Tag Archives: Toronto Star

When can I go back to work? (Part 23)

Two rheumatologists, a neurologist and a nephrologist walked into a bar.
Instead of ordering a cocktail, they prescribe one.
Ba-da-bing
All men in various shades of white coat and of various ages, from neophyte autoimmune specialist to veteran kidney doc, with hundreds of transplants to his scalpel. They strolled into my hospital room and crowded around the foot of my bed, a horseshoe of specialists.
When can I go back to work? I demanded.
Now, so many years later, I can’t believe that my fitness to work was my nagging worry.
I should have asked whether I was going to die. Or if I would need a kidney transplant one day. Or why wavy lines, flashing lights and shooting stars kept disrupting my vision unpredictably, several a day? And why did I keep falling over? Also, without warning. Or if all the medications — that cocktail I was referring to — they’d given me in recent days would turn things around for me?
I didn’t know the answer to any of those more important questions. Nor, did I seek them.
I’d just been diagnosed the lupus nephritis, Class IV, which is “diffuse, proliferative” or runaway inflammation. My kidneys were failing.
But I just wanted to know when I could return to work as a science journalist at the Ottawa Citizen, a job I’d landed after four plus years at the Toronto Star. Good health seemed easier to achieve to me, than scrabbling to win a newspaper job.
Again, so many years later, I puzzle over my priorities. Work over health? How could that be?
The collection of specialists did not chastise me for my desire to return to work quickly, or tell me I had my priorities wrong. Instead, I suspect they liked my spunk, my can-do attitude, which was in direct opposition to my need for rest, but fuelled my long-standing career aspirations. The doctors all fed into my delusion that I could work full-time, all the time. Chase the scientific version of ambulances, such as new discoveries detailed in Nature or Science journals.
No one ever told me to give it rest.
And I can hardly blame myself for lacking wisdom, or a role model in sickness.
Denial is not just a river in Egypt, to paraphrase Mark Twain. It’s also a psychological coping mechanism so we can get up every morning. If we were truly cognizant of every potential risk in the face of a runaway chronic illness, we would have trouble coping, much less carrying on.
My handy precept of myself was that I was strong, capable and could do anything. Where to stash this new nuisance called lupus nephritis?
At that time, age 26, I couldn’t think of a single person who had gone on sick leave from the Toronto Star or Ottawa Citizen newsroom, except for stints in rehab for alcoholism, which were acceptable occupational hazards.
The negotiations began.
“Four weeks off?” I asked.
“Three months,” Dr. Smith countered.
“That seems too long.”
I feared that Nicole Baer might be given my science writer job. Or Joanne Laucius. Nicole was the part-time science writer and stiff competition. We were constantly trying to scoop each other by getting advance copies of scientific studies. Joanne had applied for my job two years earlier and seemed to still covet it. Either woman could swoop in while I was ailing.
Imagine being worried someone would steal your job as a science writer?
So, I bargained with the specialists like a Western tourist haggling with a Turkish carpet dealer and got them down to eight weeks.
Whether I would actually be fit to return to work was another issue, that I pushed out of my mind. I’d always wanted to go to Egypt.
I was more worried about phoning the City Editor to tell him I was taking two months off.
In those days, you couldn’t send an inflammatory email or a text. I had to share news of my inflammation over the phone.
The copy clerk shouted over the heads of the newsroom: “Randy. Shelley Page wants to talk to you.”
I was crying even before Randall Denley picked up the phone.
I downplayed my illness, my stage of lupus nephritis and focused on my return to work.
“I’m on lots of drugs. They will make me better. But I need time for them to work.”
“How much time?”
I lied, shaving two weeks off the agreed upon leave. Notice I’ve still never called it sick leave.
Sure, I’d be ready to return in six weeks, even though my raging immune system was devouring my kidneys.
He was very nice. He also didn’t get all HR on me. This ‘leave’ was between me and him. He didn’t even ask for a doctor’s note.
(Spoiler alert: When I needed to take long-term sick leave some 18 years later, I was ushered into a hostile world of doubting Human Resources, courier-delivered letters containing non-disclosure agreements I refused to sign, lack of kindness and generosity).
“I’ll be back later,” I declared.

Out of the frying pan (Part 20)

I’d like to torque my personal narrative and claim that I left my ‘dream job’ following an epiphany: journalism is not a cure for lupus.

Except, I wasn’t that astute.

These days, there are many books written for the chronically ill about how to scale back your dreams and still find career success. Despite Lupus, written by a former NBC producer, quit her job to control the constant flares of her illness, which eventually attacked her kidneys and arguably the most serious manifestation of lupus (a stage I didn’t yet have to worry about). The writer encouraged readers to work smart, or in bite-sized chunks, and sometimes not at all. Fabulupus (yes, that’s really the title), is filled with similar advice.

When I was a young reporter, there were no “self-help” books about how to manage your workload, ask for support from your employer, or even disclose an illness. And there was also no wise counsel from medical professionals.

Instead, my rheumatologist, one of the best in Toronto, fed my personal mythology that I thrived on stress. How else to explain that all of the blood tests to measure the severity of my disease activity were sky high, but I wasn’t defeated by the chronic fatigue, arthritis or the ripping pain of pericarditis (inflammation around the lining of the heart) or pleurisy (inflammation of the lining around my lungs)? Somehow stress gave me energy, or so his pep talk went.

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The Death Knock and adventures as a junior reporter (Part 19)

It’s called a “pick up” or a “death knock,” and it’s among the most unpleasant tasks a general assignment reporter on the city desk can draw.

The most experienced of our breed can get a grieving mother to unchain her door, make a pot of tea, and unspool woeful stories of her lost love, usually urged on by an invitation to “set the record straight” about son Jimmy the Bank Robber or make sure Little Emily the Heroin Addict isn’t misremembered. The most tenacious of us leave the widow’s home with an entire photo album under our arm so there are no pictures left for media outlets late to the tea party.

This is another one of those tasks that journalism school can’t prepare you for.

So many years ago, in Deep Cove, B.C., a nine-year-old boy left home on his bicycle early one morning. When he didn’t return for lunch, his parents wandered the neighbourhood, calling his name. When the police later knocked on their door, they said the helmet-less boy had been found at the bottom of a cliff. It was assumed he’d accidentally plunged to his death.

My assignment: knock once again on the parents’ door, get a few quotes about proposed B.C. bike helmet law, and a photo of their lost boy. Continue reading

Remembering a massacre: a tough pill to swallow (Part 18)

The moment my editor told me to get to the airport, my stomach fell as though I was on the down slope of a roller coaster. I stood in the middle of the newsroom, as a few deskers and reporters stared at me expectantly, wondering if I could possibly decline. I think reporters often dread the unknown of a story and the difficulties that lie ahead in nailing it down, but I feared I just wasn’t up to the task.

I’d been feeling tired, lupus tired, for days and I was walking like an elderly woman whose joints lacked lubricant.

But in Montreal, where the killing began around 5 p.m.,  27 people were shot or stabbed. All the dead were young women; fourteen of them.

How could I not go?

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Journalism 201: Remember to bring your prednisone to prison (Part 16)

“Don’t forget to take their picture.”

As I’d find out, not the best advice for a reporter sent to sneak into a third-world prison.

I was heading to Trinidad to interview two imprisoned teenage drug mules who had attempted to smuggle three suitcases of marijuana back to Canada. Both 17, they’d been sentenced to eight years in an adult prison, filled with murderers on death row.

The Star wanted the boys’ story.

It hadn’t started out as my story. A new hire, a summer student heading to Columbia University’s journalism school in the fall, had been following the case and already called the prison warden asking to interview the boys. Although she had a hunger for foreign assignments and a passport filled with stamps, she was too green to go.

Instead, I was assigned to show up at the prison, say I was a cousin, get their story and a photo: proof of life for the front page. Continue reading

Heart burn (Part 15)

While dying of prostate cancer, New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard wrote about “the therapeutic value of style.”

In Intoxicated By My Illness, he observed: “It seems to me that every seriously ill person needs to develop a style for his illness. I think that only by insisting on your style can you keep from falling out of love with yourself as the illness attempts to diminish or disfigure you.”

I’ve long envied literary men who write boldly about their various afflictions, fatal and otherwise, knowing that their ability to do their job is never in doubt and they relish the protection that their reputations afford them.

This is not the case for shift workers, dishwashers, desk jockeys that fill boxes with numbers for a modest salary, or almost anyone else. And not for girl reporters trying to figure out how to work sick.

I am currently reading Working Bodies: Chronic Illness in the Canadian Workplace (McGill-Queens University Press, 2014). It is dedicated to “all Canadians living with chronic illness who want to have meaningful employment and engagement in the workplace.”

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How not to tell your new colleagues you’ve got a chronic illness (Part 14)

When the pain came, I carried it on my shoulders as I waded through the polluted, dirty water of Lake Ontario. When I made it to my desk in the Toronto Star newsroom, I  wrote the final words on Vicki Keith conquest.

“Five down. None to go.”

I followed her in a boat across Erie, Huron and Superior, Ontario (twice), and almost Michigan, and that’s the best lede I could come up with. But at least it was brief.

My knuckles were swollen, my fingers bunched into fists. They looked like boxer’s hands. I punched gingerly at the keys, wincing. It was like repeatedly hitting a block of cement.

I did not go to emergency, as I had when I was in third-year university. I calmly called my rheumatologist at Mount Sinai and asked for an appointment. His office manager did not see the same urgency that I did, and so she booked me the next available appointment, several months from then. Continue reading