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‘Putting Your Work Face On’ When Your Son Has Leukemia

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Jolie Niland had recently returned to her job as a Sales Executive at TV3 when her 8 month old son Jack was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

 

In a series of articles over the coming weeks, we will hear from women who continued to ‘put their work face on’, and keep going, while experiencing turmoil in their personal lives. After all, life doesn’t stop between 9 and 5.

Here’s Jolie’s story. 

 

While with his Granny, Jack had a small fall and grazed his cheek. “The subsequent bruise was a deep shade of purple and didn’t look right at all. We just thought he hit it really hard and gave it an overnight to see if it started to heal.”

Jolie’s husband had been unwell, and had made a Doctors appointment for himself, so he took Jack along to get the bruise looked at.

“Our GP looked over Jack and said that it would be best to go to Crumlin hospital to get a blood test to rule out anything viral. He had some weird pinprick red spots on his neck as well but it was a warm summer that year and we thought it was due to the heat.”

Jolie took a taxi from work to meet her husband and son at Crumlin Children’s Hospital. It was just “a normal, typical day for us, I was excited to get back to work after maternity leave.” 

 

It was an utter and total shock and we just sat there to await further instructions.

 

“As soon as I walked into the emergency room I was cornered by the doctor on call where she dealt me the devastating news that they suspected Jack had cancer and that they were waiting on the blood tests.”

“She rushed me to the room where John and Jack were and he was extremely upset as he had also just been told the news. We didn’t know what to do. It was an utter and total shock and we just sat there to await further instructions.”

 

Jack Niland Luekemia

Jack was admitted to the oncology ward that evening. Jolie’s husband stayed with Jack while Jolie went home tell her family. 

“As I walked out to the car park I called my manager and told her the news.” Jolie asked her manager to let her co-workers know as she said she felt she couldn’t face anyone else at that point.

 

Added to her worry about her baby Jolie was anxious about the future of her job and how her family would cope emotionally and financially.

 

The coming weeks and days were an emotional and an immersive lesson in everything to do with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for Jolie and her husband John. 

“We had to quickly learn everything about chemotherapy, platlets, transfusions, bone marrow tests, spinal taps and all sorts of terrible and awful (but life saving) treatments that they would have to do to Jack over the next days and weeks.”

Jack had been booked in for an emergency surgery the day after being admitted. He was given a port in his chest to help deliver his daily medicine.

Added to her worry about her baby Jolie was anxious about the future of her job and how her family would cope emotionally and financially. 

“You hear these horror stories about parents having to quit their jobs and the bills piling up for medical treatments.”

 

When they looked at the practicalities they realised that financially they couldn’t afford to live on one salary.

 

Her manager at TV3 told her she could take all the time off that she needed. Jolie says TV3 were “amazing and supportive” to her and didn’t put pressure on her in any way. Due to the support of her workplace Jolie, “was able to be there for the first four months of treatment by Jack’s side.”

After the initial four months of intensive treatment Jolie and her husband discussed if one of them should quit their job to stay with Jack full-time. When they looked at the practicalities they realised that financially they couldn’t afford to live on one salary. 

“We couldn’t afford to NOT work and we made the decision for me to return to TV3.”

Luckily Jolie’s “wonderful and supportive” mother-in-law was available to look after Jack while Jolie and John were at work. 

The realisation that she would not be able to be there for Jack even when he was undergoing treatment was especially difficult on Jolie. 

 

I couldn’t stay home with him for the cuddle or anything. I had to leave. Every day at 8:30.

 

“I HAD to go to work so even if Jack was sick (which he often got after doses of chemotherapy or even spinal taps – those were the worst) I couldn’t stay home with him for the cuddle or anything. I had to leave. Every day at 8:30. It was really hard and heavy on my heart.”

“I was the only Mom who wasn’t there at pick up. I was never able to bring him to playschool or pick him up or attend things that were during the day. Sometimes if it was a play or something, then I would take time off work but most times, it was always my husband who was there or my mother-in-law.” 

Jolie’s manager and colleagues rallied around her when she returned to work. “They gave me space and time to get back on my feet and get working again.” 

 

Jolie Niland luekemia
Jolie, John and Jack on TV3’s Ireland AM

Her workplace also organised charity events to raise money for Crumlin Children’s Hospital. 

“That Christmas after Jack was diagnosed and I returned to TV3, I wanted to give back to the ward and I made Christmas bag presents for any parent who was in the hospital with their kids over Christmas.”

Jolie had been hoping to have enough to make up 10 bags but she was overwhelmed by the generous donations from TV3 staff.  “I was able to make 25 bags, buy presents AND pay for parking at Crumlin hospital for parents who had to stay over (which is a very big expense you don’t realise until your kid gets sick). It still makes me tear up thinking about it now.”

Jolie says having to work while still trying to parent a very sick child caused her to re-evaluate her work and career priorities.

“It was difficult going back to work when I returned from maternity leave, but going back to work while your child is receiving a huge amount of life saving treatment really forces you to evaluate your work style, lifestyle, choices and environment… among other things of course.”

Aside from not being able to be there to comfort her sick baby, Jolie missed out on her son’s milestones, “I missed everything while I was at work – his first steps, first words, other milestones that were delayed that Jack was catching up to.”

 

I’m not sure there was ever a day that I didn’t feel guilt for going in to work while my son was sick with cancer. That really messes with your psyche.

 

The awareness of how much she was sacrificing in order to keep the family going put work problems into perspective for her, “Things that I used to complain about or get upset about just no longer registered for me to be mad about. That was very freeing: it freed up space for me to worry about the only thing that mattered – getting my son better.”

Having to work full time while her son was so sick left Jolie with difficult feelings of guilt, that plagued her working life. “I’m not sure there was ever a day that I didn’t feel guilt for going in to work while my son was sick with cancer. That really messes with your psyche.”

Jolie says she tried to remove her emotions from the tasks she needed to do at work. “My role was extremely fast-paced and you had to keep up so when I found myself struggling, I tried to give myself a pep talk or take a quick break or time out.”

“You have to just do the dirty work and get on with it. And it’s not pretty and it’s stressful and exhausting but you get yourself another cup of coffee or you learn what it takes to recharge your batteries….. and you just keep going.”

 

Most days I didn’t feel like I had a work face on – I felt like I just had a sad face on and I was a tired, depressed person who was just floating through everything.

 

Jolie had a mantra she would say to herself to keep her spirits up, “’this too, shall pass’ to remind myself that some days you just have to buckle in and ride the storm out because there is only so much you can control.”

Despite this she says there were times when she found it too hard to ignore the distressing events of her personal life. “Most days I didn’t feel like I had a work face on – I felt like I just had a sad face on and I was a tired, depressed person who was just floating through everything.”

Working on days when Jack was having treatment or surgery were particularly hard on Jolie.

“One time Jack had to get his front teeth taken out due to the harshness of the chemotherapy (it had rotted his front teeth and he was susceptible to infection) and my husband was all on his own taking care of him. I didn’t feel that I could ask for time off and I had no more holiday days to take off so I dropped them to the hospital and went to work and then picked them up in recovery.”

Jolie was struggling to support her husband who had faced the procedure on his own and her son who was, “in extreme pain from the procedure. It left me wondering if my job was really worth this and I think that was one of the turning points for me.”

“There is a big difference between putting your ‘work face’ on (which I did every day to make sure ends met for my family) but there is an invisible line that you have to draw for yourself to know when enough is enough.”

 

“It’s time for a change and for all of us to come out of survival mode (because we did it!) and start doing the things we love again.”

 

Last week Jolie’s son got the all-clear for 1 year post-treatment and this milestone caused Jolie to re-assess her career and life. She says her family are just now emerging from the “survival mode” they have been in for the last 3 ½ years. 

Jolie credits therapy, meditation and the phrase: ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ with keeping her going through the last few tough years. “I tried to take 5 mins of every day, no matter what, and do something small that I like to do – eat some chocolate, read a book, etc.” 

The therapy sessions allowed Jolie to make peace with having to work full time through most of Jack’s treatment and she recently made the decision to work freelance to allow her more quality time with Jack.

“I decided to learn about ABM – Account Based Marketing – and become a Success Development Representative. It’s a really interesting way for B2B companies – no matter their size – to help their sales team build sustainable and successful relationships with their customers that brings them more success.” 

“I realised that this practice isn’t done in Ireland, so with the help of a few friends that I’ve met along the way, I managed to set up my new company, Beechfield Consultants, and offer my services as a freelancer for companies looking for sales and marketing support’.

 

Jack Niland Luekemia

Jolie’s new business combines her sales, marketing and new business development background and allows her to work wherever there’s wifi. The new career also means Jolie can plan her work around spending time with Jack.

“Due to his treatment, my son has some sensory delays in his development and we are working hard to help improve these every day.”

“He’s doing so much better with his speech and language and has settled into his Junior Infants class brilliantly!”

With the recent good news Jolie says her family are looking forward to re-focussing their priorities. “It’s time for a change and for all of us to come out of survival mode (because we did it!) and start doing the things we love again.” 

For more articles in this series see – ‘Putting Your Work Face On’  When You Are Experiencing Domestic Abuse

 

About the Author

Taryn de Vere is a writer, a colourful fashion activist and a mother of 5.

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