In this virtual world so many of us live in, I “met” fellow traveler, Bernard Farrell, through the vibrant virtual diabetes community. Recently he mentioned on twitter (@BernardF) that he’d gotten a new job. I didn’t know he was unemployed but saw an opportunity to share his perspective. So, I sent him some questions and he responded. Read what Bernard says about how he chose a career that he could do over the long haul, what it was like to lose a job while being the primary wage earner for a family of 5 and how he manages work and living with chronic illness.
1. Tell us about yourself, specifically when you were diagnosed with each illness and an overview of your career?
Born in Dublin, Ireland, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 15 (1972). I spent two weeks as a teenager in a Dublin hospital (not recommended). I was diagnosed with asthma in my early 20s.
I currently live north of Boston with my wife and three children. I’m a software architect and developer and have been doing software development since 1975, shortly before I went to university. I’ve worked in software start-up companies, and as a self-employed person. Recently I was laid off after almost 6 years working for a larger company (3000+ people).
2. From your perspective, how has diabetes affected your career?
I realized a long time ago that I needed a career which provided a solid job with good pay. When I was a teenager I worked for a while as a photographer for an Irish rock paper (The Hot Press). Lots of fun, meeting interesting characters (U2, XTC, and others), with late nights and much excitement. Shortly before I graduated (1979), I realized that I would not be able to use this as a full-time career because of the uncertainty of the income and the need for health insurance. As I liked working with software and found it challenging, in a different way, this wasn’t a very difficult choice. My work is in a clean, stable, environment without too many extended hours or physical effort so it doesn’t present challenges for life with diabetes and asthma.
3. How and when did you lose your job?
I lost my job at Kronos in January 2009 due to a corporate layoff of about 8% of the workforce across the board. I was hired as a User Interface architect in May 2003. This was a senior-level job without much opportunity for promotion. I did small amounts of travel and also some larger group training.
4. Would you share what it was like for you to lose your job?
At the time I was very surprised, but also very calm about the layoff. This was the first time I was without a job and work in over 30 years. But I was also confident that I would get another job. As a christian I’ve a lot of faith that God takes care of me and my family. I found the layoff challenging because of the present economy . I spent long hours in front of the computer chasing up job leads and connecting with former colleagues. Looking back, I should have limited this to maybe 4 hours a day. The loss of a regular work day made it hard for me to do any exercise and to eat properly – both bad things for someone with diabetes. Despite my confidence I was extremely relieved to get a job offer.
5. How did you support yourself (and those who rely on your for support) through this time?
My wife does not currently have a full-time job. But I had a severance package that provided some support and got unemployment assistance from Massachusetts. Between these two I knew we would be OK until the start of summer. We have always been good savers, which meant that we had emergency savings – this provided a huge sense of security. I recommend highly that everyone try to save money for at least 3 months without pay, we had enough for about 4 months. We also cut back on any non-essentials.
I’m now on COBRA for my health insurance, so I don’t need to worry about this immediately, although the monthly payments are about 5 times more than we’re used to. Thanks to my health we cannot afford to go without medical insurance.
I also looked for small jobs and found some work reviewing technical books and some small programming jobs for local companies. This has also meant forgoing the unemployment assistance, so it’s not a big win.
Recently I had a successful job interview and I should be back at work before mid-April, slightly over 3 months after my layoff.
6. Let’s talk more specifically about work and diabetes. Has diabetes been a problem for you at work?
In nearly 6 years of working for Kronos, I lost maybe 2 days due to diabetes. These were due to severe low blood sugars at home. My blood sugar recovered quickly but sometimes it really takes 24 hours to get back to full strength after one. I did lose 2 weeks of work due to double pneumonia that was at least partially due to my asthma.
I’ve had 2 bad lows while at work. In one case I recovered by myself. In another I had to ask one of our medical first responders for help. I made a point of telling several colleagues about the symptoms of low blood sugars and asked them to let me know if they thought my blood sugar might be low. I also talked with first responders in the building where I worked so they’d know how to treat me in the case of an extremely low blood sugar. I’m fortunate that everyone in Kronos was supportive and helpful, I’ll miss working there.
7. The issues surrounding disclosure of a chronic illness seem to be on most people’s minds. Would you tell us how you have handled this?
In Massachusetts (ed. note: and throughout the U.S.) future employers are not allowed to ask about medical issues. Sometimes I’ve mentioned during interviews that I have diabetes and I’ve explained the implications. I may mention this when interviewing at a start-up to let folks know I will need to eat regular meals. For a normal 40-45 hour a week job I don’t consider this important. I have never had a negative response, though I’m sometimes asked what this means in terms of work time (blood sugar tests, insulin injections).
Most colleagues have been surprised when they learn I have type 1 diabetes (You don’t look like I’d expect, etc.). But it’s not something I hide at work and I’m used to testing my blood sugar during long meetings, or while training people. I’ve sometime had to take a break while training a class when I realize my blood sugar is low. I tell them why I need a break and folks sometime are curious but supportive. The curiosity is generally because I work with engineers who are also figuring out how things work! I think it’s importany for folks around me to know about my diabetes because it helps me and it gives them peace of mind.
8. Do I discuss diabetes with co-workers?
For the most part I don’t. Sometimes someone asks me questions because they know someone with diabetes. Of course I also sometimes get questions from the “diabetes police”. I’m gotten much better at informing these folks that I can take care of myself. Some developments that make me happy cannot really be explained to someone without diabetes, so it’s not worth trying.
9. Would you share if living with Diabetes has made work more difficult for you – and how so?
My job doesn’t involve a lot of physical activity so that it’s really easy to keep my blood sugar levels stable. And when my levels are steady it’s much easier to work effectively. My job generally involves a lot of thinking and I cannot do this effectively when my blood sugar goes low. So I’m very fortunate that software development and diabetes go well together. The only time I’ve been more challenged is when I’m doing an all-day training session. Then I’m on my feet and moving around a lot and I need to keep a close eye on my blood sugar levels so they don’t drop unexpectedly.
Then there are the logistical challenges. I’ve learned to keep emergency supplies. It’s not difficult to keep extra testing supplies and glucose tabs at work. But I’ve had to argue with several facilities to keep a small fridge at work for emergency insulin supplies. If I unexpectedly run out of insulin at work, I need to have it on hand but it’s hard to keep these in a communal fridge. Further, I wear an insulin pump. If I need to change the infusion set when I run out of insulin, I need a private location. A bathroom isn’t suitable. I find a conference room without a window or a quiet room is best. Working in extreme temperatures would be challenging with the equipment I use. Meters and pumps don’t like temperature or humidity extremes, so thinking about these may be helpful when choosing a career.
Thank you, Bernard, for sharing your insights. They are so valuable!