Diary of a Working Girl

Diary of a Working Woman

Here are five prescriptions to help you climb the corporate ladder from your sick bed.

By Kim Lute

In April of 2001, at 2 a.m., an emergency room nurse brings a phone to my bedside so I can call my then-supervisor Leah, an affable CNN newswoman accustomed to late-night crises. She is expectedly kind when I tell her that my liver disease has spiraled out of control, that I’m unsure when I might return to work. I’m devastated.

Broadcast journalism is notoriously competitive, and the fear of being forgotten or replaced scares me more than the onslaught of medical tests suggesting I’m in complete liver failure. I can deal with illness. When I was 22 years old I had my first liver transplant. By 25, I’d battled intestinal disease and lost my colon. It wasn’t unusual for Atlanta emergency room doctors to recognize me at charity events or restaurants, and even on this night a nurse I don’t recognize insists that she “remembers that I’ll only take a butterfly needle.” But I’d yet to become a journalist of consequence, a jet-setting dynamo with her high heel planted in the most significant news events of our time. Now, despite years of hard work, I was at risk of becoming a part-time journalist and a full-time patient.

Leah suggests a short-term medical leave and assures me that I’m indeed “unforgettable.” “You’ll be back before the presidential election,” she says. I wouldn’t return to work soon enough. Months were spent tethered to hospital beds, catheters, IVs. It was only after I had a second transplant that I resumed my former breakneck schedule. And while the particulars of my story are specific, there are many women facing similar circumstances. How do you manage your life from a hospital bed?

According to a recent Newsweek article, “We Fought Cancer, and Cancer Won,” a woman’s risk of developing cancer is roughly 1 in 3. If you factor in all the other medical issues women face, it’s safe to assume that most women will be affected by illness in their lifetimes. Consequently, there are many women who must juggle their jobs from doctor’s offices – and those who balance hospital visits with biopsies, pain management with career management.

But there are steps you can take to manage a successful medical leave. Illness shouldn’t strip you of your ambition. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Nothing will motivate you to take charge of your life like a threat against it.

By following these tried and tested steps, you can remain realistically competitive and engaged.

1. Keep the lines of communication open. Your supervisor will be better equipped to help you if he or she knows what’s going on. Be honest and optimistic. And choose someone you trust within your company and stay in contact with her. During my transition from working girl to sick girl, I kept in constant contact with my supervisor, even if it was through a sister or friend. There was little left open to interpretation, and I made sure to always speak for myself. Years later she told me that one of the reasons she was able to campaign on my behalf, even when I was confined to the bed, was because she was fully aware of what I was facing and respected my trust in her and my openness. You don’t have to divulge personal and painful details, but you don’t want your co-workers to make decisions on assumptions and speculation.

2. Familiarize yourself with your company’s sick-leave policies. Not long after I learned that I was sick, I educated myself on what I could legally and fairly expect from my company. I needed to quickly educate myself on the particulars of their short- and long-term disability plans, as well as the legal amount of time I was allowed to remain on medical leave. I made sure my human resources department had all the information they needed to make fair decisions. Don’t count on others to make sure you know your rights. Arm yourself with as much information as you can.

3. Get everything in writing. Even when supervisors insisted I didn’t need a doctor’s note, I got one. I filed e-mails and letters from my company. A paper trail isn’t a sign that you’re suspicious; it is proof that you’re looking out for your own best interests. And it will pay off. When I needed to fly home to Denver hours after being discharged from an Atlanta hospital, a doctor’s note ensured that I got a special discount from the airline.

4. Accept help from others. If you’re in a position to delegate tasks, do so. A woman with a great sense of business acumen knows there are times when she cannot handle everything on her own. Tap into your resources. It might seem like an unlikely time to build a strong professional network, but you might find that this same team will be of great service when you recover. Surround yourself with people who want to help you succeed.

5. Know that there will be temporary and possibly long-standing limitations to what you can do. The sooner you accept your new circumstances, the quicker you can adjust your tactics. Nothing slowed me down more than denial. It took years for me to realize that even though I might not have been able to work 16-hour days back to back, I could maximize my performance during the hours I was able to work.

Focusing on your health should be your first priority, but how you handle a leave of absence can leave a lasting impression on your employer. Obviously, when you’re in the deep end of a painful recovery, it’s hard to see the potential benefits of your diagnosis. But the same skills you’ll use to cope with your illness can be applied to your professional pursuits. Resilience, optimism and determination are not exclusive to those with a clean bill of health.

Share this Article