Sandra Ishkanian

From civil war to cancer, colleague finds her home at HealthPartners

Partner for Good graphic

Four layoffs and nine bouts of cancer convinced Sandra Ishkanian she wanted to work at HealthPartners. In 2014, she secured a temporary contract assignment and two years later, a permanent position. Today, she is a broker for our health plan. Recently, the native of Beirut, Lebanon and participant in our Partners for Good ad, said: “After 34 years in the United States, I finally feel like I’m home.”

Confronting challenges

Sandra moved to Minnesota in December 1987, fleeing her country’s civil war with her husband and 20-month-old son. The accomplished sales professional put her career on hold to raise her son and acclimate to the “frozen tundra.” When her son went to school, Sandra started her US-based career in middle management. She realized after several layoffs that she wanted to make a career change.

“My initial layoff was a culture shock,” said Sandra. “We were called into a conference room and told our jobs were over. As a loyal person, I took the company’s lack of loyalty personally.”

Meanwhile, Sandra faced another setback: cancer.

Compassion among chaos

Through most of her cancer treatment, Sandra was both a HealthPartners member and patient. The people she met at HealthPartners and Park Nicollet were helpful, compassionate and responsive – a contrast to what she had experienced with her former employers. She said the anesthesia team at Regions Hospital held her hand, explained the procedure and told her what to expect. She felt welcomed and valued.

Due to her cancer treatments, Sandra was told she could not have other children. She experienced multiple miscarriages. Then, she got pregnant and carried the baby nearly to term. Sadly, her daughter Nadia did not survive.

“Even though we knew she was gone, I still had to go through an entire day of labor – and return home without my baby,” said Sandra. “The next day, I received a note from the HealthPartners nurse navigator, expressing her condolences.”

Soon after, Sandra was laid off again, and lost her health insurance. Then, she was diagnosed with cancer. Again.

After what would be her final surgery, Sandra woke up to a nurse telling her: “It’s my last day after 37 years at HealthPartners, and I don’t want to hear you’ve been in here again.”

Finding her place

Shortly after that last treatment, Sandra began applying for positions at HealthPartners, even to jobs she didn’t fully understand.

“I realized I wanted to work for a company where someone stays for 37 years, and after all that time still has compassion, commitment and a sense of humor,” said Sandra.  

For some time, Sandra didn’t find the right fit at HealthPartners. Then, one day a woman at the gym told her she was a HealthPartners call center supervisor and could connect her to people involved in the hiring process who could help target her applications. Success!

On Sandra’s second day of training for a temporary position, she got stuck briefly in an elevator with another woman. Sandra had a piece of cake in her hand and a plastic fork. The woman looked at Sandra and said, “If we’re held up here for too long, we’ll be fighting for that cake.”

Sandra deadpanned, “I have a plastic fork – and I know how to use it.”

As she was leaving that day, Sandra noticed a picture on the wall of a blond woman with kind blue eyes and a bright smile. It was the woman from the elevator, and Sandra realized she had threatened former CEO Mary Brainerd with a plastic fork.

Two years later, health plan sales leaders Sarah Wagner and Peter Curry offered Sandra a permanent position on the sales team. She had already cleared a big hurdle: passing the broker license exam.

“I remember hearing a woman say that she had failed the exam three times,” said Sandra. “I thought that if a native English speaker couldn’t pass it, I was in trouble. English isn’t even my second language – it’s my fifth! Plus, I have severe test anxiety. I had to pull over seven times on my way to the test, only to learn I had the wrong day!”

But Sandra didn’t need to worry. She had studied hard and passed it the first time…when she showed up on the right day!

Baking is one of Sandra’s favorite hobbies. Prior to the pandemic, her colleagues were her test subjects for new recipes. This is a picture of a cake Sandra made for a friend’s wedding.

Sandra is a sales representative for our health plan. Her job is to talk to people about their health coverage needs when buying a plan. She then helps them choose a plan that best fits those needs. Sandra loves working with her colleagues and appreciates the collaborative environment.

“We have an exceptionally supportive team, and we have a good time,” said Sandra. “I believe in my company and in my management. When I talk to potential members on the phone, they can tell I love my job.”

Members often send feedback complimenting Sandra on her welcoming approach. One time, the member was someone Andrea Walsh knew. So, Andrea joined the team’s department meeting and shared the letter.

“As Andrea read those words from a member and expressed her appreciation, I kept thinking here is this woman I admire and respect, who is acknowledging me, this girl who grew up in Lebanon with no electricity amidst a civil war,” said Sandra. “I thought if my childhood friends could only see me now!” 

Reviewing this article inspired Sandra to re-read her journal entry from that day: “I wish mom and dad were here; dad would have loved this moment. He always said, “When you throw Sandra from a 7-story building, she’ll hit the ground sprinting.” I can only imagine the smile on his face had he been told about this moment. I can only pray he can witness it and feel what I feel. Today felt humbling and triumphant all at once. After all the beat downs, the feelings of defeat, the struggles, battles and feelings of despair, today felt like mom and dad should have been here. Apparently “wow moments” really do feel amazing. Today, I felt life threw me lemons, and I made lemon cake. With frosting.”

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Katie Spiegle

  1. I consider Sandra a dear friend and colleague. She is tenacious, proud, caring, loving and always supportive and helpful. Also known as a rock star in sales! I am proud to say that I know her, work along side her and I love her stories and sense of humor! She is a survivor! I now know that she makes beautiful cakes! She and I were just talking about cake – I love cake. It’s about time for a party and she should bring cake.

    Thank you Sandra for all that you are, and I am thankful for how you continue to grow and be.

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  2. I have known Sandra for quite a while now, but really had no clue of how tough she is with everything life has thrown at her. You have such a great since of humor and are so appreciative of everything. You are a true SUPERWOMAN and I am very proud to call you my friend. Keep up the awesome work friend.

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  3. What an amazing story Sandra! My eyes are wet! Kudos to you for your perseverance and commitment to good!

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  4. Sandra, you are as incredible as your story. Your passion for helping people continues to inspire me. We are so fortunate and grateful to have you on our team!! Thank you for all you do! – Doug Smith

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  5. I have never met you, Sandra, but what an AMAZING person and an amazing story. Your resiliency is truly astounding. I am honored to be part of a company that includes people like you. Best wishes to you always! P.S. Keep baking those beautiful cakes

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  6. Thank you for sharing your story. It made me cry for so many reasons but mostly for joy and for your example of resilience.

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  7. I am honored to work alongside Sandra. Not only is she a smart, strong person, she is compassionate and has a wonderful sense of humor. Sandra, you are amazing!

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  8. Sandra a friend and colleague. She is kind, caring and she is always willing to go that extra mile in everything she does. She brings sunshine on a cloudy day with her bright smile and laughter. We are lucky to have her on our team. She is a super star!

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  9. Sandra,
    This is truly an amazing story and thanks for sharing! I worked with Sandra for many years and I can attest to the kind of person she is, sweet spirit and compassionate. I pray that God will continue to keep you healthy. I understand what cancer to do a person and loved ones, but you made it through more than once. You are a fighter, so keep fighting and keep the Faith.

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  10. I thought I knew Sandra pretty well being a former colleague, but this story told me so much more. No wonder she does such a great job on the Sales team. It is all about helping people with their challenges and finding solutions. She has been through many challenges and no doubt relates to people in a way that most of us only attempt to. This a great profile and put a smile on my face.

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