In life, we often find ourselves standing at a crossroads, facing unexpected challenges that test our resilience and determination. For Chris Leroi, a compassionate advocate and dedicated husband, this moment arrived when his wife was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer in 2020. The Leroi family’s journey through this ordeal has illuminated the critical need for comprehensive Paid Family & Medical Leave (PFML) policies in New Mexico.

Chris Leroi’s story begins with his journey to New Mexico. He accepted a job at a nonprofit organization in Albuquerque, leaving behind his previous life in Michigan. Having previously lived in Colorado, Chris had come to fall in love with the enchanting state of New Mexico, making it an ideal choice for the next chapter of his life.

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“It was a leap of faith,” Chris shared, explaining his move to New Mexico. “I had lived in Colorado and fallen in love with the Southwest.”

It was during this new phase that he met the love of his life, his future wife. Their love story had its roots in the digital age, as they crossed paths through an online dating site. Chris soon realized that he had found something extraordinary in her – a person who embodied qualities of kindness, compassion, and authenticity that he had never encountered before.

“She was and continued to be my best friend,” Chris recalled. “She constantly sought to make you feel comfortable and at ease. We would go to college hockey games together and lots of concerts.”

Chris Leroi from Albuquerque, NM.

The Diagnosis That Changed Everything

However, life can change in an instant, and for Chris and his wife, that moment arrived in June 2020 when she received a diagnosis of Stage 2 Breast Cancer. The world seemed to stand still as they absorbed this harrowing news. Chris’s initial reaction was sheer terror – the person he cherished most was facing unimaginable pain and discomfort.

“Sheer terror,” Chris reflected on that moment. “It was hard to know exactly what to do, as neither of us had been exposed to such a situation before.”

In 2020, when the diagnosis first came, there was a glimmer of hope. They believed that with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, they could overcome this formidable adversary. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic cast a shadow, forcing them to tread cautiously to protect her weakened immune system.

Their hopes were shattered in 2022 when the diagnosis escalated to Stage 4 Breast Cancer. The speed and severity of the decline were staggering. Suddenly, his wife, in her early 50s, appeared to have aged decades overnight. Weak, disoriented, and unable to perform even the most basic tasks, she became entirely dependent on Chris, a role that weighed heavily on her and caused profound depression.

Balancing Work and Caregiving

As the primary caregiver, Chris faced the immense challenge of balancing work responsibilities with caregiving. In 2020, he had to quit his job to avoid the risk of exposing his immunocompromised wife to COVID-19. He resorted to odd jobs like DoorDash delivery, which didn’t require face-to-face contact, to sustain their income.

“In 2020, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer, and we were cautiously optimistic that through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation that she would be able to beat cancer and live a normal life,” Chris said. “However, in 2022, when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer, we tried to be optimistic, but it became so bad so fast.”

In 2022, when the Stage 4 diagnosis was confirmed, they were still relatively new to Albuquerque, lacking the support of family and long-standing friends. Despite having jobs and a household to maintain, Chris had to become the anchor for his wife, who was now unable to work. It was a juggling act that demanded a flexible schedule, with part of his work done from home and the rest at the office. Fortunately, his employer was understanding, but Chris was sleeping just 3-4 hours a night, torn between being at the hospital and attending to their dogs, home, and job as a lobbyist.

Managing his professional life amid this crisis led Chris to enlist help for their pets, hire cleaners for their home, and rely more on food delivery services. Although he had two weeks of unused paid time off in 2022, it was quickly depleted during the whirlwind of doctors’ appointments and diagnostic tests. The relentless cycle of scans and lab work seemed never-ending. In those early weeks of missed work, some colleagues generously donated their paid time off, a lifeline that allowed Chris to continue working part-time from the hospital. Nevertheless, he never enjoyed the peace of mind that a comprehensive Paid Family & Medical Leave policy could have offered.

“I never had ‘paid leave’ in the typical sense of that term,” Chris lamented, highlighting the absence of adequate support during a critical time.

The Pain of Insufficient Paid Leave

The heart of Chris’s struggle lay in the absence of adequate paid leave. He exhausted his paid time off within the first few weeks, followed by the time donated by coworkers. The conventional notion of “paid leave” found in most developed countries seemed like a distant dream. The timing couldn’t have been worse – he needed it most during the tumultuous period of a one-income household and mounting medical expenses.

“The financial implications stretched our budget even further,” Chris shared. “It led to a feeling of learned hopelessness and helplessness – that there was nothing that I could do to keep the family and household afloat.”

While managing the financial challenges, Chris endured an emotional rollercoaster. Watching his beloved wife suffer without sufficient leave took a toll on him. The feeling of helplessness, of not doing enough to ease her pain, led to anxiety and depression. He grappled with the inadequacy of his efforts to alleviate her symptoms, a burden too heavy for anyone to bear.

Reflecting on his experience, Chris emphasizes the importance of community and employer support during crises. The presence of empathetic colleagues and friends who pitched in to help made all the difference. Knowing that others empathized with his plight and were there for him was a lifeline in the darkest moments.

Advocacy and a Call for Change

From his personal experience, Chris underscores the significance of Paid Family & Medical Leave policies. He envisions a policy that grants up to 3-4 months per year, administered by a neutral third party. He passionately conveys the message that in times of adversity, when we are either caregivers or in need of care ourselves, PFML is a lifeline that exemplifies compassion and human caring.

“I work for a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities,” Chris said, emphasizing the importance of such policies in supporting families during challenging times.

In his professional role, Chris advocates for disability rights and family leave policies, striving to ensure that others don’t face the hardships he endured. His message to those in similar situations is clear: “Accept offers of help from family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers in order to ease some of the burden and prevent you from burning out.”

Chris’s hope for the future is simple: to see Paid Family & Medical Leave policies in New Mexico, mirroring the success of similar policies in other states like Colorado. He recognizes that PFML is a vital safety net, offering security when it’s needed most.

As we reflect on Chris Leroi’s journey, we are reminded that life’s most challenging moments underscore the pressing need for comprehensive Paid Family & Medical Leave policies. They are not just policies but lifelines, supporting families through their darkest hours and embodying the compassion that defines our humanity.

This story was produced and published thanks to the support of the American Heart Association.