How I fought chronic Lyme disease in the workplace
Kendra Young, Leader in US Partnership Cards & Loans at Barclaycard International , shares her story of how Barclays has helped her live and work with chronic Lyme disease – a largely “invisible” condition that taught her the importance of “giving people grace” and cultivating a compassionate workforce.
“Oddly, the diagnosis felt like an answered prayer. I had desperately wanted to figure out the root cause of my various illnesses so that I could understand what was attacking my body and fight it to regain my health.”
Kendra Young, Leader in US Partnership Cards & Loans at Barclaycard International in Delaware, US, is describing the moment she received a diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease – a condition with which she had unknowingly been living with all of her adult life.
Over the course of 40 years, in an attempt to tackle chronic ill health, Kendra was treated by a series of doctors who diagnosed everything from endometriosis to rheumatoid arthritis – and she even had her thyroid removed after being told the root cause of her symptoms was an auto-immune disease that was causing her body to attack itself.
“Eventually I became completely overwhelmed with all the different doctors and diagnoses,” she says. “Nothing was working but it was clear something was attacking my body.”
After years of living with, and being treated for, symptoms that included vertigo, dizziness, sight degeneration and severe joint pain, it was the addition of one new symptom – facial palsy – that to Kendra, “screamed Lyme disease” when combined with all of her other symptoms.
She took a blood test that is better at detecting Lyme than a standard test and it came back positive in 2017. Her next steps were to seek treatment, and, after months of research, she opted for an alternative treatment plan, as opposed to conventional medicine – an approach that’s proving successful. “It’s a bit like the tortoise and the hare,” she says. “I feel like I’m winning the race, but it’s slow going.”
Suffering in silence
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria carried by diseased ticks. Known as the “stealth invader”, the sufferer can continue to experience symptoms despite antibiotic treatment. The length of time Kendra had gone undiagnosed resulted in an eventual diagnosis of late stage chronic neurological Lyme, which meant the bacteria was rampant throughout her body. Fearful about the impact of the condition on her career – and reluctant to be viewed as the victim of a disease – Kendra did not share her diagnosis with colleagues or her managers until a year later.
“I created more stress for myself by over-functioning and held myself to an unrealistic expectation,” she explains. “As a single mum, I couldn’t risk losing my job. Who would look after my nine-year-old daughter?”
This meant Kendra quietly endured severe joint pain and had to deal with the “really scary” fact she was losing her eyesight – the result of being left undiagnosed for so long. In her first year of treatment – during which she says “things got worse before they got better” – her daily working life was particularly hard.
Every day was a struggle. Some mornings I would sit in my car in the parking lot thinking, ‘How am I going to do this today?’, praying that I would have the strength to get into the office and to my desk.
Leader in US Partnership Cards & Loans, Barclaycard International
“I was living in pain virtually every day but I had to fight to stay positive and do what I had to do,” she says. “I was fortunate that a good part of my job was spent at a desk, but when there were days I was required to do more physical work like training room set ups and facilitation, I had to power through. I focused on taking things one day at a time – not thinking too far into the future but instead being grateful for the strength to get through each day and to heal.
“Every day was a struggle. Some mornings I would sit in my car in the parking lot thinking, ‘How am I going to do this today?’, praying that I would have the strength to get into the office and to my desk.”
Overcoming invisible challenges
A year after diagnosis, when her symptoms began to improve, Kendra started to open up slowly about some of her difficulties to managers and colleagues – and says she was met with support and flexibility. Her fear of being perceived as a victim and someone who was struggling was quashed: “I realised there is a lot of trust. I’ve been with Barclays for 15 years, so they knew I was going to get my job done and encouraged me to do whatever I needed to do.”
Kendra was offered flexibility. If she needed to schedule a doctor’s appointment or to work remotely she was free to do so, and the bank didn’t “prescribe what that flexibility would look like” – it was based around her needs.
On what motivated her to finally share with her colleagues, Kendra says, simply: “I’m not completely in remission yet, but I got a lot better.” In her new stronger state, she felt a responsibility to tell her story so that others living with “invisible challenges” – from mental health problems to conditions like Lyme disease – felt comfortable coming forward at work.
“It would have been nice to have felt more comfortable sharing earlier on, and not feeling like I had to hide it. I would love to see that be different for others,” she says.
Fostering a compassionate workforce
Asked how colleagues can ensure that they are fostering an open, supportive work culture, Kendra says it starts with colleagues being more mindful of one another, which she defines as “giving people more grace”.
And that, she explains, can be done by responding to someone’s request for help – no matter how seemingly trivial. “We need to trust each other. If someone is asking you for help, there is probably a reason. Be mindful and compassionate of invisible challenges or diseases.”
Her main message, though, is one of hope.
“When it comes to telling people at work about an invisible challenge you’re facing, take it at your own pace. And just remember, you can get your life back – I’m living proof of that.”