Four days into a foreign business trip Cara suddenly fell ill. Doctors were mystified by her symptoms. It wasn’t until she underwent five months of testing in the Netherlands that the cause was identified as being due to an extremely rare fungus.
But by then it was too late. The fungus had worked its way through Cara’s body, causing extensive damage to her internal organs and leaving her blind in her left eye. Cara was forced to take medical leave for two years, undergoing 14 separate surgeries. It was an incredibly taxing process and one that has had a massive impact on her approach to life, both in and out of work.
Besides the physical stresses, Cara says the experience weighed heavily on her mental wellbeing. “I completely lost my self-confidence,” she explains. “I thought, if I’ve only got half of the vision I used to have, maybe people will only see me as half the person I once was.”
However, the difficult time was made easier, Cara says, by the overwhelming support she received from her family, friends and colleagues at Shell. “If they weren’t calling or visiting me, they sent letters, cards and bouquets of flowers every week,” she says. “I was thought of as not just a colleague but a human being, and I can’t stress how important that was to my healing and reintegration.”
Eventually, the experience made her stronger, more resilient, and she was able to return to work in The Hague full-time, fully confident and as ambitious as she ever was.
The right thing to do
Her current role, as leader of a Continuous Improvement team, is new to Shell’s Downstream IT function. It’s a role she says suits her skillset perfectly – the team has managed to add $51 million of value to the business in its first year. And not only did Cara’s reintegration kick-start her career again, it also inspired her to help others in similar situations.
“I wanted to turn my personal experience into something positive for others,” she says. Cara became Vice Chair of Shell’s enABLE Network for Persons with Disabilities in the Netherlands.
“At enABLE we don’t talk about disabilities; we talk about capabilities. We want to provide the support every individual needs to be able to do their job to the best of their abilities. And we don’t do it because of compliance or to tick boxes, we do it because it’s the right thing to do!”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Cara also developed a proposal to help Shell improve its workplace accessibility, specifically through IT services and solutions. Her proposal gained the right attention from other senior leaders and it has now been used to launch a Shell-wide initiative that will completely revolutionise how employees with impairments receive support.
“It’s a truly collaborative approach that brings together people from IT, HR, C&P, Real Estate, D&I and Health,” she says. “All of Shell’s core functions are working together to really personalise access to Shell’s workplace environment, so that all people, no matter their differences, are enabled to be as productive as they can be every day.”
After her painful experience, Cara was made aware that around 75% of people who have an impairment got it at some point in their adult life – meaning they were not born with it. It’s a statistic that’s made her realise the importance of personal resilience and looking out for one another. “I’m lucky to be working for such a caring organisation, where everyone is committed to the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone else.”