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Pam Warren: From behind the mask to centre stage

Meeting Pam Warren was both ordinary and extraordinary.  She has been through such an incredibly traumatic experience and yet she is generally upbeat and hopeful. When I first heard Pam speak at a local business expo I was mesmerised by her skill as well as her content. From the woman behind the mask she is now the woman at the front of the stage. She is now a motivational speaker and campaigner, roles that came out of her experience as a survivor of the Paddington rail crash in 1999.

For a long time after the crash she was a campaigner for improved rail safety. In recent times her campaigning has taken a back seat as the original goals for improved rail safety have been achieved, although she still keeps a wary eye on the railways and commuters have been known to tell her their concerns.

I spoke to Pam to find out more about her life now given that crucial experience in 1999.

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So how did you become a professional speaker?

I wanted to get back to work but my health can stop me. I have to make sure work is flexible to allow me to rest when I need it. I trained in event management and project management before bumping in to someone who suggested speaking. I took a year out to be mentored by one of the best and he helped me to make my talk more relevant for my audience.

How are you able to share your story and not connect to the pain of it?

Yes, that used to be hard. I know how to get connected enough to talk about it but not to emotionally reconnect with it. I’ve done lots of work with my psychologist to help me to talk about it with some of the feeling but keep myself together so as not to burst into tears. Sometimes I take my plastic mask to do a talk.

Do people sometimes want to touch it and what is that like, given that it was your face?

What people don’t realise is that my face was so swollen that it shrank back to normal during treatment so I used 3 different masks during my healing. It gives me comfort that if someone touches the one I have, it helps to know that I have the others.

How long have you had a psychologist?

I had my psychologist before I recovered enough for work; 14 years now. He helped me to face forward and aim for new goals.  He still thinks I do too much. I know if I work hard then post traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) and depression could kick in but I’m too aware that life is too short to not do stuff. I am prepared to have 50 weeks when I can do fantastic work and possibly 2 weeks when I’m not well.  I came off the anti depressants 5 years ago as it stopped me from experiencing not just sorrow but also joy. Once off the medication then I worked on my coping strategies.

How is your relationship with your family?

Family and friends now come first. If work conflicts, then I’ll weigh up what is more important in life. The choice is not materialistic or about money but who matters most in the greater scheme of things.

How do you cope with stress given what you’ve experienced?

If anything stresses me now I ask myself two questions-

  • Has anyone died?
  • Is anyone injured?

If the answer is no, as it often is, then I realise it is not that important in the whole scheme of things and can refocus and deal with the problem.

What’s exciting for you at the moment?

Because of my experience in the crash I realised that I can’t take stuff with me when I die so I want to see the world and enjoy life. Travelling has become much more important to me and I am genuinely interested in other countries. I sometimes connect with university students learning English and see a completely different part of the country than if I just stayed in the tourist areas.

Where have you travelled to?

Malta, Russia, Egypt, America, Canada, India and Tunisia to name a few.

What is your family background?

My Mother is from Fiji, got married at 21 and moved with my biological father to Singapore. She left when I was 3 and came to England. However, my birth certificate says I was born here in Andover so it’s a little confusing. From age 8 I’ve lived around Reading with my mum, sister and step-father but growing up I always felt out of sync with my family. I explored some of this in my book and when my mum read the first draft she was quite upset but I think it has helped us understand each other better. I am used to getting on with it and that’s how it feels with the crash. I have rebuilt my life. Teenage Pam experienced lots of angst from not knowing who her dad was but it doesn’t matter anymore.

Is it hard to be in a relationship?

I am open to relationships but not yet found ‘the one’ to complement my life in any meaningful way.

How does it feel to be a role model?

I am delighted if people see me as a role model. I was and still am, very aware to stay clear of the celebrity thing. I refused offers to appear on shows that were vacuous when promoting my book. I still don’t expect people to recognise me and feel no different to anyone else.  I don’t like PR but I am happy with public speaking. I remember when I was in primary school I had a good speaking voice so every year I was the narrator for the school play. Also there was a lot of speaking during the campaigning – making a point, giving media sound bites and speaking to the audience in the room – all helped to prepare me for a speaking career.

Someone once said “when the time is right the teacher will appear” and that fits with me. It’s important to not think you know everything.

Tell me about your charity work

The Healing Foundation Charity fund university research into medical breakthroughs for disfigurement. This could be from cancer, war veterans, burns victims like me or the exciting possibility of growing back a limb. I have been an ambassador with them for 16 years.

I also support the Children’s Burns Research Centre in Bristol. Children’s burns are currently treated the same as adults but they will grow and face the challenges of adolescence. The Bristol unit is the first one in the world and being observed globally.

I support the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust – they help disadvantaged young people by using retired sports people as mentors.

How did you get involved in the DKH Trust?

I was introduced to Dame Kelly Holmes by my friend Sir John Madejski and she is one of my heroes so I offered to support her charity straight away. I believe in the vision of the Trust. I remember the first graduation evening watching the kids and how they had grown in confidence in one year – I saw their transformation.

I try to support local charities when I can and Reading is close to my heart as I consider it my home.

Were you always a career woman?

Yes, I was working very hard and doing pretty well as a financial adviser pre crash. My company turned over £1.5 million a year. I was sad when I lost my company after the crash but in hindsight I’m quite pleased I’m no longer a financial adviser. Looking back on the crash it has been a painful sometimes bitter experience but but life is better.

How do you look after yourself now to stay well?

I eat healthily and have a personal trainer. As I have a touch of arthritis from burn damaged joints, he designs exercises for me. I try to get enough sleep and will have a half-an-hour catnap in the day if I need it.  Fitness helps me to fight off infection.

Pre-crash Pam saw family twice per year now post crash Pam sees them at least every 3 weeks. My family includes my sister who nursed me after the crash, my step-father who raised me, my mother and both my mum and sister’s husbands. They were a constant source of strength during all those years of recovery and I love them dearly. Plus, I am really blessed to have a network of close friends – my safety network – they kick in if I am unwell and I like to support them too. For example, I need to take special care and find distractions coming up to the crash anniversary and they help me through this hardest part of the year.

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I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Pam Warren: the lady behind the mask. She is a survivor in life and in business.

Pam’s book From Behind the Mask is available from Amazon, major bookshops and for an author signed copy check out www.pamwarren.co.uk .