When in the future we look back at 2016, there are a few key words most of us will remember: Trump. Brexit. Bowie. Several major news outlets have described 2016 as ‘the year that changed the world’, and it’s not difficult to see why. For me though, 2016 will be remembered for a completely different reason: the year I was faced with a brain tumour, surgery recovery, and switching my life focus.
Back tracking to November 2015: I had been with digital consultancy Orange Bus for just over two years, had previously been part of the team which won 2014’s Drum Network Award for Professional Services Strategy of the year with Teachers’ Pensions, and now was delighted to hear that my team had again been shortlisted - this time for the Consumer Insight Award with RPMI (for the Railway Pensions Scheme). Career-wise, things were on an upward trajectory.
Unfortunately, in that same month, I faced a life-changing discovery: the low grade brain tumour I’d been diagnosed with years ago was growing and needed major, open brain surgery to prevent any lasting damage. My neurosurgeon at Newcastle’s RVI hospital said he would operate before the end of the year, and asked me to make arrangements in my work and personal life to be out of action for the coming months. When I got the date of the surgery - 4th December - I was disappointed to realise the first thing I’d miss out on: the Drum Network Awards ceremony, in London on the night of the 3rd.
Looking for any distraction I could the night before my surgery, the constant refreshing of my Twitter feed as I stalked my teammates from afar proved to be just the ticket to divert my attention from what lay ahead. As the night drew near conclusion, I waited with bated breath: and was ecstatic when a message popped up with the beaming faces of my team clutching the Consumer Insight Award. I posted to my Facebook to say how excited I was and congratulating the team, and the next morning headed to the hospital at 7am still buzzing from the news.
The surgery went well. I needed a week in hospital to recover, and did go downhill as a small brain haemorrhage a couple of days after surgery made me very ill, but, on the whole, things went smoothly and the thirty metal staples in my head were able to come out to let my scar heal.
For those few months, I had to get used to a very different way of life: I had gone from being an independent, ambitious young agency account manager, to not being able to put my socks on by myself and relying on my mum to put me in the bath and wash my hair. Completely housebound, I began to rely on the internet as a necessity in a way I never had before, and began to view my role in the digital industry in a completely different light: I realised first-hand the empowering impact that digital technology has on the more vulnerable members of society, and the influence I held with my digital skills to create services which will help them.
As a first step towards that goal, on 1st January 2016 I set myself a new year’s resolution to start a blog and tell my story of surgery and recovery. Before my surgery, I had had so many small, incidental questions that I didn’t want to bother my surgeon with: things like, what will my scar look like? What will the day of surgery be like? I thought if I put my own story out there and also gathered stories from others, someone facing that same situation in the future may feel a bit reassured, more informed and less alone.
In April I joined a brain injury rehab course and also began my phased return to work. Orange Bus strongly supported me through my illness, surgery and return to work, working together with me to create a phased return plan and even hosting charity events to raise funds and awareness for my chosen charity, The Brain Tumour Charity. Desperate to get back to the job I loved, I completed my phased return in August 2016 and started back at Orange Bus full time.
Given my experiences while I was housebound and recovering from surgery, I told the Orange Bus senior management that I was even more motivated than ever by the work that Orange Bus does to help people: helping NHS hospitals use digital to find the right staff to look after patients, helping councils provide digital services to all in their constituency, including the vulnerable, and helping charities like Go ON UK to reach the vulnerable and digitally excluded, giving tools for empowerment through digital inclusion. Taking my motivations on board, Orange Bus agreed to relocate me to the newly formed Public Sector specialist team.
Work on my blog has continued to go well. I couldn’t believe the level of traffic, the people interested in my story and the people who identified and found it useful. One person thanked me for explaining my craniotomy, as her husband suffered brain damage as a result of his and had been unable to explain to her what he’d been through. Another said of my post on brain tumour related fatigue that it had opened their eyes to what they were experiencing, that it wasn’t just a quirk of theirs and as a result they were going to visit their neurologist. Today, the blog has hit just shy of 30,000 views from around the world, and I’m working closely with The Brain Tumour Charity’s PR and social team to use posts as a point for discussion and engagement; encouraging brain tumour patients around the world to open up about their own experiences and seek help if needed.
As well as the blog, this year I also became a Patient Leader on the NHS's Scaling Up Improvement team and started up my own supporter group fund for The Brain Tumour Charity.
As 2016 neared an end, I was delighted to hear that Orange Bus has put me forward for another Drum Network Award: this time on an individual basis, as Rising Star. It was an honour to be nominated, and wonderful to be able to actually make it to the awards ceremony this time around. The award was one of the first of the night, and was won jointly by two very well deserved other candidates. We then settled down to enjoy the rest of the night and enjoy seeing the other winners collect their trophies. That was, until we reached the Chairman’s Award. As managing director of the Drum Network Richard Draycott began to describe the winner of the award, I slowly began to realise that his description sounded very familiar. Stunned and overwhelmed, I took to the stage to accept the award and to thank Orange Bus for being so very supportive over the past year.
So yes, 2016 and my experiences with a brain tumour have been life-changing. But I’m glad to say they’ve changed my life for the better.