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What goes into making a gem

Life for Lynne Vogensen may not have been exactly how she expected it to be - but that never stopped her from facing its pressures head-on.

Photographs: Terumi Mascarenhas - & private photographs

Text: Michaela Medveďová

Location: Hansen & Company and Frederiksberg 'al fresco'

When describing the journey of internationals in Denmark, it can be easy to just check off the boxes. The same could be said for Lynne Vogensen. A Welsh-born long-term expat living in Denmark. A wife to a Dane. A mom to a daughter with cerebral palsy.

But with her story, Lynne shows that it's never too late to shift gears and reinvent yourself.

From Welsh to Danish

"There's a lot of us, aren't there?" laughs Lynne when she describes how she landed in Denmark. She fell in love with a Dane.

They met at a science conference in Holland and continued to correspond. Lynne first visited Denmark about a month after meeting - and he proposed. "Although he didn't get down on one knee. He said: I'll marry you if you want me to. Well, I said that'd be very nice." But they waited about two years before getting married, with Lynne travelling back and forth. Her husband had been married before and had two children. "It was obvious that I would move to Denmark so he could be close to them. And even if we had settled in the UK, we'd have had to move anyway from this little town in southwest Wales."

So 27 years ago, Denmark welcomed Lynne into her new home.

And she got off to a good start. She had her husband to support her, and she formed great relationships with his children, ex-wife, and even ex-mother-in-law - they have both welcomed her.

"I spent about a year just acclimatising myself and started learning Danish. It took a bit of time to get my CPR card, and I could only do a beginner's course and didn't get very far. After I got it, I qualified for a fast-track course. So after six months, I could speak Danish well enough to go out and get a job."

A sudden change

But while the language came easy, it was harder on the job front. Lynne has a bachelor's degree in chemistry but never used it. Her first job in the UK was in a biotech company where she was in the lab, then a production supervisor, and then did some documentation. "Taking a Master's was not as common in the UK, but in Denmark seemed to be the norm. I didn't fit the profile for either academic work or the lab, which has it's own specific education." So Lynne was never called in for an interview - and decided to go to a temp agency. In the third job they sent her, they needed a technical writer - someone with great English who was good at writing instructions.

They found that person in Lynne, and she held the job for 22 years.

Unfortunately, she was made redundant three years ago due to restructuring reasons. The company hired a second technical writer with experience in a specific database system - a system Lynne, ironically, campaigned for herself. "It was sad because it was a good company that gave me much support. I had flexible hours, and if I needed to take time off to be in the hospital with my daughter, that wasn't a problem. I still completed my assignments. But the choice fell on me when they needed to let go of one person from every department."

This has unfortunately also complicated her journey towards getting Danish citizenship. Even though she finally had the time to take Danish lessons and exams, which are a requirement, she excelled in the infamous test that comes along with citizenship and got compliments in her oral exam. However, in the meantime, the rules have changed. She'd have to be employed in the past three and a half out of four years - and even though she'd worked for 22 years, she doesn't fulfil this condition. So she'll try to apply for a dispensation.

"I didn't go for citizenship in the beginning because I'd have to give up my British one. Now I feel like I am a merging of the two. I'm fully integrated. A friend visiting me asked why there were flags on the buses, and I said it was the Queen's birthday. She said: Oh, their Queen! And my response was: No, our Queen, Margrethe!"

Silkeborg or Singapore?

"I think I expected that when I got my permanent job, I would make some friends among my colleagues. But it seems they didn't socialise outside the workplace - as though everybody had their social lives closer to home." So even though she's quite an introvert, she finds it easy to talk to people and found some great colleagues at work - including a small handful she could go to when she needed a hug.

In theory, Lynne's fluent Danish should break all the barriers in interacting with Danish colleagues. "Still, if there's too much noise around, I have difficulties hearing nuances in Danish. Especially at lunchtime, when it's busy. Once, I heard somebody talking about their honeymoon. I thought he said: I'm going to Silkeborg. Everybody went: whoa! I thought I misheard that because Silkeborg doesn't sound very exotic." So after lunch, she asked again where he was going. Turns out they were going to Singapore.

With another French-born colleague who has been in Denmark even longer than Lynne, they started gravitating to one of the small tables on the side so they could concentrate on what others were saying. "It can be difficult because Danish isn't a language where you have precise diction. Sometimes, you don't know - is that a new word I've heard? Or was it just words merged into each other? It's the same with children and foreigners. I have difficulty hearing them mispronounce words because I don't have enough of a database to figure it out."

And one more thing she misses about speaking her mother tongue here? "I'm not as fluent in Danish as in English - and I don't really have the turn of phrase to show that I can be funny!"

But since her daughter's birth, making friends has gone out of the window. Lynne has had little time for anything else.

Facing uncertainty

Describing her daughter's entrance into the world, everything was fine until birth. "I was happy, it was summer, and I was at peace with the world, smelling roses on my way to work. Everything was going as planned when a complication arose - the umbilical cord got pinched, and that resulted in severe brain damage," recounts Lynne.

Her newborn daughter Gwen spent her first three months in the neonatal department. She was on a respirator for the first three weeks, and her brain activity was monitored. Lynne and her husband were hoping she'd recover after the bad start. However, when they took her off the respirator and started weaning her off her medications, they knew Gwen would have a severe disability. "It completely floored us. Luckily, we could talk with a psychologist at the hospital who was used to dealing with parents in this kind of crisis. We also had a fantastic social worker who arranged that one of the neonatal nurses come home with us for three months during work hours which was a huge support." After that, the nurse was a respite for them, and Gwen went to her every third weekend. It was a great help during the first year - their daughter cried almost constantly and had difficulties sleeping at night.

During that time, they also faced uncertainty - they didn't know what her special needs would be. "Luckily, she can see. But she can't use her body, can't hold her head, or reach out for things. She is multiply disabled and needs one-on-one care 24/7. Caring for her and coordinating her care is a full-time job. But she's a happy and a social person, and in the right setting, she's quite confident and feels secure."

There were some things Lynne and her husband had to prioritise while raising Gwen. For example, her husband would have liked their daughter to be taught the alphabet and numbers, but they didn't have the personal resources to do it. And even though they've touched it at school, they concentrated on other things - physical therapy or verbalising Gwen's social interaction with the other children. "The biggest priority was keeping her healthy, making sure she was happy, fulfilled, and making her feel safe. My goal in life is to make her smile. She's got a great sense of humour."

In tough times, having a supportive network is more critical than ever. When pregnant with her daughter, Lynne thought she'd meet friends through the school networks. But with parents with children with special needs, socialising can be a bit more challenging. "But maybe you can have a chat whilst out for a walk with your children or do an activity together. Making connections with other parents helps." It doesn't have to be in real life - the digital space works, too. Lynne suggests becoming a part of Facebook groups. "Knowing that other people understand what you're going through helps."

A need for a reform

What really helped Lynne and her husband from the start, though, was the support from the social services system. "We wouldn't have had this level of support in the UK. Dad was a consultant psychiatrist and was very impressed with the help we received. I wouldn't have been able to work for 22 years without it!"

But over the years, they have seen a significant reduction in the number of help parents can get. Lynne sees clear culprits behind the change: budget constraints and municipality reform in recent years. "There has been a rise in a type of new public management where people try to run social services as a business. A cohesive support system is being phased out. Each municipality has to make its own regulations on how they apply the laws." Lynne felt the change most when her daughter turned 18. They had expected she would qualify for a package that allowed them to employ a team of carers at home - like other municipalities had. Unfortunately, they didn't get sufficient funding, and Lynne had to make up the difference.

What they did qualify for was help from community nursing - even though Lynne herself had to train the staff. "Once trained, I was still needed to support my daughter and communicate on her behalf to the personnel. After that, I couldn't function anymore. It completely ruined my working life because it was instrumental in my inability to take on bigger projects at work. That's part of why I was made redundant - and why I was a bit stuck in getting a new job. I couldn't give myself wholeheartedly to a new company if I knew I had a full-time job at home."

Lynne believes reform to the previous municipality arrangement would allow for more centralised expertise and ensure that families like hers can get the right help. In addition, the parts of the system should work together to create a solution that actually works in practice.

"I have time to maybe look at building a social life, meeting with people - which I wouldn't have been able to do last year as there was too much at home that I needed to take care of."

Diving into ballet

Gwen now lives in a bosted - full-time residential care - and is happy. "This is the first time a resident arrived with a set of written instructions and a 2-volume factbook. The transition has been a project in itself, and I'm still writing procedures and making visual aids to assist in her care! I'm her legal guardian, so it's my responsibility to ensure she's cared for properly."

It's been strange adjusting to life without her daughter at home. On the other hand, it allowed Lynne to take a bit of timeout to get her head together. After all, she's been in continuous fight or flight mode where she's always had to be ready for action.

"I have time to maybe look at building a social life, meeting with people - which I wouldn't have been able to do last year as there was too much at home that I needed to take care of." She's also started to do things for herself - for example, she's taken up ballet. "I love it even though I'm the worst in my class," she laughs. But it doesn't matter. Dancing brings her joy, and it does the same for Gwen. They are part of Bella Speranza, a ballet for youngsters with medical challenges - including people using wheelchairs - at the Royal Theatre in the centre of Copenhagen.

Lynne became a ballet fan to the point of recognising the dancers - and even spending her 50th birthday backstage. "I got a pass and just sat in the corner. So that's how I spent most of my 50th birthday - on my own, in a corner. Exactly what I needed, surrounded by beauty and a respite from everything, the stress and what we had going on at home."

A special-offer gem

And there's one more thing she's focusing on right now - finding a new career for herself.

She'd like to pursue a position in Quality Assurance in the pharmaceutical/medical devices field - combining her knowledge of chemistry and microbiology and her experience as a technical writer working on instructions. "Denmark has a thriving pharma industry with many companies that could use a bright, competent person with a can-do attitude who keeps their cool in stressful situations. I just need to find someone to give me a chance!"

Despite other experiences, Lynne has had a very positive one with the Jobcenter. She's been able to go on a nine-week course in quality assurance and passed with a helpful certificate. "I don't have direct experience in this field, so I've never been asked to come to an interview. However, I've been able to get work as an intern at a medical supply company, which looks good on my CV."

As she is above 50, Lynne qualifies for a job with a subsidy, which means her future employer only needs to finance half of her wage. "There's always this fear that I left it too late. But I'm starting to reach out to different companies that I've previously reached out to, saying: Well, I'm available now, and for half price!"

Because she knows that once she gets started, they'll realise what a gem she is.

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