Last day at work

Yesterday I reached a milestone in my life – at the age of 47 I have taken early retirement, not so much by choice but because of disease progression and also because the company is closing the site where I work. In my (almost) 34 year working life (I started working at 14 in a corner shop at the end of the road where I grew up) I have only ever been out of work for two weeks. It will feel very strange this abrupt termination of one of life’s routines. It’s also a reminder that the disease has won another victory and cheated me out of a future.

For the past eight years I’ve worked at Eli Lilly, the American pharmaceutical company, which as it happens opened its first overseas manufacturing plant here in Basingstoke in the UK back in 1939 (the day after war broke out). Having been a resident of the town practically all my life (I was just a few months old when my parents moved down from London as part of the ‘overspill’ in 1960) I grew up thinking of the company as ‘that white building on the hill’. Even today where I now live on quite high ground, I can look towards town and the eye-catching building still remains a prominent feature of the surrounding landscape.

The striking features of the original Eli Lilly building at the Basingstoke manufacturing site

Eli Lilly have always had a good reputation with the town and have been regarded as one of the major employers. I considered myself extremely lucky when I was offered a contract position back in the spring of 2000. But like so many people brought in for a specific task (in my case to help implement a new computerised maintenance system) I only imagined myself to be there for a short while, although I hoped that it would be much longer. After all, I reasoned, what could be more secure then a position in a company that manufactures medicines and has been part of the town’s landscape for so long? But the pharmaceutical industry is of course just as susceptible to fluctuations and competition in the market as other industries. It was a sad day when the announcement to close the site was made in the summer of 2006.

But from the time I began working there it became obvious that the company was indeed a good fit for me. I had come from a much smaller company and so it sort of felt a little like moving from the countryside to go and work in a big city. But what impressed me most was that despite the size of the company it had somehow managed to retain a feeling of working for a much smaller family company. Instead of a cold, clinical ‘I don’t have time to talk or explain to you’ sort of attitude, it was very much a friendly and helpful atmosphere. And despite being a contractor for the entire eight years I was never made to feel like an outsider. Eli Lilly seem to treat everyone alike. To me this is all very important because we spend the largest part of our waking lives at work so it would be a crying shame to waste so much time in an environment that makes us unhappy.

Since my health problems started to impact daily activities late last summer, I’ve been amazed by the amount of help and consideration shown by my friends and colleagues at work. I’ve had people take on some of the tasks I would normally have done, file things away for me because I can no longer reach up, fetch me drinks, open doors, carry plates of food, brought me into work and took me home again when I had to give up driving, took the time to listen and to give friendly and helpful advice, and were patient with me when things took a little longer as I started to slow down. I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with such a group of kind, considerate, helpful, friendly and caring people. So to all my friends, and in particular; Bill, Carry, Kim and Jane, who have done so much for me to help make my last working months so bearable, I offer you my heartfelt gratitude. Thank you so much for everything! I will miss you all!

So now I will begin a new chapter in my life. The worry I have at the moment is that I may start to feel socially isolated and without purpose now that I have stopped working and am no longer part of a team. When I was at Eli Lilly it always felt good to know that I was working for a company that enhances the quality of human life. Sure, I wasn’t at the ‘coal face’ actually making the medicines but in such an intricate operation there are many interdependent links and I was very happy and indeed proud to be a part of it. I’m so sad to see it all end and it’s been very difficult for me to hear all the people around me talking about job interviews and job offers and knowing that they are on a road that I cannot follow. I’ll just have to hope that there is some truth in the old saying ‘as one door closes another one will open’ (to new opportunities and possibilities). Fortunately I am the sort of person who has lots of interests and doesn’t get bored so I’m sure I’ll soon find things to occupy my mind and keep me active.

March has been the worst month so far since being diagnosed. In a matter of weeks I have lost the ability to drive a car and the ability to financially support myself, both of which I’ve been able to do all my adult life. In addition the disease has continued to progress down my arms into my hands and fingers making many tasks difficult and time consuming. I’ve been using up a lot of energy preparing for work each morning and by the time I left the house I would be feeling exhausted. I suppose at least now I’ll be able to relax a little more and take things a bit slower. But the cost of doing so is high.

I really do believe a positive attitude helps with this disease and it is for that reason why I am treating this as ‘early retirement’ rather then ‘stopping work’ and waiting for the end to come. I also believe that laughter is the best medicine because life is so short even without illness. In fact I’ve often heard it said that it takes far fewer muscles to smile then to frown so perhaps happiness is a lazy person’s emotion – an important point for me to remember just in case the disease ever spreads into my face – in which case I’ll be going around with a perpetual smile!

I’ve decided I’ve had enough of these troublesome motor neurones. I’ve looked after them all these years, gave them a home, put a shirt on their back, found them a job and this is how they repay me. They’ve turned on their master! Well I’ve worked out exactly where they hang out and I’ve already told them in no uncertain terms ‘I know where you live!’ I’m just waiting for that new superstore ‘Brains R Us’ to open and then I’ll be straight down there for a brain swap-out!

So what do I do in the meantime? Well I’ve been thinking about going into research myself. I thought if maybe I took a different approach I might have more luck then all these multi-million dollar efforts – in fact I’ve already made a start. I’ve bought a chemistry set in Toys R Us and some hamsters at the local pet store. We’re not going to mess about because time is precious so I’ll jump straight to the animal trials and we’ll see exactly how many of those hamsters really are guilty! 🙂

Mark

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