Reflecting On My First Year Back At Work After Medical Leave

I made it through my first year back at school. 

After two years on medical leave, I was nervous about returning to work in September, even part-time. It meant waking up at 5:50am, commuting over an hour, walking up and down five flights of stairs all day picking up and dropping off students, working with special needs kids who need a lot of attention, and then commuting an hour home. 

The year started out a little rough. The long days were a shock to my body, and there were several times that I started to black out on the subway on the way home from pushing myself too much. Even though I was only working 3 days a week, I ended up having to call out sick fairly often because there were many days I just couldn’t get out of bed so early, or at all. And sometimes I needed more than one day to recuperate before going back in again. I also was (and am) dealing with hormonal imbalances that kept me in bed 2-5 days each month with terrible cramps, nausea, and occasional vomiting, sweats, chills, lightheadedness, and dizziness. 

In October there was a strange odor in our school, and my nervous system went berserk. My school had to call an ambulance for me as I lay on the floor shaking, dizzy, nauseous, headachy, and unable to move. The entire administration, teachers, aides, and some students on the hall witnessed this and watched me being carried by EMTs in a wheelchair down five flights of stairs. I usually came to work with a smile on my face, pushing through whatever symptoms I felt, but this was a time when my “invisible illness” wasn’t so invisible, and I felt vulnerable, weak, and embarrassed. There were many times throughout the year that I questioned if I were able to continue.

But I kept going, and instead of getting angry at myself for each day I had to miss work, I decided to celebrate each day I was able to make it. Each day I got through felt like an accomplishment. So I took it one day at a time, trying my best to accept what was going on. I rode the waves as best I could. 

This school year was filled with frustration, disappointment, and anxiety, but also hope, happiness, and gratitude.

I feel grateful to work with my elementary school students. I work in the poorest congressional district in the country, and many of my students are homeless and come from difficult family situations. It helps put everything into perspective and make me realize how lucky I am to be able to afford an apartment, my medical treatments, and healthy food. And how lucky I am to be surrounded by loving friends and family who provide endless support and unconditional love.

Although I teach in a school (as a speech pathologist), my students have taught me just as much as I taught them. Watching some of my students graduate this year (and some who don’t need speech any longer) is extremely fulfilling. These students keep me laughing and remind me to stay present and find joy in the smallest things. They remind me how much can change in one year, and how much progress someone can make during that time. 

I am also grateful for my wonderful coworkers, who always checked up on me when I was out and made an effort to understand Lyme and my other health issues. They were open-minded, understanding, and supportive. They made coming to work so much easier. 

I am extremely proud of myself for making it through the year, and I am eager to see how next year goes and if I’m able to work an extra day. And in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the summer off and make sure to remember what my students taught me- to keep my inner child happy by laughing, playing, and finding joy every day. 

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