Life is full of curve balls. Finding the unexpected gift in hard times can inspire us to new heights. In Palm Beach County, it brought one team closer together.
Georgette Bonifacio-Wagner has been serving Palm Beach County as its chief excellence officer (part of the Constitutional Tax Collector’s office) for more than a decade. “In Florida, the tax assessor, property appraiser, and tax collector are independently elected officials,” she says. “It was intentionally set up that way to make sure that the people who set the valuations are different from the people who set the tax rates and those who send out tax bills. Our office collects taxes, and then we distribute funds to all of the municipalities and governmental agencies.”
Bonifacio-Wagner has been focused on innovation—finding ways to ensure her office excels in its performance and service to constituents. Her quest inspired her to first reach out to Thomson Reuters in 2008 when she took on the monumental task of automating the tax system. Over the years, she has collaborated with Thomson Reuters on several projects.
Known for her deep knowledge base and deft multi-tasking, she’s served as the East Coast director of the Tax Users Group, has taught sessions at several annual SYNERGY Aumentum Users Group Conferences, and most recently talked about the importance of teamwork during the opening session at last September’s SYNERGY. Her insights were especially meaningful in light of an unexpected crisis that instilled a deeper appreciation for teamwork within Bonifacio-Wagner and her colleagues.
One week before a scheduled vacation cruise in 2016, Bonifacio-Wagner started having headaches. “I’m one of those people who never gets a headache,” she says. “By Thursday the headache was so bad, I didn’t go to work. My husband is an emergency physician and he said, ‘You need to come down here and have it checked out.’”
Although she managed to drive herself to the emergency room, Bonifacio-Wagner was in severe physical distress by the time she arrived. A CAT scan revealed a dual brain bleed on both sides of her head and she was rushed to the trauma center. “My arteries were leaking into the space between my brain and my skull, putting pressure on my head,” she says.
Surgeons drilled holes in her skull to drain the blood and relieve the pressure. In and out of a coma for days, she suffered a life-threatening seizure and had to undergo a second surgery to remove part of her skull and replace it with a titanium plate.
The Healing Power of Teamwork
Bonifacio-Wagner was in the hospital for nearly a month, and the road back to her pre-trauma self wasn’t easy.
“It was like starting over, like being a child,” she says. “I think for the first time I realized just how much we take for granted. I spent three hours in therapy a day—one hour to learn to walk, one hour to learn everyday living things, and one hour to help my brain heal so I could do cognitive thinking. The physical things I could do fairly quickly—but the mental things came slowly. I couldn’t multi-task. I could really see the difference and wondered, ‘Should I retire? Am I going to be able to think through things?’ I analyze things for a living, and I wasn’t sure I was going to ever be able to do that again.”
Her colleagues rallied around her. In the hospital, they gifted her with two dozen scarves when they learned she didn’t want to wear a wig to cover her shaved head. But Bonifacio-Wagner was especially touched by another act.
“We do a Fitbit competition at work—10,000 steps a day,” she says. “We get extra points if everyone on the team logs their steps. During the two months I wasn’t at work, my co-workers walked my 10,000 steps each day for me so we would meet our goal. I know it’s silly because it’s not really a work-related thing, but it was work related in the sense that I feel we are much more of a family now, much more of a team than we were before.”
Finding the Gift in Tough Times
She credits Palm Beach Constitutional Tax Collector Anne Gannon and her co-workers for their amazing support when she returned to work (half days at first)—driving her home at noon so she didn’t have to take an Uber, and walking her to her front door to make sure she got in safely.
“My entire staff was patient and kind. It was this mix of personal care and concern that I wasn’t used to as someone who’s usually in charge of our projects,” she says. “I was amazed by the number of people who I didn’t think typically thought about me at all—people who take payments over the counter—who came up and hugged me and said, ‘You’re a walking miracle, people don’t survive this.’ It was humbling, and I feel pretty grateful all the way around. It made me appreciate all of them more, and it was a huge lesson about thinking you can do everything yourself. I feel connected to people in a way I didn’t feel previously.”
Bonifacio-Wagner’s considers her brush with near death a gift.
“When my oldest son turned 18, he was run over by a drunk driver,” she says. “I remember getting through a horrible couple of years, but then realizing just how short our time on Earth can be, and we should fill our time with as much joy and curiosity as possible. You can’t be afraid because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Fast forward 20 years, and I get this second reminder that everything that happens—even if it’s horrible—is really a gift. Sometimes it’s really hard to know what the gift is, and that’s one of the things that I tell my team when assignments are tough or we make a huge mistake—there’s a gift in there somewhere. We just have to be mindful of what it is.”
Bonifacio-Wagner is glad she returned to work.
“These experiences have affected how I approach work—how I do everything. You end up really understanding the value of the people you work with. You see strength in others that you didn’t know they had when they were all depending on the vision of the boss.”
Together, Bonifacio-Wagner and her colleagues are putting that strength to work. “We’re working toward the state quality award,” she says. “It’s good to have goals.”
Now fully recovered and sporting a head of lush hair, Bonifacio-Wagner fulfilled one of her personal goals last April—skydiving with her husband, son and daughter-in-law.
“It was one of those moments where I just wasn’t afraid anymore,” she says.