Secretarial: I Work For... Sheila Ali is PA to Peter Cardy, Chief Executive of the Multiple Sclerrosis Society: My working life was thrown into full colour

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The Independent Culture
I was desperate for work when I was made redundant from my last job. I was a divorced mother with many commitments and I didn't want to be on social security. I took to walking about with my cv in my handbag just in case I had the opportunity of applying for a job.

Many of the ads I saw specified that the job was for a younger secretary but one day I happened to see an advert in a window asking for a mature PA for a large charity and I applied on the spot. I was over the moon when I got this job and determined to know everything I could about the charity's work and the disease itself. I had a lot to learn because prior to working here I knew nothing about MS - in fact I had never heard of it.

It's a particularly horrendous disease because there is no cure and it is upsetting to hear of the distress it can cause. But I've never found the work depressing, for our main objective is to enable the MS population to get all the information, help and support it needs.

To begin with I didn't know which of my colleagues had MS. It wasn't a fact they advertised and it didn't make any difference to their work. Of course, if they become ill others cover for them, but no one wants special treatment or to be written- off. Our chairman Sarah Phillips, for example, has MS but it doesn't stop her from fulfilling her many responsibilities.

My first boss, John Walford, was very passionate about bringing MS to the attention of the public and was responsible for a hard-hitting poster campaign designed to improve people's knowledge about the disease, including the explanation that it isn't contagious.

When John retired and Peter Cardy took his place, a whole new world opened up for me. It's almost as if I had spent my working life in black and white and suddenly everything was thrown into full colour. I simply don't know where Peter gets his energy from. He works an 18-hour day and no meeting is too small for him. He gives a group of eight the same attention as a group of two hundred and spends as much time as he can with people with MS to find out what their needs are and how he can help. There's no fuss or hassle, he just gets on with it because he's completely committed to the cause.

Since he joined us, a new drug - beta interferon - has been developed which can help to control MS for some sufferers. It is the first drug to assist people in leading normal lives. However, it is expensive and a number of health authorities have refused to fund the treatment. The fact that a person will be denied the drug purely because of an unfair, post-code lottery system has naturally led to a lot of anger and bitterness.

Peter is now campaigning tirelessly to draw the attention of particular cases to each health authority, asking them to explain why they are denying treatment when the Government's guidelines recommend that they grant it.

As Peter's PA, I am in contact with a wide range of people from people with MS to MPs, the Department of Health, medical companies, doctors and the office of Princess Alice, our patron, at Kensington Palace. A lot of people say that when their boss is out of the office, they can take a bit of a rest, but not me. When Peter arrives at the office, he always hands me dictation tapes which he records wherever he is and then he's off again, meeting people and making more tapes. But I have a lot of time for Peter; he is one of the people I will go the extra mile for because I think he's a perfect boss.

My own working hours are from 8am to 4pm but being an early person it's not unusual for me to come into the office at 6am.

I find it difficult to leave the office because there is so much that needs to be done. I'm particularly conscious of the fact that the 85,000 people out there with MS don't have the option of putting down their MS at the end of the day and leaving it until morning.

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