Foreign Service Journal - November 2013 - page 16

16
NOVEMBER 2013
|
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
SPEAKING OUT
F
ading in and out of awareness, I
curled up on a gurney in the hospi-
tal emergency room in Hyderabad,
India, in November 2010. For the
previous five days, I’d been feverish with a
splitting headache. I couldn’t sleep, yet felt
listless and weary. The consulate’s local
doctor had no answers, but said the obvi-
ous culprit, dengue fever, wasn’t evident
in my blood—yet.
Days later, I ended up in the emer-
gency room. Embassy New Delhi’s
American doctor, who was fortuitously in
Hyderabad on his quarterly visit, asked
me to name the current U.S. president.
“Roosevelt?” I offered. That afternoon,
I was medivaced to Singapore. After 10
days and numerous medical tests in Glen
Eagles Hospital, the doctors concluded I
had indeed contracted dengue fever, with
encephalitis as a bonus.
There’s no telling where the mosquito
came from that infected me. Dengue is
endemic in India, and I wasn’t the only
American at our new consulate to become
ill from it. But I definitely had the worst
case of anyone I knew.
Coming to Grips with a
Lifelong Illness
Over the next year, first in Hyderabad
and then in Washington, D.C., I discov-
ered and then struggled to cope with the
repercussions of my illness. My doc-
tor concluded that my now-unreliable
memory, constant drowsiness and
cognitive impairment were all the result
of my encephalitis. I knew that my Foreign
Service career had come to an end.
I spent months trying to find an indi-
vidual or office at State designated to help
me. Surely there was compensation or
some kind of assistance, I thought, though
I wasn’t sure what kind. So I was aghast
when, time and again, I was told that no
one had a mandate to help. Employees
in the Office of Medical Services and
the Bureau of Human Resources were
kind and welcoming, but eventually they
admitted they had nothing to offer me.
Was I at fault? Should I have taken out
disability insurance?The idea would have
seemed preposterous when I entered the
Foreign Service 20 years ago. With the
bravado of youth, I would have laughed
and proclaimed, “But I never get sick!”
Like most of my peers, I would have
assumed that if an illness left me with
huge medical and pharmaceutical bills,
the State Department would share the
burden of those costs and mitigate the loss
of income from a career cut short.
After all, hadn’t I volunteered for hard-
ship assignments, including some severe
hardship posts, throughout my career?
Hadn’t the department and my insurance
company covered two hospitalizations
already? So surely they would help me
now.
Or so I thought.
The truth was that no one at State
had a mandate to offer assistance to an
employee with compromised abilities and
bills for an illness contracted while serving
at a hardship post. Blue Cross/Blue Shield
paid a certain percentage of my costs, but
I was dismayed to discover howmuch still
had to come frommy own pocket—as it
will for the rest of my life.
Passing the Buck
The Foreign Affairs Manual assigns
responsibility for assisting Foreign Service
members who have contracted life-chang-
ing illnesses overseas to the Department of
Labor’s Workers’ Compensation Program.
However, this worthy government assis-
tance programwas originally designed
for blue-collar laborers who toiled in
America’s factories, not white-collar work-
ers living and working overseas.
I duly submitted my application with
its inch-thick stack of supporting mate-
rial in October 2012. My application was
denied because the DOL adjudicator
failed to recognize that dengue fever
was endemic in India—and that my job
required me to be there. Undaunted, I
reapplied three months later, presenting
more doctors’ letters and explanations.
The result was the same: I could not
convince Labor that my illness was caused
by being in India as an employee of the
Department of State.
I have one more appeal to DOL left,
Keeping Faith with State’s Wounded Warriors
BY JUL I ET WURR
Juliet Wurr is a Foreign Service officer currently working in the U.S. Diplomacy Center in Wash-
ington, D.C. Since joining the Service in 1993, she has served in New Delhi, Tunis, Damascus,
Alexandria, Beirut, Hyderabad, Kuwait City and Erbil. She received the Edward R. Murrow
Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy, given annually to a State Department public affairs
officer, in 2008.
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