My Other Life with Helen Gray

PM360 recently spoke to Helen Gray, Medical Director, Global Medical Affairs Neurology & Immunology at EMD Serono Research and Development Institute, about her love of traveling.

Helen and her son, age 4, near Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina, 2007.

PM360: Everyone loves to travel, but what is your favorite part about traveling?

Helen Gray: I first went “abroad,” to the Continent as my mother called it, in 1981. It was a school exchange trip to South West France. I was collected in the Auch town square from under the cathedral clock, by a girl with smooth olive skin and Pat Benatar hair who was clad head to toe in acid-washed denim. I spent two glorious weeks in the bosom of a family who didn’t speak a word of English, enjoying hot April sunshine, eating food that actually tasted of something.

That, with church bells, vespas, parties, clunky translations, and the joy in discovering that a neighboring town was called Condom, had me hooked. My home town, Liverpool, seemed very drab and pedestrian after that. I couldn’t wait to go “abroad” again.

Waiting for a train, Jaisalmer, India, 2014. Helen and her son, age 11.

What are some of your other favorite places that you’ve been?

In 1992, I took off work to travel around Asia, which is something I have never regretted. Back then, China was just opening up, South Korea was virtually unvisited by foreign tourists, Kashmir was troubled but could be done with care. There was no internet, no mobile phones, land-line connections were expensive and unreliable. No TripAdvisor. No Uber. No online reservations. ATMs and credit card payments were non-existent. Our Lonely Planet books gave us the advice we needed, a compass pointed us in the right direction, we collected periodic, in-bound mail from our families at pre-determined post offices. To get cash we lined up for hours in banks with Traveler’s Checks. We had a Sony Walkman and a Tupperware box of cassettes. To save batteries, I wound and rewound the tapes using a pencil. It was the best year of my life.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, 2009. Helen and her son, age 6.

What made it so worthwhile for you?

It’s difficult to put into words without going full hippy. Travel continues to open up my heart and mind. Lessons can be drawn from people living very different lives to mine. Sometimes those dealing with tremendous adversity seem to be more content than the many who have everything they want. When I started to travel, I had a dawning realization that its not stuff that makes you happy, it’s people.

Helen with her son, age 5, in the preserved Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, Brazil, 2008.

How often are you able to travel today?

Today, I am incredibly lucky to work with a great team of colleagues and agency partners who are absolutely dedicated to improving the lives of people who live with MS. I work globally, making around 20 to 30 trips a year to work with colleagues all over the world. We fight for access to healthcare, accurate information, effective treatments, as well as understanding and kindness. Some of life’s lesser problems we just suck up. So when I fly and all my cashew nuts in the little silver bag are broken, do I use the attendant call bell? Er…no.


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