The Foreign Service Journal, November 2013

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.