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What an NHL Player's Medical Leave Can Teach Us About Supporting Those Who Are Ill

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When I heard the news that Marian Hossa, winger for the National  Hockey League Chicago Blackhawks, would not play next season, my first reaction was shock. At 38, Hossa is a true veteran of the NHL who may very well be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame some day. He is a consistent winger whose presence on the ice is expected and welcomed.

But then I thought about what happened in my life nearly six years ago when I abruptly announced to the school community in which I worked that I would be out on an indefinite medical leave. One September day I was an elementary school counselor with 23 years of experience and the next I was home, alone, trying to manage a dysautonomia diagnosis. Nine months later, at the age of 47, I retired from a profession I loved.


In Hossa’s case,  reports state he is undergoing treatment for a progressive skin disorder. Severe side effects make playing hockey impossible. Hossa’s plans beyond the 2017-18 season are unknown.

Later, as I listened to sports talk radio hosts talk of the situation, there was speculation that Hossa’s move was motivated by  money. In the simplest terms, placing  Hossa on the injured reserve list would free up cap-space money and allow Chicago more flexibility in securing players. As someone who deals with five chronic conditions, I found this speculation maddening. No one should judge another person going through a medical crisis. It is impossible to understand the decision-making process and agony involved in leaving a beloved career. Let’s hope Hossa can find some relief from his symptoms and find a new normal.

If you know someone who has abruptly left employment due to medical issues, the following suggestions may be of help:

1. Don’t think you know exactly how Hossa (or anyone dealing with a chronic medical condition) feels. While you can certainly show empathy, it is impossible for anyone to completely grasp another’s emotional state.

2. Don’t say he should just be tough and play on. Most people with a condition push themselves very hard to improve. Unfortunately some illnesses cannot be cured and medications cause added problems.

3. Lend support when you can. This could be sending a card that says “thinking of you,” or bringing over a dinner for a family. Any gesture is appreciated.

4. Be available to listen, but don’t push. The person will talk when they are ready.

5. If you notice that your friend/relative seems to be depressed, don’t ignore this situation. It is alright to say “I am worried about you, you seem extra sad.”

6. Invite your friend over for dinner, or ask if they would like to go out to an activity. The person may not feel up to participating. Don’t stop asking because they decline; when the individual feels well enough, they will value the invitations.

7. Don’t tell your friend they are lucky they had [blank] amount of years in their career. When someone is forced to leave a position before they had planned, the grief can be heightened. In addition, don’t say you envy them because they are retired. No one would envy someone with a chronic illness if they knew the extent it takes to just live the best life possible.

8. Don’t comment on how the person looks so good it is hard to believe they are unwell. This makes one with a more invisible condition feel devalued and not believed.

9. Be patient. Any change, expected or not, is a transition. The person has a lot of adjusting to do to find a new normal.

10. Keep loving your friend/relative. They need support just like everyone.

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Photo courtesy of Marian Hossa’s Facebook page.

Originally published: June 22, 2017
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