Shattering the glass ceiling while coping with a lifelong tremor

Shattering the glass ceiling while coping with a lifelong tremor

When Alexandra Lebenthal was 3, the symptoms of essential tremor began appearing when her hands started to constantly shake. The now 55-year-old Upper East Sider wasn’t aware of the official name of her neurological condition until her early 40s.

“I was very, very conscious of it as a child,” she says. “My dad had it, and the neurosurgeon said it was probably latent in me. I had been given a medication, got a very bad reaction and a very high fever — that probably caused it to present itself.”

Pointing out it’s “this weird thing because you’re not really sick,” the benign disorder is hallmarked by involuntary, rhythmic movements of a body part, which impacts everyday life. “It’s this strange oddity that’s embarrassing and noticeable that you don’t want to talk about,” she says.

The condition affects 10 million Americans and is eight times more common than Parkinson’s, which also causes involuntary tremors. For some, tremors also involve the head, voice, legs and trunk. The age of onset, progression and severity differs, and the condition interferes with basic tasks such as eating, drinking, writing and dressing.

Drug therapy is typically the first mode of treatment for patients, but growing up, Lebenthal wasn’t aware of any treatment.

“I remember being 10 and being very upset, there wasn’t any medication at the time I was aware of,” she says. “You just had to deal with it even though it impacted work enormously.”

So, she learned to live with it. After graduating from Princeton in 1986, Lebenthal worked at a financial firm for 18 months and then went to Lebenthal & Company on Wall Street, founded by her grandfather, to work in sales. She moved into its public finance group, ran mutual funds and later the sales department before becoming the president and CEO in 1995, where she stayed until 2017.

Today, Lebenthal is an advisor to companies looking to raise capital, while also pursuing a passion project as a producer for a TV adaptation of the Nancy Weiss Malkiel book “Keep the Damned Women Out,” about the history of coeducation in the Ivy League.

Lebenthal recalls moving up the corporate ladder while dealing with her condition.

“People don’t talk about it, [yet] it’s obvious. You’re trying to hide it, but you can’t hide it very well. Walking across the room with a coffee cup . . . you have to take a sip during this meeting, and I’m thirsty and my mouth is dry, but people will notice the cup and my hands are shaking. You spend so much time plotting to do these basic things so people won’t notice. There’s this insecurity.”

Colleagues rarely discussed it, but Lebenthal felt relieved when a coworker finally confronted her.

“I was in a big private equity guy’s office. I was so thirsty, I had to drink some water. He asked, ‘How’s your health?’ I said, ‘Oh, you’re asking why I’m shaking? Here’s why.’ ”

Another colleague responded by saying, “I just thought you were hungover all the time,” while somebody else thought she was on antidepressants.

Despite her success, self-consciousness was omnipresent.

“People think you’re really nervous. People wonder if [that’s because] you are not honest, and when you’re in a world of investing, that’s a big issue.”

Although she was previously embarrassed to talk about “this obvious secret I was living with,” she felt more comfortable when she met others with ET in 2016, when she underwent treatment at Weill Cornell. There, they used ultrasound to target damaged tissue in the brain.

After the procedure, Lebenthal witnessed an immediate tremor reduction, but even now when she carries a coffee cup, she thinks her hand is going to shake.

“Waiting for it to happen and then, no, it doesn’t do that anymore, it’s so exciting.”

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