In Her Own Words: Brigette Turay’s encounter with terrorism prepared her for Covid-19

December 22, 2020

In Her Own Words: Brigette Turay’s encounter with terrorism prepared her for Covid-19

By Ellen Sherberg, Bizwomen Contributor

As our communities struggle to reopen, women across America see their lives becoming more complicated as they juggle responsibilities at home and at work (which is often still at home), caring for coworkers, customers and family. Brigette Turay survived a bombing and cancer; she was ready for a pandemic.

“I was just 21 when an act of terrorism changed my life forever. I could never have predicted that this terrible experience would give me the strength and perspective to help guide my company through the anxiety of Covid-19.

In 2005, I was a student living in London and working part-time for a mergers & acquisitions consulting company. I was living a great life despite going through a bout of cancer the year before.

July 5, 2005, was a day like any other. I just wrapped up a great visit with family, who were on a flight back to Ohio. My flatmate had just left to catch the bus that stopped in the square in front of our building. I was getting ready to start digging into school work, and took a few minutes to look out the window.

Then it happened. A bomb detonated on a double-decker bus directly outside my flat. This was one of four coordinated transportation bombings that morning that left 52 dead and hundreds injured in London.

One moment everything was completely normal, and the next moment there were dead bodies on the ground. It took a few moments for the situation to sink in. Everything seemed to slow down, which I’ve learned is a very real phenomenon experienced by people in traumatic situations.

One poignant moment has stuck with me over the 15 years since the bombing. A deceased man was lying right outside my unit. A stranger running from the blast stopped suddenly, and in a moment of grace he took off his coat and draped it over the man. In all this chaos, while people were running away from the area, one person cared enough to give the dead man one last bit of dignity.

In the ensuing days I had to decide what I would do. My mother, who just arrived home when she heard the news of the bombing, was begging me to come home. My flatmate, who thankfully had taken a different bus, encourage me to leave London and join him at his family’s home in Liverpool.

I chose to stay. One thing this bombing taught me was that life is finite and not always fair. I reasoned that I should stay, toughen up, and live life to the fullest. I buried the shock and horror, and moved forward.

When 2020 rolled around, I was faced with another cancer diagnosis. I was hesitant to talk about it at work because some employers may not be understanding. I now am working for a company that values trust as a key part of our culture, so I decided to tell the CEO and leadership team about my diagnosis. They could not have been more supportive. When I tried to discuss what upcoming treatments would mean for my work, the CEO and leadership team actually offered to help me personally by taking things off my plate.

I felt like I could breathe.

These experiences — the terrorism, the cancer, the suppressed fear — unknowingly were conditioning me to contribute when Covid-19 began to ravage our states. I could see the fear that our employees were carrying around in the early days of the pandemic. Many needed the paycheck, but were worried about getting sick themselves or bringing the virus home to someone who is vulnerable. Others were suffering terribly from anxiety.

I thought about the man who died in front of my London flat. I thought of the passerby who took the time to cover him up. At that moment, I decided I wanted to be the sort of person who would drape my coat during a time of panic.

With this mindset, I met with the leadership team and suggested ways we could live up to our culture of trust. We decided to support our employees through the pandemic. This meant extending a level of pay and medical care for those who were not comfortable coming to work, while also offering increased paid sick leave. We then focused on creating the safest environment possible for those who wanted to keep working. We made it clear that the worry our employees were feeling was valid, and I made myself more available to employees so they felt comfortable discussing their fears. These discussions often happened before and after hours because that’s when people’s fears kicked in. One employee in particular called me every morning at 6 a.m. for about a month.

For many people, the 2020 pandemic is their version of my bombed bus. They are shell shocked, uncertain of the future, and afraid to show their fear.

I hope the way we operated with understanding and compassion has helped. I’d like for them to be able to look back on this experience and see the man with the coat, and know they made it through this difficult time because people cared for them.

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