MNFC earns award for helping employee through health crisis

MIDDLEBURY — Grace Sauerwald’s two children are grown and have long since left the house. It’s just her and her husband, Lee.
Or is it?
Sauerwald feels like she’s part of a 100-person family, and their home is the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (MNFC). Though not bound by blood, it’s a family that works together and looks out for its own, carrying Sauerwald through an epic health scare that fortunately ended with her getting a life saving new kidney earlier this year.
It’s a wonderful story, one that culminated on May 15 with MNFC officials being given a regional award for going above and beyond the call of duty to make sure Sauerwald maintained employment, health insurance and maximum comfort during several years of medical trials and tribulations.
It was in 2011 that Sauerwald was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. It’s a genetic disorder that results in numerous fluid-filled cysts growing on the patient’s kidneys, to the point where it can result in high blood pressure and much worse.
“I was told I had end-stage renal failure,” Sauerwald said during a recent interview. “I didn’t know I was sick, and then I hear, ‘You’ve got 20-percent use of your kidney.’”
And she only had the one kidney; she had had the other removed when she was 3 years old. Sauerwald, who was adopted soon after the operation, was never told what had led to the loss of that kidney. But it all makes sense to her now.
Sauerwald’s immediate thoughts turned to how soon she’d need dialysis and when she’d require a new kidney. But she was also understandably concerned about her job status. Facing the prospect of lengthy medical sabbaticals and possible work-related restrictions, Sauerwald wondered is she could keep her job at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. In addition to it being an important source of household income, she loved her job and the relationships she’d forged with longtime colleagues.
As it turned out, Sauerwald needn’t have worried.
Her MNFC bosses and colleagues went out of their way to adjust her schedule, duties and work station in a manner that would allow her to remain in the fold, continuing to draw a paycheck and keep her health insurance.
Sauerwald made a list of things the MNFC did for her during her multi-year journey to a new kidney, which she received from a donor this past January:
•Installed a seat and other amenities at her deli workstation to allow her to get off her feet when she was tired and/or in pain.
•Assigned her administrative tasks when it became clear she needed an office and less contact with the general public, and allowed her to work from home three days a week. She now serves as the co-op’s accounts-payable coordinator.
•Informed MNFC staff about ways they could support their ailing co-worker. And they did. Many foods co-op workers transferred some of their own paid-time-off benefits to Sauerwald to make sure she’d have a regular paycheck during weeks she was unable to work.
The donated paid time off proved a Godsend, as the severity of Sauerwald’s illness wreaked havoc on her work schedule. Visits to physicians. Days when she wasn’t feeling well. Operations and recuperation.
“It’s amazing; it really makes you feel loved,” she said of the support she’s received from her employer and colleagues.
Sauerwald felt like she had a large family concerned about her progress every step of the way. Those steps included a stressful shift to dialysis in February of 2014, when her kidney function went down to 4 percent. Thanks to the skills and attentiveness of her husband, Lee, she was able to do her dialysis at home.
Then there was removal of her lone, cyst-filled kidney in 2016.
Then there was the search for a new kidney, which saw almost 50 people test to become a donor match.
MIDDLEBURY NATURAL FOODS Co-op employees celebrate a regional award the Middlebury business received on May 15 for helping one of their fellow employees — Grace Sauerwald, in gray sweater on right — during a lengthy medical ordeal that led to a successful kidney transplant earlier this year.
Photo courtesy of Emily Landenberger
Food co-op workers celebrated when Sauerwald’s medical team located a kidney for her and were ecstatic when the transplant was pronounced a success. They continue to be a big part of her life as she carefully navigates the next few months that will be key in ensuring her body doesn’t reject her new kidney.
Sauerwald wanted to find a special way to thank her employer and colleagues for their help during her long medical ordeal. She found that avenue through an organization called “New England Donor Services,” which asked area transplant patients, recipients and living donors to nominate employers for its annual Donate Life Employer Recognition Award. The award honors an employer or workplace that “went above and beyond in support of an employee” while he or she was waiting for an organ transplant or recuperating from that type of surgery. The award can also be given to an employee who gave an organ as a living donor.
“Transplant patients often face many struggles during their wait — for some people, the wait for a transplant can be months to several years,” reads a letter from New England Donor Services official Jennifer Cray. “During that time, keeping up a work schedule — as well as home responsibilities and other obligations — can be challenging.”
Sauerwald, in a heartfelt letter, nominated MNFC, explaining how the business helped her through years of health challenges. Her pitch proved a winner, as Cray visited the co-op this past Wednesday, May 15, to present the award to MNFC officials.
The award came as a pleasant surprise to MNFC administrators.
“We didn’t know we’d been nominated,” Laura King, the co-op’s human resources manager, said with a smile. “Grace didn’t tell us until we had won it. We didn’t expect it at all, and weren’t aware there was such an award.”
King and her colleagues are proud to have received the recognition, an affirmation of the progressive and caring way the MNFC treats its growing workforce. The co-op currently employs 100 people, 75 of whom are full-time.
“We do try to accommodate employees going through medical challenges,” King explained.
She acknowledged that with 100 workers, MNFC has flexibility in covering for workers who must be absent for long stretches. King realizes much smaller businesses can’t be as nimble or flexible.
King also credited the co-op’s workforce for being compassionate and close.
“Our staff get connected to each other,” she said. “You have relationships, and when someone is going through a hard time they might share here at work, because they trust their medical condition won’t be used against them. I think it’s a workplace where people share their personal lives perhaps more than some other (work settings).”
Sharing is a key word at the co-op, officials said.
“In sharing, people have compassion and open their hearts,” King said. “Seeing the generosity of donating your own time off to someone who needs time off, trusting that if the time were ever to come when you would go through a hard time, that you could be a recipient. That’s a beautiful thing, and I’ve seen that play out here again and again.”
Sauerwald hopes other local businesses can follow the co-op’s example when it comes to helping ailing workers.
“If I do this, maybe other employers would think about it a little more seriously,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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