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When life throws you a curveball

By Edwina Elliott, Communications and Patient Relations Manager

Imagine your whole life changing in an instant.

And not in the way where you win the lottery or an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii. The kind of change that turns your life, and everything you know, completely upside down.

That’s exactly what happened to my family three years ago when my husband, James, suffered a major brain stem stroke at the age of 41.

You often hear stories like these, but you never imagine it happening to your own family. In the blink of an eye, our entire lives were upended, and our relatively normal life was no more.

I was terrified. My head was full of questions without many answers... What was going to happen? When was he going to wake up? Was he in pain? When would he come home?

Here I was watching my husband who once helped me get through the daily chaos of raising our three kids now lying flat on his back, unable to move and fighting for his life. Tubes and machines surrounding him as doctors and nurses monitored his every minute.

For months, I watched and waited as James fought for his life in intensive care. Those days were extraordinarily traumatic and there were many of them – 64 to be exact. While the emotional turmoil was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, I kept telling myself that I needed to keep it together. For myself, for James and for our kids who were aged just seven, five and one at the time.

When James was finally discharged from hospital it was heart-warming but also heartbreaking as the impact to his mobility and independence was devastating. Here was a man who had walked into hospital six months prior, now being wheeled out unable to walk, feed himself or participate in life as we once knew it.

We were so thrilled to finally have James home with us again, but we were scared about how we were all going to cope. We put our efforts into focusing on the small gains. As hard as it was, we tried not to look too far forward, as the unknown of the future terrified us.

My focus quickly centred around making the abnormal, normal. We made the decision to move to the Southern Highlands in NSW for a tree change and to be closer to family. It was an easy decision in many ways, but it meant we were starting a brand-new life with a new house, new school, and a new neighbourhood.

There is no ‘how to’ guide for situations like this. With everything going on, work was one of the last things on my mind, but slowly, I started to think more about this.

At the time of James’ stroke, I had been working at my job at AbbVie for over three years. They had already supported me by providing carer’s leave and unpaid leave for six months. This gave me the time and ability to focus on my husband and children through what was a very difficult period.

With our family move to country NSW, I was naturally wary about whether I would be able to keep my job in the city. We’ve all worked in places that attest to their workplace flexibility policies, but in practice this often means working a day from home here and there.

When I decided it was time to return to work, my role was adapted so I could work remotely full time, allowing me to tailor everything to my own schedule. This meant I could attend doctor’s appointments and various other activities that go hand in hand with being a carer and a mother.

It wasn’t until this happened to me that I understood the importance of a ‘truly flexible’ workplace. True flexibility is acknowledging your team’s individual needs and working around those.

There’s been a big shift recently around remote working practices and supporting mental health in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s my hope that this means that more businesses will embrace true flexibility, longer-term.

When my workplace was announced Australia’s #2 Best Place to Work this year, I was not surprised. I am so grateful they helped support me and my family through such a difficult time.

I hope that the silver lining of 2020 is that more workplaces can embrace true flexibility so that their employees can be their best professionally and personally.