As I began preparing for my journey to the Mayo Clinic I was also slapped in the face with a new and unexpected problem. I had only been working at my new job for three weeks before my biopsy surgery. Like most jobs I was still in the “probationary period” which lasted for ninety days from your hire date. During this time you are not allowed to take sick or vacation days. Even if I had been working for ninety-one days I would still have the problem that sick days accrued one day for every month that you were on the job and I had not been on the job long enough to accrue any. At first I wasn’t all that bothered by this. I wasn’t missing work because I had a sore throat or the flu, I needed to have a mandatory surgery to save my own life. Surely there was an exception to the rule in that 275 page policy manual for something like that? Evidently at my University there is not. I remember calling the HR department for clarification. I explained to Tamika from Employee Services in my kindest voice what was happening to me and waited for her sympathetic response. Instead she seemed annoyed. “Nope. You’ll be fired.” I explained to her again that this surgery was not a boob job. It was to remove a tumor that was pressed up against my brain. “Look, If we make an exception for you we have to make an exception for everybody. There’s nothing I can do. The rules are the rules. If you miss work during your probationary period you will be terminated.” She said the last four words in stocatto “You. Will. Be. Terminated.” Maybe I was just in a sensitive state but she seemed to get a sick sense of satisfaction from saying this last phrase and it made my eyes start to water. Not wanting my voice to crack on the phone and give her the satisfaction of making me cry I quickly hung up and started reading the 275 page manual looking for a loophole. There had to be one. And when I found it I would call Tamika and make sure she knew about it.
As it turns out the University offers a great deal of job protection for its fully vested employees if they are struck by sudden or chronic illness. The key words being fully vested. There is of course the Family Medical Leave Act which protects your job if you must take off to care for a family member or yourself. But you can only invoke it after you have been at your place of employment for 1 year. There was an absence share leave pool where people could donate their vacation time that was about to expire and people who had exhausted all their sick time could use it. But you could not apply for this leave pool if you had not been on the job for more than 90 days. A person can take unpaid/special leave which was obviously for professors who wanted to take sabbatical or for young professionals who wanted to pursue higher degrees at other universities but there was a clause at the end which had the magic words “or any other needs deemed appropriate by the Provost” This was it. This was the loophole. The Provost would never deny an employee their job simply because they needed time fight a disease? When I presented the idea to my supervisors the answer was a resounding yes, it would be denied. I sent the paper work in anyway. If I lost my job I lost my health insurance. My biopsy surgery which had only lasted an hour and was expensive enough with coverage would have totaled $35,000 without it. MRI’s without insurance are around $4000. I have had eight this year.
My supervisors were right. The claim for special leave was denied. Being the bulldog of a woman that I am I filed an appeal and then finished packing. I wouldn’t have time to stick around and fight for my cause. One morning when I woke up I couldn’t see very well out of my right eye. The pressure my tumor was putting on my optic nerve was causing me to slowly go blind. I was also having spontaneous nose bleeds that were becoming hard to control. Time was running out. It was time to go. I rolled the dice and walked away from the table.
When I boarded the plane to leave for Mayo it occurred to me that I started this year in excellent health, a brand new job, a loving partner, a supportive family, a great network of friends, and financial security. All of the things that I had considered symbols of a life that was “on track.” When I stepped back on Kentucky soil how much of that would I have left? I didn’t know. Wheels up. Flight Attendant? Will they be serving any Versed on this flight?