Transitioning back into work after surgery
By Sara - Gali Ambassador
As someone with severe IBD, it’s not always easy keeping a job. Regular employment can be non-existent, especially when your IBD is flaring. IBD can be a very misunderstood disease, and many IBD patients struggle with consistent employment leading to financial difficulties. As we know, IBD is a very expensive disease to have, and inadequate employment adds to the complexity of Crohn’s and Colitis.
I had to quit my job, which was my career I went to graduate school for, in 2016. I was working as a full-time mental health and addictions therapist. The flares, or constant flare in my case, made work virtually impossible and incredibly awkward. I would have clients in my office divulging their life story as I would have to interrupt them because I needed to run to the bathroom, urgently. Then, once in the bathroom, I would be in extreme amounts of pain and sometimes be in there for up to 10 minutes. Adding insult to injury, my workplace at the time had two stalls. This wasn’t fair to the client or me. I spent the next three years unemployed due to my IBD and its severity.
I had my proctocolectomy surgery in late 2018. About a year after my surgery, I made it back to work part-time. I noticed my anxiety kicking back in- all of those feelings about running to the bathroom during inappropriate times, coworkers not understanding my invisible illness, calling in sick because I’m stuck to the toilet…I was not sure if I could mentally prepare myself for that again. Even though I had surgery and live with a permanent ileostomy, I noticed myself falling back into old thinking patterns. Since I have an ostomy, I do not have that urgency/running to the bathroom feeling. It still doesn’t make this transition easier because IBD also has unpleasant symptoms outside of being a “pooping disease” such as nausea and vomiting, arthritis, and fatigue, which I suffer from. No coworker wants to hear “Sorry guys, I was too tired to make it into work today.”
My first day back to work after surgery came with a lot of anxiety and negative ruminating thoughts in my head. I need accommodations, and as a new sick individual that can be challenging. I need an office space closest to the bathroom, not too hot as I can’t regulate my body temperature well, dimmed lighting, and sometimes longer breaks due to bathroom trips. Who would want to accommodate all of these things? Plus, I don’t look sick which can make finding empathy and compassion from coworkers difficult.
Little to my surprise, all of my new coworkers were very supportive of my health needs and helped me feel accommodated. My managers also did not require me to fill out FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) paperwork to protect myself if I call out due to illness, because they believe me and the story I told about my health journey in my interview. My place of employment is also understanding if I need to call out for the day as I also experience migraines.
I understand that I work in an industry that is not always the norm- I recommend all employees with a chronic illness to ALWAYS turn in paperwork to your employer’s Human Resources department to protect yourself in case of a medical event. I found it beneficial, to be honest with my boss and coworkers about all of my medical needs and quirks. (Side note: when applying for a job, I would not state anything about your illness or surgery during the interview. Talk with your employer after you have been hired for the position).
I wanted to share my new employment experience, as it has been a very positive one with very supportive coworkers who have turned into friends. Applying for work and starting a new job did come with crippling anxiety, but I am thankful for my ostomy allowing me to get back to part-time work, and not letting my mental health get in the way of me succeeding at work.