addition to the migraines, Uribe experienced dizziness, facial pain down her right cheek, and hearing loss. By 2020, Uribe did not feel heard by her medical providers, so she reached out to EvergreenHealth in Kirkland for a second opinion, where she received an MRI.

A phone call with test results came in at 8 a.m. while she was on shift. Uribe had a brain tumor.

“I come home from work and I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m crying in my kitchen and all I can hear from the door from the bathroom was, ‘Mom! Can you come and wipe my butt?’” said Uribe, who describes it as an eye-opening experience. “I couldn’t feel sorry for myself because I still had to be a mom at the end of the day, and that just brought me back into reality.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Uribe had difficulty finding a neurosurgeon who would operate, but she was eventually able to locate one. Uribe had a benign tumor, also known as a vestibular schwannoma.

“It’s a tumor made of Schwann cells wrapped around the nerves, and the cranial nerves control a lot of the function of your body and your face,” said Uribe. “My cranial nerves that were wrapped up were the vestibular nerves and the auditory nerves.”

Uribe’s greatest fear was not knowing whether the surgery would impact her facial nerves and lead to facial paralysis. While conducting extensive research on her tumor and neurosurgeons, Uribe found the University of California San Diego’s program, Acoustic Neuroma.

In May 2020, when California and Washington were on lockdown, Uribe flew to San Diego to have the tumor removed.

“Lucky for me, I was able to get my whole tumor out and save my face, because a lot of my friends were not as lucky as I am,” said Uribe. “I don’t have any facial paralysis at all, but the hard part for me is I lost my hearing, which makes it difficult at times.”

She describes her former self as a very social person, although following the surgery she said it can be difficult to focus as a result of her single-sided deafness. Since her vestibular nerves were removed, she will always struggle with her balance and dizzy spells, she said.

Uribe received vestibular therapy for over a year in Seattle, and she does weight training twice per week to remain strong and active. She said it took her one year post-surgery to feel like herself again.

Now, Uribe advocates for individuals receiving a vestibular schwannoma diagnosis, as well as domestic violence survivors.

“The message that I want to give others is a message of hope. I try to kick this tumor’s butt all the time, like nothing’s going to stop me,” Uribe said. “Nothing.”

On top of her advocacy, Uribe sold 44 houses in 2021, while working several ER shifts per month. According to Uribe, 44 is a large number of sells, particularly after recovering from a major surgery.

“It’s my drive just to keep giving my kids the best life possible, and that’s the thing I don’t ever forget that ‘OK, you didn’t have anything. You came from a foreclosure. You slept on the couch. You had to work so hard,’” she said. “And now I’m able to give back and none of this would be possible without my husband, who’s very, very supportive.”