"Resilience: it's in the genes!" by Robert Hannah, Partner
"Resilience: it's in the genes!" by Robert Hannah
"We all have challenges in our life that test our strength and resolve, but I take the view that making the most of whatever your situation will ensure you get the most out of life – don’t complain about the cards you're dealt, just use them wisely. For my wife and family, it’s been a genetic degenerative illness called Huntington’s Disease that has tested us, but I’m proud of both my sons’ resilience through it all."
Chapter 1: The beginning
I started with Grant Thornton in the summer of 1987 doing what was then called a ‘summer job’ but is now more grandly called ‘an internship’. I was at university studying economics and I wanted to understand better what accounting and finance was all about. I also needed some cash to see me through the summer, so I applied to a few accountancy firms and chose Grant Thornton primarily because the welcome was so warm. That has been my consistent experience of the firm over the past 30 years irrespective of which offices I have visited throughout the UK and indeed the world – the people are welcoming and supportive.
I trained with the firm and upon qualifying went on a secondment to a private equity house for two years, returning to set up our corporate finance business in Edinburgh. At this stage I got married to Val and we had two boys, Andrew and Ross. When Andrew was only two, he had a problem with his blood clotting. While we managed to get it treated successfully, we were asked for our medical histories. This was a challenge for Val as she had been adopted and had never sourced her original medical records. To our shock, when she got the records it showed that her maternal grandfather had died of a genetic degenerative illness called Huntington’s Disease.
'My motivation has always been to do the absolute best at whatever I choose to do and, by doing so, ensure I can give my family the care and support they need.'
Chapter 2: It’s in the genes
Val chose to get the predictive test which confirmed that sadly she had the same genetic defect and would develop the symptoms, which are like a combination of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. While we were shocked at the time, we had been told it wouldn’t affect Val until she was well into her fifties. So we dusted ourselves down and carried on with normal life.
I progressed into various management and key account roles from Scotland to the North of England, to overseeing the whole of the regions, and then head of operations for the whole firm. During this time Val developed symptoms earlier than expected, when she was only 35. By this time our boys were at secondary school and she was unable to look after them. Val started to become distant and went through significant personality changes. Caring for her while bringing the boys through their most important years at school and delivering at work was a huge challenge, and I relied heavily on my wider family.
I am so proud that both the boys are doing well and live away from home. One is married and employed as an engineer and the other is doing a PhD in Genetics (more than a little ironic!). Val is in the later stages of Huntington’s, which means she can’t walk, talk or swallow and has almost no cognitive capability.
It took me a long time to tell anyone of Val’s condition – for some strange reason I felt uncomfortable explaining the position and it still feels self-indulgent to talk about it. But caring for a family member will become much more common as provision of nursing homes and hospital beds become increasingly rare, so we all need to recognise the needs of carers.
My motivation has always been to do the absolute best at whatever I choose to do and, by doing so, ensure I can give my family the care and support they need. Andrew my eldest son has had the predictive test and unfortunately, he also has the Huntington's genetic defect so he will suffer the symptoms. Ross has chosen not to have the test yet. So, I want to make sure I am able to support them financially and emotionally, whatever life throws at them.
Chapter 3: The silver lining
Today, at work I combine a role as head of large and complex with a role as head of strategic markets in GTIL, focussing on developing the growth strategies of certain key markets in the international network. The support I have had from people at Grant Thornton has been exceptional. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford full time care at home but I help with fundraising for the Scottish Huntington's Association because for most families the illness is devastating to the family finances.
I cycled from London to Paris to raise funds for Scottish Huntington's Association in 2012 and managed to raise £30,000. I was truly humbled by the generosity of family, friends, colleagues and clients. At work, being appointed to the firm’s leadership team has been a huge honour. I have always said Grant Thornton has provided me with everything I could have hoped for and at the same time I have committed everything to Grant Thornton. I hope the firm has benefited as much as I have. Finally, my sons’ achievements and the way they have handled their Mum’s illness leaves me in awe of both of them - and that makes me proudest of all.
The silver lining of Val’s illness has been that my relationship with my sons is more as friends than as father and sons. We all have challenges in our life that test our strength and resolve but I take the view that making the most of whatever your situation will ensure you get the most out of life – don’t complain about the cards you're dealt, just use them wisely.
Employers need to learn how to be flexible to allow carers the time they need to care but to also pursue their career. I have been exceptionally lucky to be able to fulfil my career ambitions while managing to care for Val and support the boys. I have worked with so many wonderful people in this firm and watched them progress personally and professionally. For me the perfect legacy is for even just a few of them to say - he helped me be better.
Robert's story is part of our 'Stories of our diverse workforce' where we've asked our people to open up and share their own personal story. To read more stories, follow the link below.