Vanguard overcoming challenges at work

Fighting for my daughter. Advocating for myself.

My mom loves to tell anyone who will listen, that from the moment I could crawl, I was running toward something. I was a head strong child, full of energy, always ready to tackle a new adventure. What I couldn’t have known then was that this enthusiastic approach to life would prepare me for what was to come.

While working for a large bank, ready to take on a new phase of my career, a friend of mine encouraged me to check out this place called Vanguard. Boy, am I glad she did! You see, my interview was scheduled when my daughter was just six weeks old. I was told I’d need to come in to the Scottsdale office, and should prepare to spend 4-5 hours on site. Like most moms away from her child for the first time, I sobbed in the car. Doing my best “superman pose” to build confidence, I wiped my running mascara and walked into the building.

I broke all of the rules in that interview. I talked about my daughter. I was candid about why I was pursuing a new career with a new company. There was no posturing or positioning. They got to see the real me. Knowing this was not a “best practice” approach, I was very confident walking out that there was no way they’d hire me. Two days later, I was offered the job! I was thrilled, and singularly focused on launching a career at a company I believed in, never considering what was about to happen next.

Dylan was just a baby when I began my career at Vanguard. She became the light of my life, and taught me what unconditional love can be. She is quite possibly the most charismatic (and strong willed) person I’ve ever met. She is filled with a love for life and adventure. She is also quick to tell you when she wants something, especially when you aren’t delivering. She has an incredible desire to be heard, and always has a story to tell. But as she missed milestone after milestone, I learned what it meant to be a mama bear and a fierce advocate. We were at the end of our rope searching for answers. Dylan had been suffering from seizures, aggressive behaviors, and was severely behind developmentally. After years of searching, we finally found a doctor who agreed that there was a problem and the new chapter in our lives began. We had finally gotten our answer – Neurodegeneration with Brain Iron Accumulation – or NBIA, a life threatening degenerative disease with no treatment or cure.

Vanguard overcoming challenges at work

My priorities shifted again as I balanced what had become a highly demanding career with my role as a mother, an advocate, and a partner to my husband. As the feeling of hopelessness began, I had to push it aside. I became the Chair of the NBIA Disorders Association, where I combined the talents and skills I’d learned as a Vanguard professional along with my uncontrollable desire to help my daughter, and put them to work so that I could make a difference for Dylan and all those affected by an NBIA disorder.  I was so focused on my daughter and maintaining my professional momentum that I was distracted from what was going on with my own health. Something was very, very wrong.

Change is rarely easy, but I knew now was the time to take the leap into a formal leadership role and also prioritize taking care of my health. While it was a very difficult decision to step away from the Relationship Manager role I loved, I knew the demanding travel schedule was putting a strain on my family and on my body. I’d been supported in such incredible ways during my journey, and knew my path would one day lead me into leadership. I applied for, and was offered, the role of leading a team of high-net-worth Sales Consultants in our Retail division.

As I prepared to transition into my new role, I took some time off for the holidays. Each year we visit my dad where he lives on a mountain and enjoy a beautiful white Christmas. I had suffered from increasingly challenging elevation sickness (or so I thought), which had become progressively worse each year. This time it was so bad, I could not stop from passing out over and over again. Worried, my husband packed us up and got us off the mountain and I immediately began to feel normal (or as normal as I can be). Although feeling better, a persistent cough kept me from sleeping. I went to an urgent care doctor, who thankfully paused to ask questions, learned about my extensive travel habits, and ordered an x-ray. Although he thought it was likely pneumonia, he directed me to the ER to rule out a pulmonary embolism.

Five days later, I went home with a diagnosis that scared the hell out of me (what are the odds that both Dylan and I have rare diseases?) – lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), an extremely rare lung disease that affects approximately 3,000 women around the world. This disease causes my lungs to be riddled with “innumerable” cysts which obstruct my airways and make it impossible to breathe normally. I was told I would need supplemental oxygen 24/7. I was told I wouldn’t be able to travel by plane. I was told that a double lung transplant was inevitable, and soon. I was overwhelmed.

Vanguard overcoming challenges at work

My world had just shifted. What was I going to do? I’d just accepted this new job. Would they even want me now? Terrified, I called my new leader to share the news. I braced myself for his reaction and disappointment. It didn’t come. What I thought would be an awkward discussion, wasn’t. He quickly subsided my worries. He barely knew me, yet reassured me that he hired me for a reason, and that reason hadn’t changed. He showed me that he genuinely cared about my wellbeing, both in his words and his actions, even after I had to tell him that coming back to work wouldn’t be easy. I’d now be on oxygen 24/7, would be taking drugs that would make my immune system obsolete, I’d have countless hours of tests and appointments, and I might need a transplant that could take me out of work for months or more. My new leader didn’t flinch. He said “Ok. We’ll get through this together. Focus on you. I’ll focus on getting you back to work,” and he did. That day my new leader embodied what it means to be a leader at my company, Vanguard. This approach to leadership isn’t formed by rules, policy, or procedure. It is formed by culture–a culture of authentic caring for others, demonstrated with both words and actions.

Then the reality set in for me. I was going back to work, in a new department, and I’d be wearing oxygen…on my face. Nowhere to hide. I was terrified! How many times was I going to have to tell the story? I’d barely begun getting comfortable with the idea myself, let alone trying to comfort those around me. I’d begun experiencing the stares when my family was out. Would these new colleagues stare or judge me, thinking I had done this to myself somehow? Would they think I was contagious and avoid me?

Just as I began to question if I’d made a terrible mistake, I received a call from my local senior leader. She let me know she had planned a New Year’s celebration in her home for the leaders in our group and asked if I would join. My first reaction? Not a chance. I told her I was afraid of people’s reactions. Instead of minimizing my concerns, she empathized. Caring as always, she asked how she could make it comfortable for me. So I went, and guess what? Everyone was wonderful. This party was exactly what I needed. These people got to see my new reality for the first time in a social, and very safe, setting. The result? When I returned to work, it was old news. They’d already asked their questions, and I was quickly getting comfortable in sharing my story. We had moved on and the tube on my face was old news. Amazing. What I learned here was twofold: how important the role as a leader can be for people, and that when you have the courage to open up about what you need, people willingly and enthusiastically offer their help.

Vanguard overcoming challenges at work

It’s been over a year since my diagnosis. I’ve begun to truly accept my new reality and have found my rhythm. I still require oxygen 24/7, and am working to find solutions that keep my oxygen levels high enough to continue doing the activities I had once taken for granted. While I could spend hours fixating on the countless activities I can no longer do, or worrying about what I may become exposed to that will put me in the hospital, I re-center myself and focus on being present in the moment and find joy in the things I CAN do. The joy of being a mom, the joy of being a wife, and the joy of working for a company and leading a team that I love.

Dylan is still my sweet, charismatic little girl, trying desperately to be understood and fight her own disease. I am still the mama bear fiercely advocating for her every need, and learning to advocate for my own. I’m in a role and part of a business that is thriving. I have a stellar medical team, and am afforded the opportunity to speak at conferences with my doctor, raising awareness for all rare disease patients.  Transplant isn’t something we expect next week or next month, or next year. My circle of friends, while much smaller, is stronger than ever. I’m home every night to cuddle with my daughter before bed. For now, I am grateful for every moment and I’m grateful for all of the people who have been there and offered support, encouragement, and sometimes a swift kick in the behind. When the tough days happen, and they do happen, I repeat my mantra, “Keep on keepin’ on.” I put a brave face on for the world.

My advice to others facing their own battle?  Be candid about what you need. Work for a company that values you and where you can be part of a community that will support you along your own journey.  Remember that you have the power to find joy in even the worst situations. Finally, take a breath, put one foot in front of the other, and “Keep on keepin’ on.”

-Meg T. D.

For more information about LAM, check out thelamfoundation.org and for more information about NBIA Disorders, check out nbiadisorders.org or NBIAcure.org.

Vanguard overcoming challenges at work

If you’re seeking a supportive environment where you can make a difference and develop professionally, check out our career opportunities at www.vanguardjobs.com.

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