Journalist’s world turned upside down but he keeps on fighting

In 2019, journalist and special projects editor Yusairi Fitri was having the time of his life.

He was approaching his ninth year in a Malay language publication, traipsing across the globe for fashion and beauty events, rubbing shoulders with entertainment, fashion and beauty personalities, as well as coordinating shoots and projects as well as writing and managing clients.

The work was challenging but there was nothing like the feeling of satisfaction and pride he got from seeing his work laid out in the pages (and online platforms) of the magazine.

“It was the best time of my life, I loved what I was doing,” recalls Yusairi, 38.

“I was so into it to the point where I could not see myself ever doing anything else,” says the Kota Baru native. “It was a busy life, starting work early in the morning, coordinating everything from scratch until the finished product, and I also worked closely with clients.”

In mid-March 2020, lives and routines were upended as the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, and while everyone was ordered to work from home, Yusairi didn’t think much else would change.

But then, out of the blue, the publication he worked for announced that it would be shutting down, with immediate effect.

“When I first heard that the company would be going through a reshuffle, several months before, the word was that there would be retrenchments but that some employees would be staying,” explains Yusairi, who worked as a traditional dancer before stints as a health journalist and entertainment writer.

“I was on a call and when I read the email from the company and I just left without saying goodbye. I was in shock and never thought that such a thing could happen to us,” recalls Yusairi, tears welling up in his eyes. “For a week, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even talk to my family. I just stayed in my room. I couldn’t accept it.”

“I had given so much energy and love to my job and it was a big part of my life. I was in a dark place and couldn’t see the way forward,” he added. “We received compensation from the company but it came in stages which made it hard to plan for the future. I had to sell my car, let go of the condo I was staying in and move in with my sister and her family.”

He was jobless for three months when a call from his former boss came, asking him to try for a position at The Melium Group, where she was freelancing.

Within an hour of the interview, Yusairi accepted founder Datuk Seri Dr Farah Khan’s offer to hire him to handle marketing for the brand Aigner, which the company brings into Malaysia.

“My role was to bring Aigner back into the market, to make it appealing to a younger crowd,” explained Yusairi. “I had zero knowledge about marketing, but life is a learning curve, and I had a fire in me, starting out in this new job.”

“It was very challenging but with my connections and experience, most of the celebrities that I reached out to for collaborations and campaigns were very supportive.”

Just as he began to learn the ropes and settle into his new role, the beginnings of what would be his second tragic event of 2020 set in.

It started with numbness in one foot which spread to the entire leg, symptoms he ignored, attributing them to the long hours and fatigue.

“Mild numbness had actually started after I lost my job, but I was too busy focusing on what’s next and brushed it aside,” recalls Yusairi. “When I started at Melium, I was learning about how marketing works, adjusting to the work culture, and at this company we don’t just wear one hat, we wear several,” said Yusairi. “I was doing branding and marketing, as well as PR, building relationships with the customers and so on.”

The numbness eventually got worse, and Yusairi began feeling tired and dizzy throughout the day, coming home exhausted every evening, but the turning point came when he lost control of both his legs and collapsed after a team dinner.

“Even at this point, I insisted that I was just tired and needed rest. But first thing in the morning, my brother-in-law took me to the hospital for a check-up,” he relates.

This would be followed by multiple visits to various hospitals, departments and doctors who had him go through x-rays, an MRI and several other tests, before he was diagnosed with transverse myelitis multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disease that was causing inflammation in his nerves.

Life would swiftly change for Yusairi, and for the third time in under a year, he would be adapting to a new normal.

With his reduced mobility, he would need to be in a wheelchair, undergo regular physiotherapy, and be on medication.

Many in his situation would find themselves feeling hopeless and depressed, and Yusairi has had his fair share of low moments.

“When I was in the hospital, I was staring at the ceiling and talking to myself,” he recalls. “I said ‘this is not the end of the world, you’ve been through worse, this is God’s plan for you and there must be a reason this happened’,” he recalls.

“At the time I wasn’t thinking about how soon I could recover and get my fabulous life back. I was thinking ‘I have a lot of bills to pay, but life goes on, I have a job, a great team’, and that’s what kept me going.”

Fortunately, Yusairi says he is blessed with an understanding team, who work closely together and who were very supportive during this challenging time.

“I’m very lucky because Datuk Seri Farah, Sunitha Thayaparan (Melium’s head of marketing, PR and communications) and Farha Shaid (Melium’s group general manager) were very positive and supportive. They did everything they could to accommodate my situation.”

Upon being discharged from the hospital, Yusairi insisted on throwing himself back into work, with the biggest challenge coming in the form of his vastly reduced mobility.

“I’m not that involved in ground events, but I don’t like being left out and I insisted on being at events to entertain guests. I convinced the team that I wanted to be out there, I didn’t want to be treated as a sick person. I’ve always had that fire in me, I’m very strong-willed and I’m not ashamed to talk about my illness to anyone that asks.”

“Datuk Seri Farah, she was proud to have me on board,” he adds. “They’re very understanding and I’m in a very good team, I don’t have any difficulties to be honest especially because they are very supportive. We did some adjustments according to my condition, for example if I want to go to physiotherapy in the morning for two hours, then come back to office, that’s ok. There’s good communication and understanding in the company.”

“We work very closely and it’s always about working towards one goal, to nail every single task given.”

He recently got promoted to brand and marketing lead for Dome Cafe and handles promos for the Melium Designer Outlets.

“One thing that always encourages me to keep going is Datuk, the way she manages the team is very organised and so efficient, and every word that comes out of her mouth is priceless, meaning she doesn’t like to waste time. So, when you have a one hour meeting, she makes it worth it.”

“Her energy is very positive, and with Sunitha’s support, pushes the team to perform at their best. It’s something that always impresses me.

“Datuk doesn’t see you as Malay, Chinese, Indian, she sees you as a human being. The company is very diverse, and the team is full of a mix of people from different cultures and backgrounds, it’s very harmonious,” he says.

His condition will improve with time, and according to his doctor, he is fortunate to have begun treatment when he did, or he may have lost more mobility in other parts of his body.

“Eventually I’ll be cured but the process, how long, only God knows,” says Yusairi, whose close friend recovered from the same illness. “It took him six years, and it’s been two years for me.”

He doesn’t blame anyone, or God, for what happened to him, and advises anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to understand what works for them as an individual.

“I feel blessed actually, I can still work, make jokes, and with my current situation I spend less money nowadays. When your mobility is limited, you really start to re-evaluate what’s important, and you only spend on things that truly matter.”

He encourages people to love themselves and try to be independent.

“You have to be flexible, finding the best way to adapt to the situation. That spirit will keep you moving forward.

“I love when people treat me like a normal person. When I need help, I will ask.”