Real life

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real life ‘In a few minutes, my life changed completely’ Diagnosed with osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia in her 30s, Karine Chevalier- Watts struggled to find a job that could accommodate her symptoms – so five years ago she started her own company In my period of inactivity, I found myself receiving spontaneous requests from people needing translating or interpreting services It was December 2003, on a cold morning, and I was happily driving to our company’s annual Christmas lunch party. I was then a 32-year-old office manager for a busy international wine-broking agency and loving my job – one that gave me opportunities to travel, meet lots of interesting people and to sample delicious wines from around the world. It only took a few minutes for my life to change completely. Driving down a long, steep and narrow slope in a village, I tried to avoid a car coming from the opposite direction – it hadn’t yielded me priority and was heading straight into me. I tried to brake but the brakes on my new car were not functioning at all and I realised that I was skidding on black ice! Desperate not to crash into the oncoming car, I used the handbrake and finally managed to immobilise the car on the side of the road letting the other car pass without any impact. But, to my horror, I saw in the rear mirror a car coming down the slope, unable to stop and it crashed into the rear of my car. I didn’t realise it straight away but I had sustained massive whiplash injuries to my neck and back; a few hours later, I had developed such a migraine and stiff neck that I felt sick and was unable to move my neck at all. I went to my doctor’s surgery and was advised to do some physiotherapy. The physiotherapist suggested I wear a neck brace for a couple of months and gave me intense physio treatment two to three times a week for two years after that. I was also forbidden to do any weight-lifting sports and was recommended to take up Pilates. I was still working full time but, for the first month after the accident, was unable to stay seated for more than 30 minutes at a time, so I had to take regular breaks away from my desk and lie down on the floor. Fortunately, my bosses were very understanding. Moving on Unfortunately, two years later, the company sold out to a larger group, so I had to find myself another job. I was 35 and still keen to progress in my career, so I easily found an interesting job as a personal assistant to a prominent landscape architect. The job was well-paid and high-responsibility, but I had to travel further to work. Within a couple of years, I realised that – despite all the physiotherapy and visits to a chiropractor, an acupuncturist and an osteopath – my symptoms still persisted and actually were getting worse. They were getting more acute, more persistent, reached other parts of my body, such as my wrists, hands, hips, knees, ankles and feet, and I was getting so stiff and exhausted in the mornings that I could hardly get out of bed. As soon as I got back home from work I needed to go to bed for a rest, which disrupted my home life; my husband had to take care of the shopping and the meals while I was recuperating from my day at the office. The housework was also problematic, as I found doing the vacuuming and ironing too exhausting, so I had to enrol a cleaning lady to help. The nights did not allow me to recover as I could not sleep properly, having recurring nightmares of the accident. Within a couple of hours sitting at the computer in the mornings, my neck, shoulders and right arm and hand were in total spasm. I was advised by my solicitor to settle the accident case, so I was invited to meet with an independent medical consultant, who questioned me over my symptoms. He concluded in his report that the accident had indeed caused me extensive whiplash injuries and that I now presented typical fibromyalgia symptoms. I didn’t think any further about it as I was financially compensated for the accident, but this didn’t put an end to my problems. By 2009, my pain and stiffness became so serious that I went to see my GP for a check-up. He sent me for some X-rays, which revealed I had advanced osteoarthritis in my lower spine, much more likely to be found in a 70-year-old person than someone of my age. He prescribed physical exercises to loosen up the joints and some glucosamine tablets. However, after two months – and not seeing any improvement at all – I went back. He concluded that I had fibromyalgia, prescribed Amitriptyline and gave me a leaflet. I was reading it while waiting for my prescription and I was stunned to read that fibromyalgia was ‘life-long’ and ‘incurable’. I went to work in a state of shock, unable to process the news, let alone explain it to my concerned colleagues. Later, talking to a friend of mine whose young son also had fibromyalgia and had spent a number of years in a wheelchair, I realised how debilitating the condition could be. My physiotherapist urged me to cut down my working hours by half. We were then in the middle of a recession and my boss was talking about reducing the hours of some employees, so I took the opportunity to cut my weekly hours from 40 to 25, which he accepted on the condition that I would go back to working full time when the economic situation improved. Sudden increase For the next two years, I happily carried on doing my reduced hours, but one day I was notified that the company’s workload had increased dramatically and that they needed me to work full time again. I was not sure if I would be able to, as by then I had got into the habit of getting up later and taking the time to have long hot showers to loosen up my muscles, let my medication kick in and do some stretching exercises before feeling well enough to leave the house. My boss didn’t want to lose me and offered to organise a job-share with a new person, but I didn’t feel that it would be very practical. In the end I resigned and found myself without a job for the first time in my life. At first, I found it quite refreshing as I imagined all the nice things that I could do. However, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help feeling restless. I had the gnawing feeling that I had simply become ‘useless’ and I felt very demoralised, not at all sure about my new worth on the job market. I got in touch with my local Job Centre for advice and as soon as I said that I had fibromyalgia, they offered to direct me to the benefits claims department, which astounded me as I had never contemplated being so ill that I needed to apply for disability benefits. I found myself pleading with them to allow me to apply for Job Seeker’s Allowance, while I figured out what I was going to do next. It had become obvious I wouldn’t be able to work on a full-time basis any more or do a physical and repetitive job. But fortunately I was matched up with a wonderful recruitment adviser who had fibromyalgia himself and was extremely sympathetic to my plight. Due to my condition, I was put into a special category of ‘disabled people seeking employment’, which allowed me to turn down certain jobs that would be incompatible with my condition. After countless applications and a few interviews, it became clear that the chances of me securing an interesting, well-paid, local part-time job, matching my experience and qualifications were non-existent! I kept being offered high-powered, stressful jobs in far-away cities that I knew I would not be able to cope with and the only alternative available was waitressing in nearby cafes or stacking shelves at local supermarkets. I was eventually given a six-month probationary contract working as a part-time executive assistant for a social housing company, but my contract was not renewed because I was physically unable to remain seated for up to four hours at a time to take long minutes at monthly board meetings, late in the evenings. Fed up with spending hours searching for jobs, filling in endless forms and having to disclose my disability every time – as well as having to check in at the Job Centre to sign more forms every week – I decided to have a go at being self-employed again. I had previously been a self-employed language teacher, translator and interpreter when I first moved from France to England in 1998, but that was pre-internet when it was difficult to work from home. But we were now in 2011, and technological means of communication had never been so good. Booming business In my period of inactivity, I found myself receiving spontaneous requests from people needing translating or interpreting services. I took stock of what I could offer people and created a language services agency – Karine’s Languages & Administrative Services. I started by offering French, English, Spanish and Italian private tutoring and translating, along with some freelance secretarial services. It took me about a year to establish the business properly with a website, social media pages and a new home office, as I qualified for a grant from the government providing financial help to disabled people getting into self-employment. Soon, I started getting clients. These ranged from business people needing to brush up on their language skills for a resettlement abroad, and private individuals needing help with French administration when buying or selling their properties in France, to schools needing freelance language teachers to prepare their students for exams. The Job Centre put me in touch with a governmental organisation that offered financial help to disabled self-employed people setting up their own businesses and, after an assessment of my home office, I benefited from a grant up to the value of £1,000 to spend on an ergonomic chair, a desk, a keyboard and mouse. I soon realised that I would need help to respond to the growing demand, so I took on a second French/Spanish teacher and translator. Before long I extended my portfolio to offer Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Dutch, Turkish, Arabic and all the Scandinavian languages, and now I also work as a language broker, finding suitable linguists for specific translation or interpreting assignments. Health-wise, I still deal with fibromyalgia on a daily basis and take medication for it. I used to rely a lot on Tramadol and Cocodamol tablets to keep me going but, for the past year, I have been using Butrans skin patches, which are morphine-based and easier to use with my busy lifestyle. I have also been taking Amitriptyline every evening, which helps me get a good night’s sleep. Very often, in support groups or in the press, we hear of people with fibromyalgia being too tired or depressed to be able to work and it becomes a vicious circle. Despite all the politically correct messages about anti-discriminatory laws in companies, my personal experience is that there is very little done positively to encourage disabled people to lead a professional life. But I would very much like to encourage people with fibromyalgia or osteoarthritis not to give up on work completely. I am very pleased with what I have managed to achieve in the face of adversity, and would like it to serve as an inspiration to others. As someone with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis – but also a successful business owner – I’d like to show that the two can be compatible. If well-controlled, it is perfectly possible to sustain an interesting professional career with these two chronic conditions. It took me about a year to establish the business properly with a website, social media pages and a new home office