The blow of the ceiling put an end to all carefreeness

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By Loeka Oostra for Het Financieele Dagblad

(translation done on the fly by me, Wies Bratby)

Great at learning, great at partying. But when part of the ceiling falls on her head in a restaurant, Wies Bratby’s life changes. Her memory becomes like a sieve, yet she finishes her studies and goes to work. But this new urge to prove herself turns out to be a pitfall.

As if a huge tray shattered on the floor. This is the sound that Wies Bratby hears behind her in a restaurant where she has dinner with her friends. They are at an Argentinian steakhouse, while she has been a vegetarian since she was 11 years old. She did not eat more than a few side dishes that evening in October 2001. “At least I’m not the only unfortunate soul tonight,” she thinks.

But it’s not a tray that causes the noise. The suspended ceiling of the restaurant comes down and a moment later lands on top of Bratby’s head. Lights go out, sprinklers turn on. She remains in her seat, waiting for someone to free her from under the rubble.

Bratby will never forget the jeans she wore that night. “It had hardened with blood from my head by the next morning. It was a new one, so it pissed me off,” she says in her current office in Bussum, a fully modernized warehouse. The old wooden beams that hold up the roof in the office are horizontally supported by two steel beams. “The architect said the existing beams would be able to support the weight of the roof, but I had these extra beams put in, just in case.”

Cannot find the words anymore

The worries about her new jeans symbolise her life up to that point: everything went smoothly for her. Gymnasium? Easy-peasy. Studying law in Maastricht? Until then, she had mainly partied. But the ceiling accident, puts an end to that carefreeness. “I’ve always loved language, now I couldn’t think of words. Potatoes became ‘that food from the Van Gogh painting’, an airplane a bus with wings.’

While her classmates are in the pub every night, Bratby sleeps twenty hours a day on a special pillow that keeps her neck and back in the correct position. She survived with whiplash and brain injury, according to the police report: it’s a miracle she’s still alive. But putting that message into perspective does not help. “I was especially angry about everything that had been taken from me. I was always the smartest person around and the party animal, after the accident none of that was left.”

But quiting her studies and going back to the family home? She refused. She forced herself to continue studying. “A tremendous urge to prove myself came into my mind. Not only did I want to get my degree, but I also wanted to graduate with the best grades. Not just becoming a lawyer, but the very best.”

Walking on her toes for five years

The fact that her memory is now a sieve due to the blow does not help in the least. “When I read a page, I forgot what it was about by the end. But I kept pushing, all to prove I wasn’t stupid.”

Looking back, she calls it a basic mistake. ‘Because after six years of studying I heard that I could start at a large law firm at the financial district in Amsterdam, I thought I had proven myself. Whilst in reality, the hard work had only just begun.”

Yet it is not the hard work that ultimately weighs her down the most at the law firm: she feels the lack of appreciation for her qualities is worse. ‘I am strong in connecting people, setting up initiatives to collaborate. But my colleagues were not interested in anything I was good at.”

Her urge to prove herself prevents her from giving up: for five years she walks on her toes. “After three weeks working day and night on a memo for a client, all the partner told me when I asked for feedback I was told was that there was a double space on page 36.” When she also finds out that she is paid less than her male colleagues, she is done. “One morning, I just couldn’t get up.”

Perforated colon

With ‘one hell of a burnout’ Bratby leaves with her family for Hong Kong, where her husband is offered a job. “After a year of recovery, I ended up at Education First a private language education company, where I was allowed to set up the HR department for Asia and find the right people to build teams. I was judged on what I created, which was a huge relief.’

Yet here, too, the urge to prove herself rears its ugly head. “We moved to Zurich after three years, where I continued to work for EF. Great work, but long days, and I continued always wanting to be better than the day before.’ She gets a stomach ache, her doctor sends her immediately to the hospital after blood tests. It turns out that her colon is perforated. “When the doctor mentioned stress as one of the causes of this, my partner could only nod.”

She decides not to make the same mistake during her recovery as she did fifteen years earlier. “But I knew my ambition wouldn’t just go away. All I could do was focus its energy differently.”

Negotiating career and salary

She decides to combine the best parts of her career. ‘The negotiation of the legal days, the HR part at EF and bringing my own enthusiasm that has a contagious effect on people.’ It results in their own company WIN – Women In Negotiation. She helps women to better negotiate their career and salary. Whilst she still suffers from amnesia. “I have turned a flaw into a feature.” 

Her motto for WIN: more than the extra money, it’s about finding the right environment. “My clients have to find the right place, where they are valued for who they are and the qualities they have. Then career, success and salary come naturally.”

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