Catherine McLachlan isn’t simply an achiever, she’s a survivor with a personal story that makes her recent AHRI award even more remarkable.
Catherine McLachlan couldn’t be more pleased if she had won an Oscar. Walking off with the Ram Charan AHRI Practising Certification Award at the recent AHRI awards is the pinnacle of her career to date. But the road that led to this moment has been fraught and she nearly didn’t live to see the day.
“At 19 I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder. I was in the middle of a university degree and it came out of the blue – there was no family history. It started with my eyelid drooping and then it affected my speech and swallowing. There wasn’t a lot of research about the condition, so the doctors didn’t know how much medicine to give me. They put me on steroids that helped me finish my psychology degree and get a place in the ACT public service graduate program.
“That was where I had my first HR role, at Calvary hospital. I worked on four enterprise agreements in that time, which was invaluable experience. In 2006, I moved to the Commonwealth Public Service into the Family Court of Australia. I was on a high dose of steroids, but my health was holding up, and in a general HR business partner role, I advanced quickly. It was the same year that I got married – at 22 – to my university sweetheart.”
After some challenging years in the Family Court of Australia, McLachlan began working as director of mental health program implementation in the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. She was promoted and at 25 was running a large team in a national facing role. Everything was going well for McLachlan and the icing on the cake came with the birth of the couple’s first child. Then things started to go wrong.
“When I was 26 and my son was 10 months old he got a tummy bug and my husband and I caught it. My husband improved, but I couldn’t seem to regain energy. A couple of nights later, I couldn’t breathe and he rang for an ambulance. By the time we got to emergency I was on full oxygen. After two hours, I went into cardiac arrest. My husband was told to get my family fast as they didn’t think I was going to make it.
“I had blood coming out of my eyeballs, mouth and nose, and they still didn’t know what was wrong with me. They thought it might be swine flu. I was in intensive care in an induced coma, but I was vomiting even though comatose. Eventually, they stabilised me. They diagnosed septicaemia, pneumonia and multiple blood clots in my heart and lungs, but they weren’t actually sure what was going on or what was going to happen.
“By day five, they found out that there was no neurological deficit, so they started to bring me out of the coma. But by day 10, I still couldn’t talk, move my arms and legs or breathe on my own. On day 17 I was fully awake and extubated and able to breathe independently for the first time. But I still couldn’t talk.
“The doctors think that what happened to me was a catastrophic combination of events that were triggered by the bug and the autoimmune disorder. Day 24, I walked out of the hospital and two weeks later my son turned one. The doctors thought it was an amazing recovery.
“Thankfully, I have gone on to have two more children, but I’ve suffered with long-term effects of steroids, including breaking my foot three times, temporary diabetes and weight gain.
“The impact of the illness on my career has been profound. When I returned, I told the Deputy Secretary I wanted to go back to HR. This is about me owning my life for the future – however long I’ve got. A week later he rang to say there was a role and, needless to say, I took it. I was heavily pregnant with my second child, but the branch manager told me: ‘You have made more of a contribution in six weeks than I would normally see in a year’.”
Since then, McLachlan hasn’t looked back, finding her niche and thriving in her HR career.
“I love seeing results with employees, I love working with executives. Even though HR is undervalued sometimes, I never tire of ensuring that our department achieves its objectives.
“Those long, lonely nights in intensive care gave me more of a perspective about valuing my career choice in HR. Everything in my life took on new meaning. So when the idea of certification passed across my desk, it was a light-bulb moment – it came at such a critical time for me. It cemented the belief that HR is my vocation – that it’s where I want to make a difference and empower people to make a great contribution themselves. By investing in HR professionals like me, we can demonstrate what we can bring back into the business.
“At the same time as studying for certification, I found a new doctor, the amazing head of immunology at Canberra hospital, and began a new treatment. Before then nothing had worked. I had to be wary of infection, but I felt I had been given another chance at life.
“I was truthfully very unwell when I started the certification program part-time, but I have never wanted to let this disease own me. What helped is that our group formed a bond so quickly and that contributed to my increasing good health. Kim Schofield, the national manager, certification, at AHRI, was a great help, as was my sponsor at work. I looked forward to all the assignments and using the work-based reports to affect real and amazing change in the department.
“Fast-forward 15 months and it’s all going fairly well. I feel like I belong to a community of like-minded professionals committed to workforce reform. Work is more enjoyable and my team are benefitting from my invigoration and are keen to know more about AHRI and the professionalisation of HR. We feel a passion for our shared vocation. My health is now cooperating and I have this wonderful refresh to my career – I can’t ask for anything more.”
Transform your career with the AHRI Practising Certification Program. January 2018 intake enrolments close December 13.
This story is a preview of a story that will be appearing in the Dec/Jan edition of HRM magazine. McLachlan’s certification capstone project demonstrated significant return on investment to the Department o f Social Services. As a result she won the 2017 Ram Charan AHRI Practising Certification Award at the AHRI Awards last month for her contribution to organisational capability.