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Former doctor bakes up a big life change with Virginia business
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Former doctor bakes up a big life change with Virginia business

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The Roanoke Times

WILLIS

Leaving medicine didn’t mean the end of 18-hour work shifts for Jessie Benson.

Instead, the former doctor has traded hospital wards for a Floyd County kitchen with a view of Buffalo Mountain.

“There were just so many things that I wanted to be a part of that the life of a physician just did not provide for me,” Benson said. “Now I do everything I love.”

And one of those things is baking. In fact, today it accounts for about 75% of her living, and she does it on her own schedule. Even though some baking days are long, “to me, it is not work,” Benson said. “There’s no dread; I just love it all. I would do it no matter what.”

From the 950-square-foot home she helped design and build, Benson fills a stream of weekly orders for “triple-layer chocolate chocolate cake,” “perfect pecan pie,” “heavenly almond croissants” and cream cheese kolaches — and about a dozen other items on her website.

Benson said her business, Buffalo Mountain Bakery, has grown quickly since she opened it Nov. 15 with a social media announcement. Right after she went public, she sold out through Christmas and orders have remained steady since then.

Customers log on to her website and place an order. She bakes for her clients most days and makes deliveries to Floyd at least twice a week. Her mud-speckled SUV, usually with its hatch raised for easy distribution of sweet treats is a weekly sight around town.

Ivan Anderson, owner of Healing Tree Wellness Center, was an early customer, wooed by the thought of the made-from-scratch chocolate cake.

“I saw her posts of the lovely goodies, and so I had to order some. They taste very good, let me tell you,” Anderson said. “I’m afraid to tell you how good they are.”

Anderson said he has since ordered two cakes for himself, which he cuts into slices and freezes. That way, he said, he has to thaw them out before treating himself. He said he’s given several other cakes as gifts and tried a range of Benson’s other offerings, including her signature raspberry and white chocolate cookies.

The appeal is more than the delicious flavors, and even more than supporting another local business.

“You can feel the love. That’s one of the most important things,” Anderson said. As a naturopath and energy medicine practitioner, “I know that the food takes on the energy of the cook.”

Benson said that baking gives her more than a living. It has purpose. She recently filled an order for a woman in Texas, who wanted her father to have his favorite pie on his birthday — despite being in hospice care in Floyd.

“Baked goods, they’re really in people’s hearts. So I get asked to do meaningful things,” she said. When Benson finishes baking for someone, “every part of it I have touched and done, so feel a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”

But it’s not quite accurate to say that Benson, 45, gave up a career in medicine in 2014 to open a baking business. Baking came first. She taught herself from a cookbook she found at the Radford University bookstore in the 1990s, practicing in her off-campus apartment. She gave away her desserts in the biology department where she was studying pre-med.

She even managed to bake occasionally while in medical school, but soon the 80-hour work weeks of residency blotted out everything else, she said. During her career, she practiced medicine in four states and was perhaps too busy to notice a growing unhappiness.

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Then, she gave up perfectionism and learned to play the cello.

“I came late to art and music,” Benson said. As a physician, she had time only to eat and sleep, “and sometimes not even that.”

She spent years chasing straight A’s, first in school growing up in Russell County, then at Radford where she graduated in 1998 and eventually finishing at West Virginia School of Osteopathy in 2002. She even did a fellowship at Cleveland Clinic, one of the top medical centers in the country. It wasn’t easy to let go of that.

But one day in 2011, she said she “woke up” to a deep dissatisfaction with the career she had worked so hard to build. She was on staff at a hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, then, but it wasn’t the life she wanted, she said.

From that moment on, “I made it my goal in life … to break free,” Benson said.

It took three years to make the change, but she spent that time preparing. She read inspiring books and reflected on what lead her to an unhappy life. Slowly she realized the root of her problem: chasing the illusion of perfection.

It was the belief that “I didn’t have value,” she said. “That I had to earn love, and I had to earn it by being perfect — even though that’s not possible.”

She had made choices that she thought would please others, rather than following her own happiness. But the cost eventually became too high.

“Imagine a graph, and the two things that are being measured on this graph are misery and fear,” Benson said. “Misery at living a life that isn’t right for me. Fear of what will happen if I choose to leave that certainty.

“The moment that my misery eclipsed my fear, the decision was made,” she said. “And I’ve never looked back.”

She paid off her medical school debt and left the profession.

Just before that, though, she did one thing for herself — learned to play the cello. At the hospital on Christmas night 2014, Benson played music.

“It was the best shift I ever worked,” she said.

And her last.

Then she stepped up into an RV with her cousin, Chris Ormsby, and Hopper, her chihuahua mix for an eight-month road trip, driving from New York to Florida, across the bottom of country, then up the West Coast to Washington state and back through the Midwest.

They stopped to hike every day, Benson said, visiting more than 20 national parks and many state parks. Along the way, they talked about a place to settle back east. Benson said she remembered hearing about Floyd while she was studying at Radford, but she had never visited.

The trio eventually found their way to the end of a dirt road in Willis, where Benson and Ormsby bought land near Buffalo Mountain. Ormsby — a home builder by trade and owner of Utopia Homes — helped Benson design and build her house. Now he’s building his own home on parcel adjacent to Benson’s.

Since then, Benson has followed many passions, including yoga and meditation. She shows and sells original artwork. And she runs another business offering life coaching to women looking to change their lives.

For more information, visit buffalomountainbak ery.com and jessiebenson.com. To view Benson’s art, visit jessiebensonfineart.com.

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