Have you ever wondered how people manage work when they have a serious illness? You may have seen it, someone pushing their career forward, and then a sudden health crisis forces them to the sidelines and perhaps off course forever. 

As a peer or manager, you  want to be sensitive when speaking with those struggling with health issues. You want to ask just the right amount of questions. You want to allow for flexibility. You want to help.

Even so, it sometimes feels as if we’ve not done enough. We could have done more. And we realize that there’s so much  a person with a serious illness may be battling; we see them only during the workday, but their illness follows them everywhere.  

I’ve always respected that illness is a private matter, and therefore tended not to ask many questions.  That is, until recently, when one of my closest team members, Brittany Schwartz, went through a health crisis of her own. A while after she had recovered, Brittany and I spent five days together on a business trip. During the flight back home, while quietly reflecting on those five days, and thinking back to Brittany’s recent struggle, I realized how important it was to address the topic of serious illness in the office.  While still holding on to my belief that illness is a private matter, I took a chance and approached Brittany as she waited for her luggage in the arrival hall. Amazingly, she quickly agreed to share her journey with me—and with you.

In the following video, Brittany shares what managers and employers can do to not loose talent and support those, who fall ill. She also makes recommendations on how to preserve a great relationships with your colleagues, if they fall sick and how to not be afraid of approaching them. Brittany also speaks to  those of you, who may be just now battling a health crisis and need to find inspiration on how to balance career and a positive mindset. It is our hope that opening this delicate topic will create more open environments that don’t miss out on talents independent on circumstances and that are more human for the benefit of all.

 

On the Inside: Brittany’s Story in Brief

Brittany agreed to share her story so that people struggling to balance career and illness know they’re not alone, as well as to help employers, colleagues, and other humans avoid assumptions and extend empathy, no matter the illness or situation. 

Brittany suffers from an overlap of Rheumatic Arthritis, Lupus and more recently Pulmonary Hypertension. Brittany was also diagnosed with pre-eclampsia during her pregnancy.

Timeline:

  • 2008/2009 – Brittany was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatic Arthritis, accompanied by severe pain in her wrists and feet.
  • February 2016 – At 28 weeks pregnant and while working full-time, Brittany was admitted to the hospital for pre-eclampsia, with symptoms such as extremely high blood pressure and failing kidneys. She was warned that there was a possibility that neither she nor her baby would survive.
  • February 2016 – Her baby, Vaida, was delivered prematurely. Both Vaida and Brittany fought for life.
  • May 2016 – Brittany went back to work full-time. Every day after hours, she travelled an hour back and forth to visit Vaida in the hospital. Her high blood pressure and other sickness continued. 
  • June 2016 – Vaida was released from the hospital and Brittany received two weeks off work to spend at home with her.
  • February 2017 – Brittany had the privilege to join a key leadership development program, where she experienced a major lapse in health and needed to be hospitalized. The entire leadership team was now aware of her illness. 
  • June 2018  – Brittany played on a summer softball team and enjoyed a normal life with no issues until autumn, when she could no longer keep up. 
  • August 2018 – Walking up and down the stairs to and from her basement became too demanding. Brittany was wrongly diagnosed with vertigo.
  • November 2018 – Brittany was admitted to the hospital. After a transfer to a more progressive facility, she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. Brittany was released {XY weeks later) with an invasive medicine that made her normal lifestyle a distant vision. The bureaucracy related to her insurance proved a nightmare.  
  • August 2019 – Brittany’s condition stabilized; her team of specialists declared her “normal,” and switched her to a medication that now allows for a normal life. 
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2 Comments

  1. Hi Brittany, thanks for sharing your story. It is true that we often do not know how to even approach a person with serious illness or what to say, whether to comment or not at all, so your words definitely help.
    I am curious, what was the biggest challenge for you outside of the professional area? And how did you handle it?

    1. Hi Jana,
      That’s a great question. My biggest challenge outside of work is dealing with the pharmaceutical companies and the insurance companies. They don’t work together very well. In my perspective it’s money over the patient.

      The prices can be extremely high for some medications, so insurance most likely will deny the claim initially even after they’ve received a pre-authorization from your doctor stating you need it. You will have to go through an appeal process proving you need this medication. Luckily, I have a nurse case manager who deals with the initial process and the appeals.

      As an example, I was on one medication that was priced at $150,000 per month and I am currently on one that is priced at $10,000 per month. I’ve had issues with both. Although, I have full coverage insurance because of the price insurance doesn’t want to cover it. I personally don’t know anyone that could afford either of those prices per month out of pocket. You have to get creative and look for other payment resources or co-pay assistance programs. However, sometimes that’s still not enough. Even if you have everything set-up, things can change throughout the insurance year such as clauses, contracts, approved suppliers of the medication for the manufacturer and you could end up in a situation where you run out of medication before it’s sorted. In some instances, this will cause you a trip to the hospital/doctors office to receive enough medication until insurance gets sorted.

      Previously, I’ve had to spend two weeks in the hospital just because I was waiting on medication to get through the approval and appeals process. That same medication also had a 4-hour half life and I ran into a clause change issue with insurance in the middle of the year. This resulted in the pharmacy not wanting to send my medication. I had to go back to the hospital just to receive my medication. If the medication would have been out of my system completely for 4-hours it would have caused heart failure.

      A lot of times I feel helpless dealing with insurance vs pharmacy. You need to be your own advocate to get it fixed and be the mediator between anyone involved. In November, I spent in total 5 hours talking to 3 different pharmacies and my insurance trying to get them to ship one of my medications. This was the $10,000 medication and initially their system was showing I would need to pay the $10,00 for the month before the could ship.

      Since I am not in a position to really make a whole lot of change with these issues, I write to the people who are. Anytime I run into an issue, I’ll reach out to my state representatives. I’ll advocate and sign petitions for change.

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