Friday, August 23, 2013

Strong at the broken places

     Justine Fedak and I met in the living room at Joakim Noah's house. I was there to interview the 6'11 Bulls star center. She was there because, well, she's everywhere — in charge of brand strategy, advertising and sponsorships for BMO Harris Bank across North America, she is the bank's liaison to both the Bulls and Blackhawks, among other duties, and is responsible for the fact that you can't watch a minute of basketball or hockey in Chicago without having positive thoughts about BMO Harris gently massaged into your cerebral cortex.
       In 99 out of 100 cases, that would have been that. I can't tell you whether corporate media relations harbors more incompetents that journalism or dentistry or any other field. But many marketing types have the tentative, I'm-just-visiting-here quality of birds setting down before a park bench. Land, peck a bit, then they're off and good luck ever finding them again, particularly when you need them most.
    Justine Fedak is not like that. Once I got within her field of vision she saw to it that I stayed there. She kept circling back, to check up on things, with such deftness that I found myself convinced she just sincerely likes me as a person and wants to enjoy the pleasure of my company, which may very well be the case. Or she might just be a very skilled communications executive doing her job. Hard for me to tell. You'll have to ask her.
    To be honest, I should have disliked Justine, on general principles, just for the fact that she is writing one of those guest columns in Splash, the Sun-Times celebrity/fashion magazine, a pickaxe to the foundation of my own gig. If any random bank executive with a certain flair can suddenly snag the interest of readers, well, then you don't really need guys like me hanging around on salary, do you? I try not to think about it.
     What kept me from disliking her, beside her disarming manner, is that she is good at column-writing, having discovered the secret of compelling writing: calibrated honesty. Not the make-myself-look-good-at-all-costs myopia that drags down even professional writers, not the let-it-all-hang-out excessive candor that causes amateurs to send readers cringing away. But just the right deft touch, not too hot, not too cold. Such as her column about how she had to stop drinking when she learned she had Multiple Sclerosis in 2001. Or another about the cane she has to use because of the disease. Or even about her trademark funky eyeglasses.
     So though I avoid luncheons like the living death they often are, particularly luncheons involved with any kind of good cause, when I saw that Justine was being honored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Greater Chicago Chapter at the Ritz-Carlton in Monday, I made a point to be there. I'm not sure what I expected, but not the 500 people who also decided to show up. Oh, right, I'm not the only person she knows. Shit. I thought I was. Justine has a way of doing that.
     Still, I was glad to be there. I learned a lot. Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic, disabling disease where the immune system attacks the central nervous system. Myelin, the fatty substance that shields nerves, is scarred ("sclerosis" is medical-speak for scarring, or hardening of body tissue) and the multiple part comes because it can attack the brain, the spinal cord, the optic nerve.  Nobody knows what causes it and nobody knows how to cure it. Yet. But Justine is on the case.
     A lot of people got up and talked about how wonderful she is. Alan McNally, the former CEO of Harris Bank (and the former chairman of Walgreens; busy guy)  introduced her, and she demonstrated how right they were, with a powerful, effective, brief speech that merged the heretofore separate realms of impassioned disability activism and savvy brand management.
    "When you first get a diagnosis of MS, it's pretty macabre, it's pretty dark," she told the room. "Multiple sclerosis—I had no idea what that meant. I thought it was muscular dystrophy, and find out from the MS Society I was not alone in that thought. But what I knew is, I couldn't feel my left leg anymore. I was extremely tired, I was in terrible pain, felt like my body was being seared. Things that used to come to me very easily were very, very hard. And I started to doubt myself. I wanted to hide it. I wasn't always this open, because I was worried people would judge me.  And the career... I really figured I couldn't do it anymore."
   What allowed her to carry on and triumph over the disease was her employer, her boss at BMO Harris Bank, who "knew me well enough to push me. For me it was my work." 
     She said she shouldn't have been surprised, but she was.
     "The irony is BMO has always been a company that has broken the glass ceiling, that has given people an opportunity," she said. "It was all about your performance. I knew this, but I still doubted it, because it was too overwhelming and too scary. BMO embraced me when I was ready to give up."
     As can happen with difficulties, coping with MS forced Justine be a better person than she thought she could be. She learned to use a cane, then learned to love it.
    "It's forced me to look at myself differently," she said. "It's forced me to be more forgiving of myself. It's forced me to talk openly about what scares me. It's forced me to ask for help, and I hate asking for help, because I like to do things myself."
     After the speech, I leaped to my feet with the rest of the audience, clapping my hands sore, heart swelled for her and the great people she works with.
     It was only later, upon reflection, that I understood what she had pulled off, and my admiration deepened. She had a wonderful message, true—"I started to realize that I had to be in love with my life, every minute"—but she also managed to plug, not just BMO Harris, but a range of corporate interests: the Bulls, the Blackhawks, Walgreens, Edleman, the Sun-Times, Splash, her doctors, the National MS Society.
     Which some people will naturally smirk at, clinging to the too-easy, corporate-equals-bad mentality. Corporations have a bad rap because they often do bad things. But they also do good things, at least if you believe Justine Fedak, and I do.  You kinda have to. Because she knows a secret that many PR sorts never grasp—that if you are obviously candid in one area, particularly a difficult area, then you build trust, and people will believe you in another, completely unrelated area. And Justine is obviously candid.
     "The disease betrays you, it's very unpredictable," she said. "You never know when it's going to take hold of you....We don't think about disability, because we don't have to. But now I do, because I have to...People don't donate  because they don't understand MS. I have it and I don't understand it. This is the most random, ridiculous disease of all time."
     She referred to herself in the speech, several times, as "broken," the disease had broken her. She left it to her audience, or at least me anyway, to think of that Hemingway line from  A Farewell to Arms, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." 

To help fight the most random, ridiculous disease of all time, click here.




  1. An amazing woman, for sure.

  2. Good for her but I still think that her employer's name ("BMO Harris") reminds me of the handle a pimp or pervert would use online. However, I am assuredly in the minority on this point.

  3. You're really a fighter! I highly appreciate your courage. And your writings are really inspiring and from your article I've also be known of symptoms for multiple sclerosis


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