Overcoming Illness p. 14

By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ ROB WOODGEARD, MANAGING editor of the Macon Telegraph in Georgia, appreciates the honesty of small children who ask him straight out about the bandages covering most of his face.
"Dateline NBC" producer Jill Rackmill has to deal with the looks from people who think her "invisible illness" is not so serious, despite the fact that she missed a year of work to take physical therapy just to be able to hold a pen in her hand.
Woodgeard and Rackmill talked about their problems in a panel discussion, titled "Delayed, Not Disabled," at the Society of Professional Journalists annual conference in Arlington, Va.
Even though each has battled a severe illness ? cancer for Woodgeard and repetitive stress injury for Rackmill ? they have continued with their work, and wouldn't have it any other way.
In the spring of 1992, Woodgeard's chronic nose bleeds were found to be the result of a malignant tumor in his right nasal passage. He has undergone a dozen surgeries for cancer and reconstruction, chemotherapy twice and radiation treatment three times. After the last treatment in June, doctors removed his right eye and most of his face. He needs two or three more reconstructive surgeries.
"The good news is that I am cured," Woodgeard said. In the four years he has been sick, he said he has missed 14 to 18 weeks of work.
"I was fortunate to have a job where the hospital was near," he said, adding that he would often return to work after treatments.
"Going back to work, even when you are taking chemotherapy, is therapy," declared Woodgeard, who said he was lucky, too, to have a cooperative employer.
"When you're out of work a lot, you worry about your situation. Other people have to do your job," he said, citing a "deep emotional impact when he came back."
"You have to guard against overreacting to the people who have been doing your job," Woodgeard explained.
Another problem surfaced when a former boss, who has since left the newspaper, in a job evaluation blamed Woodgeard's performance on his illness.
"I don't appreciate that. I want to be treated like everyone else," he said.
It's easy for people to misunderstand things, he said, like blaming a sick person's sadness on their illness rather than ordinary workplace issues.
Woodgeard credited his colleagues for being very supportive, particularly the new publisher, who told him he's done a lot to reduce absenteeism among other workers, who may feel less inclined to call in sick when they see him working.
"Work is what I do. It is therapeutic for me to go to work," he said. "If you sit at home watching soap operas, crying in your beer, that's not a healthy life. Part of what's keeping me alive is a positive attitude. Work is an important part of my life."
The editor said his illness has made him empathetic to others, many of them suffering more than him.
"At one point, I thought I wouldn't be around to play golf for another 20 years and that I was going to die young," he said. "There are things that I used to think were vitally important, but they don't amount to a hill of beans."
After spending many hours in waiting rooms with cancer patients, Woodgeard has heard horror stories about insurance and treatment by medical staff. As a result, he has suggested that reporters do more health-care stories from the point of view of patients.
"No one does stories about how patients rate hospitals," he said. "We don't ask those people who are customers of our health-care system."
Rackmill, who had always wanted to be a journalist, interned at NBC each summer during college and starting work there two and a half weeks after graduation. At age 23, she was on the fast track to becoming a producer on some of the top stories of the day.
At age 24, she was in physical therapy, unable to type, write, brush her teeth or even dress herself.
A year later, she is back on the job, trying to make up for lost time.
Before, Rackmill ignored the pain in her lower arms and wrists, since it tended to come and go. But one day, the pain stayed.
Crashing on a big story, Rackmill finished a 14-hour day and felt her hands burning. The pain eventually went away, until one day, when she awoke and felt her arms numb, as if they were asleep.
A doctor prescribed Advil and put splints on, but the pain was getting worse.
"I didn't tell anybody," she said. "Personal [needs] don't matter. The story has to get done."
But the pain intensified, and within a month, "I couldn't hold a pen or dial the phone," Rackmill said.
Finally, a specialist told her she couldn't work for a month. That month turned into a year.
"I am somewhat better, but not much better," she said. "I am trying to reinvent my job. Work is therapy. It makes me feel good."
While she was at home, Rackmill said, her love for journalism was reinforced, but she realized she was going to have to change her lifestyle.
"I went from shock to depression. I cried. I always wanted to do this. I wanted to work on an election. It was not a fun year," Rackmill said.
She takes one day at a time and likens herself to an infant who has to depend on others for help.
Rackmill, too, said she gained perspective about "where my job fits into who I am."
Rackmill is sure her career damaged her health, and sure her illness has delayed her advancement, but it is unclear how long the impact will last.
During the year she was on leave, Rackmill investigated what other newsrooms around New York City were doing to prevent RSI and is trying to implement some changes at NBC.
"I'm trying not to be Norma Rae and stand on the desk with a sign saying 'ergonomics,' but I am trying to educate people," Rackmill said, pointing out that RSI is preventable.
"There are things you can do to prevent this," she said, declaring she was "shocked to find out how widespread this is. No one talks about it."
Some of Rackmill's colleagues were more supportive than others. Some even suggested she switch careers. But now that she's back, she's in an awkward position, not wanting to complain but needing a special chair and computer, among other things.
Working on a voice-activated computer is both "amazing and frustrating," she said, but it's essential because she can't type and can hardly write with a pen.
Not only does she have to speak slowly, but Rackmill has to enunciate and separate each word and make corrections using the military alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc.).
The technology also has its glitches. Trying to send her boss the first message with the new computer, Rackmill told it to type out, "Do you believe in miracles?" It came out, "Do you believe in manatees?"
Another time, she ordered "Scratch that," the command for delete, and the computer promptly signed the message, "Saskatchewan" and sent the message.
"I don't know how long that will keep being funny," she said.
To avoid RSI, Rackmill suggested that reporters "set limits."
"You're reresponsible for your body. If you're in pain, stop and get it in the record. You have to make time for yourself."
Conceding that the news industry rewards people who behave the opposite of that, Rackmill noted, "You can only change one person's mind at a time. Change your own first."
She also warned, "Try to be tuned in to your body a little more and take care of yourself."


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