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Paid family medical leave needed in N.H.

By Nicole Fordey | Mar 29, 2020

It started with a pain in my shoulder blade. Deep. Throbbing. The first three doctors blamed a pulled muscle. Over a period of two months, I saw multiple specialists trying to find the appropriate diagnosis and treatment. The pain continued, spreading, down my arm, shooting, shocking, tinging, pins and needles agony. I tried to work, but the pain was so distracting. I couldn’t focus on my patients. They were supposed to be getting guidance and comfort from me, their therapist, and instead they saw me with a neck brace and shoulder sling, cringing, so close to tears.

It was the fourth doctor that finally ordered an MRI after I failed to feel him stabbing my hand with a broken toothpick. A dulling sensation had started to creep up my right side, into my neck and face. The images revealed I needed emergency spine surgery. Two discs in my cervical spine were pressing on my spinal cord and multiple nerve roots.

I was on the table for nine hours as the surgeons removed the splintered discs and diseased vertebrae piece by piece. I was in the hospital for a week after surgery. I couldn’t speak above a whisper. I couldn’t get out of bed unassisted. My husband struggled to be there for me physically and emotionally while he was now the sole source of income for our family.

I was in a hard collar for nearly three months. I could only take it off to shower, which required the help of at least two other people so I wouldn’t misstep and risk permanent spine damage. I had to keep my neck completely immobilized so the levels above and below the surgery would be able to fuse together. I was very fragile. My husband had to work, and I suffered being at home alone, afraid to move the wrong way and do permanent damage.

I lost my job as soon as my company learned that I was not going to be able to return to full-time status after my unpaid family and medical leave ran out. I had wanted to return, but they refused to hold my position. I became depressed. The loss was immeasurable. While I should have been concentrating on my recovery, I was devastated at being forced to leave my patients. My husband took on more shifts at work to continue to support us both. I was fortunate that we could survive on his income alone. I honestly do not know what I would have done if I’d been single when this all occurred. In total, I was out of work for six months, and when I did get back to work, it was at a lower position in a different company making a lower salary. It took years to get back to the same status in my field.

I feel very fortunate that my marriage survived this experience and has continued to endure multiple challenges I have faced with my health. Paid family medical leave would have helped my husband and I before, during and after my spine surgery – he could have spent time with me in the hospital and helped me in my recovery, and I could have maintained an income while I was learning how to manage a chronic pain that will follow me for the rest of my life.

In my work at a community mental health center now (to be clear, not the agency that let me go due to my surgical recovery needs), I work with clients that would benefit from paid family medical leave: caregivers going to food banks and cancer patients setting up gofundme pages when they should be focused on one thing – recovery.

New Hampshire has the ability to improve the quality of life for its residents by passing a paid family and medical leave bill. We deserve a society where someone does not have to choose between caring for a new or ill family member and losing their job for having to take time off. Moreover, I have dealt with multiple cases where people in need of inpatient substance use disorder treatment (detox, residential treatment, etc.) have been prevented from accessing care because their families cannot afford to go weeks without that person’s paycheck. People are literally dying because they are not able to get into treatment, because doing so risks their employment, and ultimately, their family’s financial survival.

As the current coronavirus crisis is making painfully clear – we do not have necessary support in place as a state, or a society, to deal with sudden and unforeseen health crises. Thousands of families in our state already have had to weather such crises – without support from their employer, the state or the federal government.

People cannot afford to take time away from work to care for a family member’s illness, and the federal law for unpaid leave does not help people put food on the table and maintain a roof over their family’s heads.

Granite Staters are suffering without access to paid family medical leave. The Legislature has the power to change that.

They need to use it. Now.

Nicole Fordey lives in Litchfield and is a licensed independent clinical social worker and masters licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

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