HR adviser Pierre Schröder on the turbulent year of 2020
Was it 8:30 PM? 9 PM? He had no idea. It was mid-September, it was getting dark, and because he didn’t have a torch or a phone on him, he crawled into his sleeping bag. He had only just settled down under the open sky when the forest around him came to life. He heard wild boar, deer, an owl. All his senses were on high alert. That’s when he heard a rat nearby, or at least he thought he did. “I was petrified with fear. That always happens when I’m really scared. I immediately realised, ‘I can’t spend four nights like this, I won’t be able to handle it.” What to do? Pierre Schröder, HR adviser at Maastricht University for almost thirty years now: “I decided, ‘If I hear anything, I will scream.’ I didn’t care if anyone heard me. It helped, it made me feel calmer.”
Pierre Schröder wasn’t sure whether he should participate in this series of interviews looking back on the year 2020. “Should I open up or not? As an HR adviser, you only have one instrument at your disposal: yourself. I draw on my own experiences in my conversations with staff members. It encourages them and helps them open up. I’m a member of a community that feels like a warm blanket, particularly over the last year as well. I feel like I should give back and show myself. That’s why I’m telling my story.”
For him, the year 2020 started on 15 December 2019. He had already been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but that day in Nijmegen, Gelderland, he learnt that the cancer had metastasised. His brother was the one who accompanied him to the hospital; his wife had to take their eldest daughter – who had previously been diagnosed with cancer – to Leuven, Belgium, for a check-up appointment. When he got home, he opened his email inbox. He had won this year’s UM Employee Award and was to receive it at the New Year’s Reception. “I immediately thought, ‘I’m not going, this is the furthest thing from my mind right now.” But his daughter had a very different point of view. ‘As long as you’re alive, you have to celebrate life, dad,’ she said. She was right. I don’t like being the centre of attention, but I went anyway. It was heartwarming, all those people’s reactions.”
Like a holiday
On 15 December, it had been decided that he would receive radiation therapy in Nijmegen. Instead, he ended up in Leuven, where he had asked for a second opinion. He chuckles, “They treated me with the utmost respect. I don’t know if it was because I had sent in my request using my UM email address. Maybe they thought I was a doctor as well.” He had surgery on 14 January. Starting in April, he underwent radiation therapy five days per week for ten weeks. “We were in the middle of the pandemic, I couldn’t travel to Belgium every day, so I rented a flat there. I walked five kilometres to the hospital every day. I went home on weekends. Leuven is a beautiful city. I loved living in a different city after thirty years. It felt like a holiday, even though I was still working. I didn’t have to take a single day off.” In those months, there was one moment when he felt really scared. “I was already lying under the machine. The treatment usually takes a few minutes, but now it was taking forever. ‘We spotted something,’ the nurses told me. ‘We’re going to get a doctor.’ It turned out that there was a piece of intestine in the way – nothing to worry about. It was one of those moments when you realise how difficult and important communication is.”
In fight mode
Schröder is focused and concentrated while telling his story. He knows how to find the right words and gets emotional at times. When he was back in the Netherlands, he realised that he was still “in fight mode”. “When you learn that you have cancer, you only want one thing: to live. You feel fear and go into survival mode, which is good. But eventually, you have to get out of it again and accept your fate in order to let happiness in again. That’s very difficult.” He read a book called One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness, which showed him a way to deal with his fear of death. “In the book, they go to the prairie alone, following an ancient practice. I went to the Veluwe region for five days, alone, without food (that’s part of the deal, you can’t get distracted by anything; I lost 5.5 kilos), books, a watch or a telephone – only a sleeping bag, air mattress, enough water, a notebook and a pen. For those five days and four nights, I had a piece of forest measuring eight by eight square metres to myself. I wasn’t allowed to leave it. There were other people on the same ‘trip’, but I only saw them on the first morning.”
It was very confronting, says Schröder, but his alternative way of dealing with fear – screaming when it strikes – triggered an inner transformation. On the first night, he asked himself the question: what do I want now? “I wrote down that I wanted to go back to my carefree life, without cancer, just being healthy.” He repeated the ritual daily. “On Friday, before I left, I wrote down, ‘I want to accept what is.’”
He pauses. “Acceptance creates space, space to feel carefree as well. I can’t control fate; I have to face it. It’s not about my will, but about Your will – I believe in some higher power, I just don’t know what it is. You have to have the guts to stand on the edge of life and shiver. Don’t overcompensate and go over the edge, which tends to be my strategy, but don’t take a step back and give in either. It became clear to me that every person goes through this in life: during a divorce, an illness, the death of a loved one. We fight-or-flight when we should go and stand on the edge. Out there in the forest, I could no longer flee. There was no escaping it anymore.”
The university also accepted its fate this year, he realised in the forest. “We were targeted by cybercriminals and they had us backed into a corner. We accepted it and paid the ransom. And it was a good decision. When I talk to administrative staff from other universities in the country, it’s never about the cyber-attack, but always about how UM resolved the situation.”
Being an HR adviser means being a sympathetic ear, a source of information and a source of support for staff. The pandemic hasn’t changed that, although he can’t just pop into people’s offices in these times. “I’m using checklists to keep track of who to call or email. I used to knock on someone’s door to ask them how they’re doing.” People have different ways of coping during COVID-19. “Very different ways. One person likes working from home because it has improved their work-life balance. Some people miss their colleagues, who are part of their social lives. Others miss the routine and structure of working in an office environment.”
He also sees line managers doing their best to keep their teams together. “Some of them are very creative. Finance sent everyone a lunchbox so they could eat together during a Zoom call. FHML (Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences) organised a pub quiz, Psychology a bingo night, other departments start their days with a short Zoom call. At HR, everyone was sent four chocolate bonbons the day before one of our colleagues left; we ate them together. Our leaders – from the members of the Executive Board to the team leaders – are working hard to keep everyone aboard.”
He had another check-up appointment two weeks ago. His daughter had one a few days later. They both got good news, he says with a big smile. “My daughter’s prognosis is especially positive. To me, that’s more important than my own prognosis.” Still, it was a turbulent month: his father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and his mother-in-law had to go to a nursing home.
“You know what has stayed with me most all these years? I was watching Farmer Wants a Wife with my eldest daughter, who was undergoing radiation therapy at the time. Two of the women in the programme were asked what grade they would give their lives. They both gave it a six out of ten. ‘What grade would you give your life?’ I asked my daughter. ‘An eight,’ she said. I wasn’t expecting that. It was a good reminder that you can’t ever grade someone else’s life for them.”
One more thing. “I was taking a bath last Saturday. The radio was on downstairs. I heard my wife sing along. She hadn’t done that for a very long time. Yes, it made me emotional.” So does talking about it. Then, he says, with a smile, “My story is a story of hope.”
Christmas interviews Observant
In Observant's Christmas special we ask employees and a student to look back on 2020. It was an eventful year for many.
You can read here the interviews with Medicine student Vera Schriebl, Nick Bos, vice chair of the Executive Board, physician and researcher Chahinda Ghossein, Mark Vluggen, director of the Bachelor Programmes at the School of Business and Economics, and Dave Mattheijs, district attorney in the case of Nicky Verstappen and lecturer at UM.
On Wednesday 16 December the digital Christmas special, including the six interviews, will be published on our website in PDF.