15 years ago today I had an experience that shook me up and changed the course of my life remarkably. I worked then for an airplane manufacturer (the last of the ones here in Germany) and was driving to work. It was a sunny but very cold day in February and it was about 7:40 in the morning. Part of my drive was a very curvy stretch with a small forest next to it. That morning this part of the road was pure ice – the condensation from the trees had turned to ice on the road. My car skidded, I swerved to avoid hitting an oncoming car and crashed frontally into the nearest tree. I blacked out and when I came to, the paramedics (and Bernd) were already there. As they told me later, they did not expect me to be alive when they arrived, the car was a total damage and had I had a passenger, he/she would have definitely not survived. The paramedics had to cut me out of the wreck, Bernd was allowed to drive with me in the ambulance since they weren’t sure I would make it to the hospital.
I was “lucky”, as the doctors told me, and survived the crash with severe bruises, concussion, a broken arm and a broken eye bone which required extensive surgery to restore. The fact that I am quite short and the car I was sitting in was a very good and stable one, I was saved from severe head and leg injuries. I had excellent doctors who knew that I had a very strong will and helped me to get rehab treatment that was customised for me so that I could be back on my feet soonest possible. That was quite a challenge since the nerve in my elbow had been damaged when I broke the arm. Which meant that my arm below the elbow was lifeless and since it was my right arm it was quite a handicap. I couldn’t see very well for many months later too since the eye needed time to heal and refocus.
Getting back on my feet was a long and weary process but I was back faster than anyone could imagine. Many put it down to my strong (stubborn) will and hard work but I know that without the encouragement, love and support I got from my colleagues and a few friends (more about that some other time) I would not have recovered so quickly.
When I think about the long and tough road to complete recovery that I had then, one of the persons I am especially thankful for is Thomas. I had just started working with Thomas a few months before this happened. He had taken over the leadership of the team from Ed, the first of the amazing managers and leaders I have had (Ed was so remarkable that he will be the topic of another post soon:)). When I first met Thomas I completely underestimated him (to my utter shame). He looks very unassuming – to be perfectly honest, I thought he was one of those “typical” I-know-it-better, stuffy, boring german engineers who even had a doctorate in engineering. However Thomas was everything but that! He is one of the most intelligent people I know and not just academically! He has a fantastic dry sense of humour, high moral and ethical standards, a very good team leader in ever sense of the word (he has led multi cultural teams over a hundred people) and above all a great and fun person to work with.
But when I met with my accident, I got to see another side of him. He visited me in the hospital the day after the crash, brought his lovely wife and his not-even-two-months-old daughter with him (something that is not “done” here in Germany).
Many people told me to take it easy, not to be my usual stubborn self, to let time heal and not to push myself (those were some of the kinder things that were said). Thomas understood what many didn’t – that I had a fighting spirit, wanted to get back on my feet soonest possible, that I enjoyed my work and getting back would heal me faster than just sitting at home. There were so many ways in which he supported me and I will just mention two things here. As an HR professional I have told many managers that they should not “forget” the team members that are on sick or maternity leave. Thomas had no such formal “leadership training” and yet he called me at least once every week to update me on what was going on, to tell me little stories about things at work and to make me laugh. And he kept this going for the two months that I was on sick leave, even visiting me with his family in between. Since the nerve in my right arm was healing very slowly, I wasn’t allowed to drive until I had sufficient mobility in it. Thomas assured me that he and some of the other team members would take turns in driving me to work and back should my not being able to drive be a hindrance. He never pushed me even once to get back too soon (I had wonderful colleagues who had taken on and shared my tasks, so it wasn’t a question of work being piled up or neglected in my absence..)
I returned to work on a part time basis within two months and was back to working full time in another couple of weeks. For many it was a remarkable and astonishingly quick recovery (some even called it madness and don’t understand it even today!). The doctor who treated me used my case as an example of how customised therapy, a fighting spirit and the right kind of support can help patients to get back on their feet much more quickly.
I went on to work with Thomas for some more time. When the company filed for bankruptcy (one of the biggest at that time in the region), I followed him to work for another airline manufacturer. We were both not quite happy at the new company and Thomas was thinking of going back to his former employer. Out of sheer panic at the prospect of staying on without working with him, I applied for a job at SCA and got chosen. When I got the contract from SCA, I was still undecided because in the meantime Thomas had decided to stay. It was he who encouraged me to take up SCA’s offer, telling me that SCA was a more international company and that I was capable of so much more. He knew I was scared to go, that the job at SCA was a much “bigger” one and I wasn’t too sure about working with what I thought then were the “reserved and cold Nordics”. I listened to him and the rest is history.
We have remained in touch over the years and visit each other every now and then. He has a lovely wife, two beautiful daughters and has added on a Professor title (the highest academic title one can have!) to his doctorate. Whenever I meet him I know that I would go back to work with him even today. In hindsight and with all the HR experience that I have gathered over the years , I also know that people like Thomas are born leaders and invaluable to every good company.
Thank you Thomas for all the encouragement, support, care and your incredible humour – it was one of my lifelines on that tough and dark road back to recovery after the crash. Thank you for pushing me to take the job at SCA – it set me on a path which was amazing.
I am incredibly blessed to know and have you and Nese as my friends today!