The Skills 'Lifelong Patients' Can Bring to the Workforce If You Give Us a Chance

As I sit in my office reviewing my calendar for the next month, I’m plagued with concern. I have four medical appointments lined up in the next two weeks, and worry about the effects that can have on my job. I’m lucky to have a flexible and understanding boss, but I constantly worry about my ability to juggle my personal health and my job without criticism.

You see, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at age 8. I literally don’t remember a world in which I didn’t take daily medication, weekly lab tests and speak to doctors about things like “bilirubin” and “splenomegaly.” My first memory of meeting my then-specialist at 8 years old is listening to these terms, engrossed and fascinated in the details while my parents’ eyes glazed over in confusion and shock. While in remission, I found entertainment in searching the web for medical journals, watching every cheesy medical documentary and special on TV, and choosing books about rare viruses and vaccines at the bookstore.  

I was lucky — my disease was well-controlled with medication for over 10 years — until it wasn’t.  After taking seven months off for my liver transplant, I struggled with how to explain my absence from the workforce to potential employers. Even though I can attribute my health journey to many of my personality characteristics — tenacity, leadership, and courage being just a few — I still feared my history would be seen as a weakness instead of a strength. I know I’m not the only person who fears this.

In an article in Forbes Magazine, Robert Farrington says two of the greatest challenges corporate America faces with incoming talent are effective communication skills and problem solving. These are skills that are simply not taught well in traditional settings. They are however, skills you learn from significant life experience.

So, let me set the record straight —“lifelong patients” like me are not a liability in the workforce, we are an asset. My life depends on me being an effective communicator. My communication with my health care team is the single most important aspect of my care, and has the greatest impact in my ability to get the care I need. I have to advocate for my healthcare, and insist that although tests do not always show it, I know when something is wrong.

My illness has taught me to be flexible and adaptive to new situations. I have to be open to constant negative feedback, and learn to pivot. Lifetime patients tend to freak out a large portion of the medical community — our problems are complex and our needs can be draining. I have been told over and over, “Your body did not read the textbook.” When faced with doctors that do not share my enthusiasm to participate in my care, I need to turn that negative feedback into something that works for all parties. I need to negotiate and compromise, and pivot my approach to create an equally beneficial relationship. Isn’t that someone you want working for you? Having the ability to rally the troops and lead the group to work together towards a common goal is not an easy feat.

This leads to constantly juggling multiple priorities simultaneously. My health care team is comprised of over 10 different medical specialties, all of which I am the intermediary for. At any one time, I can have multiple outstanding treatments, procedures, or examinations due. I’ve learned to get all the information needed to make an effective game plan, knowing that troubleshooting and re-evaluating of priorities will likely need to happen before all my items are able to be crossed off. And of course, my body does not simply wait until it is convenient for me to be sick. These mini (or not-so-mini) crises happen any time, despite my plans for the day. Society asks successful people, “How do you have it all?” I work towards “having it all” — a family I love, an active social life and a rewarding career — all the while juggling chronic disease and disability.

And lastly, I have had to “make things happen” when faced with limited resources all my life. In life and in business, success happens when you learn to effectively leverage your available resources to get the best possible outcome. The spoon theory was created to explain to healthy individuals just what a day is like for a patient of chronic illness, and what it is like to work within the confines of these limited resources.

I may have to step out of the office more frequently for doctors’ appointments, work from home when my body is rebelling or need accommodations in some aspects, but I can be the strongest member of your team, if you just give me the chance. 

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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