In the mid-1990s, I was part of my company’s management team in Colorado Springs, Colorado, US, charged with building a team of support engineers for one of our key technologies. It was a crazy and exciting time. Work was nuts-busy and my wife and I had just welcomed our 3rd and last child into the post-womb world. For a glance of how that came down, you should check this story out, but back at work, something more profound was happening.
I planned my hiring to a few newbies, many mid-level experienced engineers and just a few gurus. I had just seated the last hire of the 15 person team and we were up and rolling. The team was settling in fine. They were bonding in record time – which was fortunate because a big test was coming our way.
One day, one of my newbies, Jacquie, came into my office, closed the door and settled into my guest chair. By this time, she was both an employee and good friend, but she did not look happy today.
“Hi Gary, I need to talk .”
I smiled back, welcoming her visit regardless of what she had in mind, but noting that this looked serious, and it was. I pushed my keyboard away and turned to give her my full attention. “I’m ready. What’s up?” I expected something like she needed to adjust her schedule or something.
Then I noticed that her eyes were too large and as she began, those eyes gave me a heads-up to something being terribly wrong. She looked frightened.
Jacquie was about 26 years old and a single mom with a 5 year-old boy at home. When she joined the team, she was quiet, but very friendly and hard working. As one of my newbies, she had little (technically) to bring to the team other than a great attitude, great spirit, hard and consistent work, but her work volume was much lower than almost everyone else – as expected – because I hired her to learn quickly and become productive over time – with the hope that she would love the work and be with us for 7 years or more. She found several ways to contribute and she did her best to begin and progress along a healthy learning curve. All was going very well and I was pleased with her progress.
She began to lay out her issue. “A few years ago, I had a nasty cancer,” she said. “My doctors and I thought it was fully in remission. But, I had some tests last week and yesterday, my doctor told me that it was back and – and, I don’t know how this is going to turn out this time.”
You most likely know me well enough by now that I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this nailed me. I struggled to find something encouraging or hopeful to say, but, as part of a team paid to fix things, this was not something I could fix. I finally found a discussion path that I could work with and she gave me all the facts that I needed to know about as her manager.
We settled on a plan that I would work out with HR that included lots of flexible time for her to do chemo and rest from same.
At this point – I’m going to spare you most of the details of her situation. It did not get much better. She did begin working from home – back when my company rarely allowed this, but I’m bigger than most HR types, so I won several of those discussions. But I was beginning to see that she and I were going to hit a wall. Her productivity was dropping fast and lacking that, I was supposed to put her on disability, which would start a chain of events that would push her out of employment and make it more difficult for her to carve out a life for her and her son.
There was no way to avoid this path – unless I could – humm,
I called a special meeting with the team.
“Thanks all for coming. I’ll be quick. Some of you know that Jacquie is in trouble. She has cancer and her working from home helped, but she is falling well below what I need for her productivity. If I can’t – if she can’t get her work up to a certain level, I’ll need to put her on disability,” and I explained what that would mean for her. “We have an option that I wanted to offer. “I need [an amount of work] to make a case that I don’t need to put her on disability. There are 14 of you and almost all of you are more productive than she is. I can’t pay anyone overtime, but would you be willing to give her 30 minutes a day? If yes, you will more than cover her daily expectations and my management won’t want me to press the disability button.”
My team, all looked at one another for a few minutes, said very few actual words, but everyone was in and we went for it.”
Jacquie did not have an extended family who could step in nor, at the time, did she have a boy friend or anyone who could care for her boy if she lost this battle. We had all heard that things were not going well with her treatments and she was very worried about starting the whole disability thing because that path would only care for her for a certain amount of time.
Later, when this team was done, they had more than exceeded our productivity goals, Jacquie was able to relax about the whole disability thing because these folks, many who had only known her for a couple of months, managed to push back her disability start date for about 4 months, giving her time to focus on her therapy and – yes – find a wonderful young man to promote from friend to finance who both knew her situation, her son and shared their Christian faith.
The coolest thing for her, was that her focus on the therapy worked and she managed to once again push that cancer back into remission. Her marriage was more of a celebration than than just a wedding. She was able to run the disability course at a time when she was much better prepared. Her new husband was standing firmly with her regardless of how her condition turned out – her boy would have a good father if she lost this battle. Physically, she bounced back some, but was never able to work again because chemo left her so frail.
I was humbled by what this team had done for her, but work is work and things changed. About 5 years later, I was living with my family back in California, working for a different company and now dealing with my mom’s cancer. This one had no happy ending in sight. She was stage 4 mesothelioma and was working with hospice when I got a call at work from; of all people – Jacquie. . .
She was more than still alive, loving most of life and very happily married. Her boy was now almost 11 and they had a rock solid family up and running. Oh – and she was calling me – to encourage me about the situation with my mom. . . “How did you even hear about us?” I asked.
“You still have lots of friends back in Colorado Springs Gary and we heard. You are in our prayers and I told them I wanted to reach out to you to let you know.”
I almost dropped to my knees. This woman had twice fought a worse battle than I had ever faced and she was calling to encourage me. . . And she was very encouraging BTW and I found myself on the receiving side of some amazing grace from this wonderful woman.
It was something like 7 years later that I got a call from one of those friends I’d stayed in touch with to let me know that Jacquie had finally lost her battle with cancer. I quickly did the math and her son had to almost be a legal adult. His dad and he were as ready as you ever could be for losing mom and wife. Even so, after such a long battle, my heart broke for all of them.
I did take time to reflect on what a priceless gift of time, that team of engineers gave Jacquie.
Guys, don’t let the media bury you with magnified horror stories and leave you hopeless. There are plenty of folks out there who don’t need much of a reason to dig a bit deeper to help one of the Jacquie’s in their lives. To this day, I am so proud to have been part of that amazing team.