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When I Struggled to Succeed at Work Because of My Chronic Illness

It was my freshman year of college when I first began experiencing strange symptoms. I would be sitting in class and next thing you know, it felt like I had a dagger in my lower stomach. It was unpleasant to say the least, but I assured myself and my loved ones that “I was fine.” I never wanted to be seen as weak or incapable.

It wasn’t until the following year, 2015, that things were actually not fine. Life was manageable, but it was not “fine.” I caught a bad case of mono in the fall, which never seemed to go away. Everything from then on just felt foggy. I was lethargic, and the ambition I always possessed slowly felt nonexistent. I made it through the days, pushing myself to try and maintain that perfect GPA, and sought to be a “normal” college kid.

I went abroad seeking that sense of normalcy. While in Australia, “normal college kid” began to seem like a pipe dream. My legs were falling asleep everywhere I went. I’d have to sit at my desk for an hour after class ended because my legs simply could not carry me. When I explained this to doctors, they would tell me to eat more bananas, or to stop sitting cross-legged. Simple fix, right?

Upon returning from Australia, I saw my family doctor and tried to muster together the years of random symptoms that were occurring. A “slightly positive” blood test prompted him to call me and tell me that perhaps I had Lyme disease, and a two-week dose of doxycycline would fix it.

Two weeks passed, but nothing seemed to change. It was at this time that I received my latest label — “crazy.” “Hannah, are you sure nothing else is going on? Nothing at home? With your family? These symptoms are most likely in your head.” When you tell a 20-year-old girl that symptoms are in her head, you better believe you’re going to make that girl feel “crazy.” I’d sit for hours in my bed, sobbing, wondering if it was all in my head. I was surrounded by supportive family and friends, but I still felt completely and utterly alone.

After what felt like years searching for the proper doctor, diagnosis and treatment, I was ultimately diagnosed with late stage chronic neurological Lyme disease plus three co-infections: bartonella, babesia, and ehrlichiosis. In simple words, I had Lyme for an undetermined amount of time and it was not caught quick enough to be treated with just one dose of doxycycline.

I then began several months of intense oral antibiotics which completely wrecked my gut, prompting my doctor to prescribe me my latest cure, a PICC line, or a “peripherally inserted central catheter.” Inserted a few weeks after graduating from college, this new device in my arm meant that I was now going to be hooked up to an IV for several hours a day. Talk about an ice breaker at your first job, right?

Like any new hire, I was working long hours and trying to establish myself in this new company, but I had the added difficulty of having to be on an IV for six hours a day. Not to mention the 28 pills I had to remember to take. Ultimately, I got completely burnt out and had to prioritize my health over the work I was passionate about. This was so defeating. But I soon learned I was not alone.

Over 133 million Americans live with a chronic illness and are put in a similar situation of sacrificing their dreams to accommodate their illness. Discovering the scale of this issue, I resolved to come up with a solution. I was not going to let my disease dictate my potential. So, I joined forces with a cutting-edge tech team in Washington, D.C., and that’s when Chronically Capable was born.

Chronically Capable is a platform that strives to connect chronically ill people with meaningful work and flexible employers. My hope is that we will become the leading authority on chronic illness in the workplace, working with businesses, cities, states and governments to maximize their workforce, standardize reasonable accommodations, and slash their unemployment rates. Five years from now, we hope to have eliminated the unemployment gap between the chronically ill and non-ill Americans, giving these individuals a sense of purpose, financial independence and security.

Through my experience in fighting Lyme and founding a company, I have gained a sense of strength I find hard to describe. Every day, I am working to create real, meaningful change so no one ever has to decide between their life’s passions and their health again.

Getty image by Torwai.