Natasha Welsh with husband Derek and son Christian. Picture: supplied
Natasha Welsh with husband Derek and son Christian. Picture: supplied

In the darkest times, a good boss makes all the difference

Standing outside the emergency department, I lifted my phone and took a deep breath. I was about to find out just what sort of people my bosses were.

"I'm going to need some time off," I said. "I don't know how much."

My husband, Derek, had woken with a severe headache. Scans and surgery would show he had glioblastoma or GBM, an aggressive form of brain cancer. It is always terminal. It was the start of 23 months of uncertainty, pain and heartbreak.

On that day outside the ED, I was just three months into my exciting new job with Paralympics Australia. I had no idea just how much I'd need them to support me and our young son, Christian, over the ordeal that was to come.

This has been the worst time of my life. But it has also shown me the beautiful side of humanity, and how selfless people can be.

As employers, Paralympics Australia showed me the true meaning of kindness, and how a genuinely ethical employer responds when an employee - even a brand new one - really needs help.

Later this year, when Australia's proud Paralympic athletes take the field in Tokyo, spare a moment to think of just one of the human dramas behind the scenes.

As Derek's diagnosis became clear, and his schedule of appointments, surgeries and chemotherapy gradually took over all our lives, my new colleagues were there.

Natasha Welsh with husband Derek and son Christian shortly before Derek's death. Picture: supplied
Natasha Welsh with husband Derek and son Christian shortly before Derek's death. Picture: supplied

Offering to cook or babysit. Listening to me download, often through tears. When Derek was about to have surgery, my team sent a care package containing games and puzzles to keep Christian busy and some goodies for me. Afterwards the chief executive, Lynne Anderson, gave us the use of her apartment on the Gold Coast for a few days to get some rest.

I'm a planner, but it was impossible to prepare for some occasions; like Derek having a seizure or suddenly being sick throughout chemo.

I would contact the chef de mission for this year's Tokyo Games, Kate McLoughlin, and head of operations, Nat Browne, and they'd always say the same thing: "Derek's the priority. How can we help? What can we do to make your life easier?"

That instant relief was so important. The stress of having to finish something or be absent for a meeting was eliminated.

I felt so lucky to have such amazing employers and I wanted to show I could do it all - and after a year of juggling everything, I had a mini-breakdown and reached out to Kate to discuss cutting back.

Surely there must be a limit, I thought. I am in charge of organising a staging camp for Australian Paralympic athletes and I didn't know how I was going to get it done.

Kate didn't hesitate for a second. I scaled down to four days a week, Kate hired a casual to help with some projects and the rest of the team pitched in.

When we found out that Derek's tumour was growing again in November 2018 and that a second course of radiation was upon us, I knew I had to take a couple of months off and spend it with Derek and Christian. We did a few road trips and created memories that I knew we would need to sustain us later. As soon as I asked, Kate and Nat backfilled my role and made it seamless for me.

Natasha Welsh with husband Derek and son Christian. Picture: supplied
Natasha Welsh with husband Derek and son Christian. Picture: supplied

Occasionally, when things settled back to some kind of normality, I found work a wonderful, distracting escape. "You can work from home if you like," Kate and Nat would say. I wanted to be in the office just - for a moment - to feel normal.

At the end of May 2019 the doctor told us Derek had only weeks to live and would need to go into palliative care.

I knew I had to stop work completely until the new year. I rang Kate. She didn't hesitate - of course she would hold the job open for me.

Derek, Christian and I had 10 more weeks together, and through every moment, including after Derek's death, my new friends at Paralympics Australia were there for every text, every call.

I returned to full time work in January this year after being away for almost nine months last year and now, as Christian settles into kindergarten, I'm able to leave work every day in time to pick him up.

Through all this sadness, I've had the amazing experience of learning how I can help others - and there's something really practical I can do.

When we were deciding on an end of life location for Derek there was nothing available that could accommodate us as a family. I desperately needed 24-hour nursing help and staying home in the last two weeks of Derek's life became impossible. While the palliative care facility we stayed in was good, Christian wasn't allowed to stay with us - so each night I had to choose between staying with Derek or going home to our son.

Together with Derek's sister, I am working on changing that. We are going to build "Derek's Place", a palliative care facility designed with families at its core. It will be my way of paying forward just some of the love and support I've received.

Natasha Welsh is a Summer Games Team Operations Manager at Paralympics Australia



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