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Finding Balance With Career and Health

How to manage a rare disease and achieve professional goals.

Melissa Mehaffey working on craft light boxes
Melissa Mehaffey hand crafts light boxes at her Pennsylvania home. In addition to being a craft maker, Melissa is a paralegal, a photographer and a CSL Behring Patient Advocate.

Like many single mothers, finding ways to make ends meet is often at the top of mind for Melissa Mehaffey. For a solution, she got creative.

Melissa was trying to find a cost-efficient way to give gifts to family when inspiration struck. She came up with the idea of hand crafting glass light boxes that contain uplifting sentiments. The presents were a hit and sparked an idea for another way to pay the bills.

“When I gave them as gifts, everyone loved them,” she said. “So it just made me feel that if they love them then maybe other people would and maybe I could do something like this.”

Melissa began selling her light boxes online and to friends; a move that added the title craft maker to a resume that already included the roles of full-time paralegal and professional photographer. In addition to her parenting and increasing professional responsibilities, Melissa had to pay close attention to her health. She is living with hereditary angioedema, a rare disease that can cause painful swelling attacks throughout the body.

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Finding the right mix of activity to maintain personal health and pursue professional goals is a common struggle for people with rare and chronic conditions, says career coach Rosalind Joffe.

“People have to figure it out based on the situation they’re in,” she told Vita in a phone interview.

Joffe has been in that situation herself. She has been battling multiple sclerosis since being diagnosed in 1980 and also had a years-long bout with ulcerative colitis. Her need for balance between her health issues, professional goals and parenting led to a career path that took her from multimedia production to executive coaching and, finally, to career coaching for the chronically ill. Now, she often gets calls from clients who are in a similar predicament she was all of those years ago.

“They’re in a fair amount of emotional pain,” she said. “Either because they fear they’re going to lose their job, they fear they’re going to leave their job or they’ve been out of work for a period of time because of health problems and want to get back to work or need to get back to work.”

While Joffe insists there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution to achieve balance, she says flexibility is something all of her clients are seeking. Finding that flexibility can be a challenge. Some people decide that being their own boss could be the ultimate way to manage a career and their health. However, Joffe warns from first-hand experience, running a small business or being a solo entrepreneur comes with its own set of issues and may not be right for everyone.

“It’s a certain type of person who can manage that,” she said. “Although it can be really appealing, I’ve had people come to me who have tried it and given up after investing a lot of money into working for themselves and found that they couldn’t do it.”

Others may be able to secure the necessary work-life balance by having a frank conversation with their employer about telecommuting or non-traditional working hours. The search for flexibility in working lives may lead different patients to a career change.

Enhanced technology that allows more people the ability to work remotely and changing attitudes from employers on telecommuting have been positive developments in recent years for people with chronic conditions, Joffe said.

“A lot of the needs that people with chronic health challenges face are not that different for the rest of the population,” she added.

Melissa has found her balance in letting her side projects grow organically instead of actively pursuing business while working full-time. She happily obliged recently when a friend asked her to take graduation pictures of her daughter and she still crafts and sells her light boxes from time to time.

At the moment, it’s the strategy that works best for her. But she hopes that she’ll have time in the future to more fully pursue her passions.

"When that door opens for me, I will be ready to walk through it."