All my plans and ambitions disappeared in a matter of minutes

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Erin Benjamin had just celebrated her 30th birthday. She was working in a fast-paced, high profile job in financial services and recently married with plans to start a family. Then Erin had a stroke.

“All of my plans and ambitions disappeared in a matter of minutes,” says Erin. “My work, my possibility of becoming a mother and my ability to do three of my favourite things – run, read and write – were gone, without any clear idea of what I may or may not regain over time.”

Erin and I met when we were both working in financial services and to say I was shocked when she suffered a stroke at such a young age is an understatement! But what is even more shocking is just how common strokes are in people under 65. Strokes kill more women in Australia than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer. 30% of all stroke survivors are of working age.

Speaking to Erin about her experience is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Because, spoiler alert, Erin had insurance. If there is ever an example of why you need cover, it’s this one…

When you had your stroke, you had insurance in place – how did that help you? 

The short answer is, second to my husband saving my life, my insurance was the second hero in my story.

The long story is one that has a cautionary tale attached, because I very nearly wasn’t insured. It makes me feel embarrassed and furious even recalling this, because of how reckless I had been leading up to getting sick.

Prior to having my stroke, I was a Business Development Manager selling super, investment and insurance products. Not long after starting at the company, it was purchased by one of the Big Four banks. Due to this, all employees needed to complete new employment contracts with the new company. This is important, because the old employment contract had Income Protection built into it as part of my salary package. So, for a very small amount of money out of each pay cycle, I was covered in the event my income was affected due to a health event.

But within the new employment contract was the opportunity to ‘opt out’ of this cover. There was a box I could tick to carry the policy over; by not ticking the box I wouldn’t be insured, but I’d have a few more dollars in my pocket each month.

At the time I thought, “Meh it’s a couple of dollars that could be in my pocket,” so I didn’t tick the box. Luckily, when I got home I told my husband that I hadn’t opted-in. I remember he got so angry at me and said I needed to go back first thing and tick the box. So I did.

Also, since starting at this company, one of my new colleagues and friends kept badgering me about setting up a Trauma Policy. Brad was in sales as well, so I’d seen him present on this topic many times, and he was so passionate about the need for insurance. But I was busy and I kept putting it off.

Thank goodness for Brad! He walked over to my desk and dragged me to his and said, “It’s such a quick process – let’s do this!” So I succumbed and that day I took out a $500,000 trauma policy.

These two events happened just two months before I had my stroke. I know right? It gives me chills! Due to that little tick in that box I now receive 75% of my old salary until age 65. That “quick process” resulted in $500,000 being deposited into my account ten days after my stroke.

So, how did insurance help me?

It meant, in the throes of devastation and fear, my husband and I could do what we needed to do and that was focus our worry and energy into my recovery. It meant my husband could take leave without pay after his annual leave and carers leave ran out. It meant we were able to buy our first home. It meant that I got the best health care and recovery support and I was able to have two healthy beautiful babies. The cost of the ongoing support I need as a disabled mum is huge. But again, because I was appropriately covered, it allowed me the choice to become a mum!

Eight years on, this is the ‘new me’. I won’t get any better. But I am happy to report that, due to my great care and ongoing recovery support team, I am able to read and write again and I run! I used to complain in my head the whole time I ran, prior to the stroke. Now, when I run, I am just so grateful for every breath and step forward. Even if that breath is laboured. Even if that step forward burns. Getting sick never made me feel so alive. This story would be very different if I hadn’t been insured.

A lot of people have this “it won’t happen to me” attitude towards needing insurance. Just how common is stroke in young people?

I could spout statistics, but the easy answer is: more common than you think. When I was in the acute stroke ward there was definitely a large proportion of elderly people, but after leaving hospital and connecting with the Stroke Foundation I was introduced to the grim reality of how many other stroke survivors there were out there like me; all of us, just young people about to start our young adult lives when we were struck down by a health event that changed us forever.

The physical recovery process for survivors is hard enough. To think that such a large number of young, working Australian’s financial situations are potentially devastated due to stroke makes me shout my story from the rooftops, to educate all Australian’s about stroke prevention and insurance.

What do you wish you had known about the risk factors for stroke?

The reality is I knew the risk factors. They are similar to risk factors for cancer, heart disease and diabetes: smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet, lack of exercise, not checking your blood pressure and, for women, hormone contraceptives.

This factor infuriates me the most. I kick myself. I read all of my medication inserts and was well aware that stroke was outlined as a potential risk. I honestly read it and thought, “Strokes are for old people. It’ll never happen to me.”

After finding out my stroke was linked to my contraception ALL of my girlfriends changed to other, non-hormone-based contraceptives. They were so shocked and shaken up. Their partners stepped up and supported them 100% because they realised by attempting to prevent pregnancy they were potentially signing their loved one’s death sentence. That may sound melodramatic, but I say that because I nearly died.

I actually had multiple strokes and without a huge amount of luck, and an amazing husband who reacted quickly, I wouldn’t be here. So I guess as an individual and perhaps as a couple you need to decide: are you willing to play Russian Roulette with hormone-based contraception or will you use alternatives and have the peace of mind that you won’t become a disability statistic like me, or even worse, a death statistic.

Why do you think people, especially younger Aussies, are reluctant to take out insurance?

Having worked in the financial services industry I’ve never been sceptical about the need for insurance. But a couple of factors I see in those I speak to as to why they haven’t insured themselves appropriately are:

  1. They are like I was. Busy and pretty certain that, due to their age, lifestyle and general health, something like this would never happen to them. They will get the insurance ‘tomorrow’.  For those other ‘Erins’ out there, please remember – complacency can kill. Yes, I survived my stroke, but if I hadn’t been insured, the financial stress could have killed my marriage. It could have killed my chance at becoming a mum and it would have killed my spirit. Recovery is hard. Holding onto things I am grateful for is consistent support when I hit the hard times with my mental health, which is an ongoing factor. If I had financial stress on top of this, it would be very hard to find things to be grateful for.
  1. “It’s pretty expensive. I don’t have the disposable income to pay for insurance just yet.” This one is especially important at the moment considering the financial stress our nation, and the world, is facing, but it was also a push back I would receive from friends when the economy was in a good place. I am annoyed by two things in this statement. The first being that insurance premiums should not be viewed as coming out of ‘disposable income’. They should hold as much importance in your budget as paying your rent or your mortgage. The second point I get annoyed by is the fact that many of these people are standing in front of me with Botox, fake tans, fake eyelashes and paying off debt relating to fancy cars. Some are saying this to me having just spent over $100 at a bar or $20+ on the cigarette packet in their pocket.

Having said that, there are people out there, especially now, who feel they can’t afford it. To them, I hope my story has struck a chord. Just remember knowledge is power. Get advice from an adviser and find the money in your budget to get covered. We can’t be specialists in everything and that’s why advice is important. Your adviser also knows ways to help you package your insurance in such a way that premiums don’t necessarily need to come out of your income. They can also help you claim tax deductions in some cases.

One final note is for those more senior Australians. This is your call to action. Are your working age children and their family covered? If not, they need to be!

Erin, thank you so much for sharing your story. There is no better example of why I do what I do.

As Erin mentioned, she has always loved writing and is currently working on a book about her experience. If you’d like to learn more about Erin’s ‘stroke of genius’, follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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About the Author:

Tatiana has over 15 years experience within Financial Services with the last 7 years focussed on Life Risk. Tatiana has held Senior roles with a number of organisations such as Macquarie, AMP and OnePath prior to starting Monarch Advisory Group. Tatiana holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Services and is completing the CFP (Certified Financial Planner) through the FPA (Financial Planning Association). Tatiana is also a member of the FPA, which is the highest professional body for the Financial Planning industry. Tatiana is very approachable and passionate about ensuring her friends, family and clients are properly protected in the unfortunate event that something goes wrong.

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