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Lessons learned from enduring a long-haul illness

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'My skin turned bright red and I literally felt like I was on fire. I was not sure I would make it through the night'

Lawyer stressReports of the spread of COVID-19 were everywhere but Florida and its court system were still open and functioning on Tuesday, March 3, last year when a mid-Florida attorney felt flu symptoms.

It launched the attorney, who asked that her name not be used, on a more than year-long journey dealing with not only a protracted illness but questioning how to keep up with her busy solo practice — and even whether she was able to judge her own ability to help clients.

Along the way, she learned about dealing with being sick, getting help, how to view other ill lawyers, and coping.

“The lesson at the end is not only are inventory attorneys for end of life, but they’re there when you’re incapacitated and sick,” said the attorney. “How do you know you’re incapacitated? I have three very trusted friends [two of whom are lawyers] who essentially had the right to tell me, ‘You’re not capable of being a lawyer today.’”

The attorney, who is board certified and has been practicing for two decades, was feeling fully capable and more in early March 2020. The previous Saturday, working with a personal trainer, she had done a 10-mile walk/run. On Monday she had gone to court in several counties “just like normal.”

On that Tuesday, March 3, she went to court in Orlando in the morning and then to a deposition in the afternoon when she began feeling flu-like symptoms.

“I remember trying to make it down the stairs after the deposition and I felt like I was not going to make it,” she said.

So, she did something unusual for her — she went immediately to seek medical help, in this case an urgent care facility. There were no available COVID tests, although she tested negative for flu. Since she wasn’t coughing, the doctor thought it might not be COVID. The attorney got Tamiflu and for a few days got better. Then she began feeling worse.

Finally, at a friend’s house, she was hit with uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting. At home, a fever started.

“And then, March 19, 2020, was the night my body caught fire,” the attorney said. “My skin turned bright red and I literally felt like I was on fire. I was not sure I would make it through the night.”

She did, and went to the ER in the morning.

“The doctor told me she thought it was COVID but she did not have a test,” the attorney said. She asked about going to get the test, but the doctor advised it would be better to go home, rest, and take plenty of fluids.

“I started resting and it just became an up and down roller coaster for the next 12 months,” the attorney said. “I barely remember March and April [2020]. I had conversations with people I don’t remember.”

Her legal work varied. Some weeks she was able to scrape together 20 hours of effort. Other weeks it was five.

“I’m convinced the only thing that saved my legal practice was the fact the courts were shut down,” she said, plus the remaining limited court activity was largely done via Zoom.

Some days, she spent 20 to 22 hours in bed, and watching a 30 to 40-minute TV show would exhaust her. One time she struggled to finish a trip to the grocery story and when she finally made it back to her car, “the idea of the amount of energy it would take me to get home was too overwhelming.”

She battled brain fog when she did try to do legal work.

“I went to fill out a form motion for a client, that is a form I had developed and it needed four or five clauses, not even complete sentences. It took me four hours to get it written and filed,” the attorney said. “I sat at the computer crying because I could not come up with the words….

“Yet, I was attempting to continue to practice law. I was terrified during this time if I let people know how sick I was I would never get a client again.”

She roller coastered through summer, getting better for a few days, and then worse for a few days. In August, her breathing got worse and the doctor thought it might be asthma and started more antibiotics and steroids. A low grade fevered lasted for more than a month.

Realizing the persistence of the illness the attorney, who previously only had a part-time assistant, hired a part-time attorney in August.

“I was sick again in September, I was sick in October, I was sick again in November and December, when I finally went to the hospital because my friend begged me to because I couldn’t breathe,” she said.

She was admitted and put on a breathing therapy every four hours and given other treatments in IVs.

It was a turning point in her illness. A turning point in her practice also came late last year when she asked her inventory attorney to review her files, because she was afraid she had missed something.

Her friend began, but then became worried about ethical issues if problems were discovered, so the attorney hired an ethics expert for advice. Fortunately, there were no problems, but the attorney said that’s something other lawyers need to keep in mind when they need help with long-term health issues.

Since January, with continued treatments and therapies, the attorney has steadily improved — and learned how much she had lost.

“I turned the corner some time in January. Every week since then, I have been mentioning I am feeling really good this week and think I’m better,” she said. “Then next week, I feel even better.”

She still has no official diagnosis, as it’s possible because of “weird” timing she had some little or unknown virus. But the best guess is “long-haul” COVID, something expected to affect a significant but still unknown percentage of people who contract the disease. She participates in an online group for long-haul COVID-19 sufferers — but she said the actual cause is irrelevant. Whatever the reason, she had to recognize her professional life was compromised for a significant time.

Professionally and health wise, there have been many lessons. One is her performance now is directly related to sleep. The more she gets at night the better day she has.

Another is her energy is a like a battery: finite and when the battery is completely discharged nothing will get done until it’s recharged. But with pacing and husbanding of her energy, she can get much accomplished.

“I’d rather be 100% for 30 hours a week than be 20% for 80 hours a week,” she said.

Professionally, she said attorneys need to arrange for inventory attorneys not just with an eye of “end-of-life” scenarios but also for long-term disability or illness. They should also discuss with trusted colleagues who can cover for them if they can’t carry their former full load.

Lawyers also need a different mindset that recognizes they may not be able to “power through” a health issue, and it rarely is wise to try.

“With any illness like this, if you don’t give yourself downtime, you’re just going to continue to spiral,” the attorney said. Before COVID “I had seen people come to the courthouse sick, it was almost seen as a badge of honor, look how tough they are. It’s almost very selfish to others because you can get other people sick. It’s not heroic to burn yourself out to the point where you can barely move.”

And, she said, individual lawyers may not be the best judge on when it is time to step back.

“You really need an external person who you trust enough to say, ‘You can’t do this today.’ Every individual day I was sick…it was bad but it felt manageable,” she said. “I did not realize how sick I was, I truly did not. My friends could see how sick I was, those who knew me well. If one of those said, ‘You are sick, you need to stop today,’ I have promised myself I will.”

Along with that, the attorney hopes all those involved — lawyers, judges, clients, courtroom personnel — develop more understanding, compassion, and patience for those with health issues.

The attorney said she’s still reluctant to put her name with her story, but said she has received much support from other lawyers and the bench. When she approached her clients about her problems, they stuck with her.

“I think in general we all need a little more patience with each other and that wouldn’t be a bad thing going forward,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want to get our clients through these systems and have a good outcome for them.”

With the Florida Lawyers Helpline, the emphasis is on ‘help’(Editor’s Note: The new Florida Lawyers Helpline is available to Bar members to assist in coping with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues. Staffed 24/7 by licensed professionals, the helpline (1-833-FL1-HELP) offers access to three free counseling sessions and serves as a gateway to child and elder care, financial counseling, and a host of other services.

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