MCDOWELL BATTLES PHYSICAL AND FINANCIAL HARDSHIP
Ian McDowell has spent his career writing fiction, but the past year and a half of his life has seen more emotional turmoil than can be contained in any novel.
McDowell, 56, a writer and former FedEx employee of 25 years, is trying to work himself out of financial hardship after battling Leukemia for eight months from September 2013 to April.
“I’m in the position of someone who thought they dodged a bullet, only to find that the shooter had reloaded,” he said.
McDowell’s symptoms began in December 2012 when his kidneys began to fail and he developed flulike symptoms. His condition worsened after his physician’s assistant prescribed Zithromax and he ended up spending 15 days in the hospital. In the spring he had a bone marrow biopsy, but no leukemia cells were found.
“My doctor at the time never used the L word, but could tell he was suspecting it, and he was relieved to find there was no evidence for it,” he said.
McDowell’s mother died of Leukemia when he was six, and his father died of kidney cancer a few years ago.
When he regained his strength he was able to return to work in April 2013, but in August the flulike symptoms returned and he developed mouth and tongue sores.
The Friday before Labor Day he got a call from the Wake Forest Baptist Health Comprehensive Cancer Center that he would be undergoing another bone marrow biopsy the following Tuesday. The doctor told him “all signs pointed to Leukemia.”
“I had to work the last hour of my shift knowing that,” he said. “I mean I didn’t have to. There was no one there telling me I had to. But I couldn’t in good conscience leave. You know that’s kind of a hard thing to do, working while knowing that.”
McDowell underwent chemotherapy for six weeks from the beginning of September to mid-October, during which time his hair fell out, his weight fell below 150 pounds and his appetite disappeared. He then attended additional six-day chemo sessions where his white blood cell count dropped to zero.
“I had to be careful what I ate, where I went going out and stuff. Any fever over 100.4 and I had to go to the hospital,” he said.
McDowell said the thought of getting a potentially fatal infection from the smallest activities was “blind terror.” He said there were occasions in which he went to movies and ate sushi and fresh strawberries against doctor’s orders.
Despite his condition, McDowell said he was able to distance himself emotionally –something he said he learned to do when his father underwent a leg amputation in 2008.
“I kind of went on autopilot. I knew what I was thinking but I didn’t know what I was feeling,” he said.
He said ever since then, he has remained calm in times of crisis.
“This doesn’t mean I’m not scared or don’t get depressed,” he said. “Those things definitely happen. But for most of the time with this most recent illness, I worried more about things like can I pay my rent, what’s going to happen to my 401k, will I be able to work again, then I’m worried about will I die?” Those questions began to loom large after McDowell was notified that his position with FedEx had been eliminated, much to his surprise.
“I was told, verbally, that an attempt would be made to place me as soon as I was well and could return to work,” he said he was originally told.
FedEx policy states that employees with a serious health condition that have worked 1,250 hours in the 12 months prior to their illness are eligible for unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. This entitles them to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with the same health benefits as if they were working and a guarantee of reinstatement as long as their illness fits the timeframe.
“When I was diagnosed with leukemia, I had to go on leave again, and they held my job for me for another four months, meaning that my job was held for all of 2013 despite my only working four months of that year. With 2014, that changed.”
Despite losing his employer-provided health insurance, McDowell was able to purchase a new insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act.
“The hospital would have still had to treat me even without insurance, but I wouldn’t have been able to afford the antibiotics that helped keep me alive during the periods when I was recovering from each chemo session and my immune system was severely compromised,” he said.
McDowell said his credit has been severely damaged since his illness and he is considering medical bankruptcy. He doesn’t have much family left, but many friends and neighbors have come forward with acts of kindness””something he said has helped him cope with his turmoil mentally and spiritually.
“People have offered emotional support. Have offered financial support. Who’ve raised money on my behalf. I have become very good friends with a neighbor who, when he first discovered that I was having kidney failure and turned bright yellow, insisted on being the person to weekly take me to the doctor as need be. That’s something I never asked him for, he just decided to do and it’s something I can never repay him for. There have been a lot of people like that.”
For now, McDowell continues to receive Social Security disability benefits but he said these will end soon. Then he will need a job in order to pay his bills.
Until his illness, McDowell was working at the FedEx office on Tate Street, which is three blocks from his apartment. He has not had a car for the last few years and has been able to get around by walking, biking and using public transportation.
“Not having a car never seemed a huge issue until now,” he said. “Everything’s a huge issue now.”
According to the FedEx website, there are part-time job openings at the Battleground Avenue office as well as in High Point. The only full-time opening is in Winston-Salem.
“When the last car I owned permanently broke down, I was undergoing bankruptcy due to, among other things, debts incurred while trying to prevent my father, now deceased, from being homeless,” he said. “I let several years go by without buying another car.”
Recently McDowell has been spending much of his time at the Tate Street Coffee House and writing short stories. He said he feels fine physically and plans to write a novel soon, but ultimately knows his fight to regain his independence is not over.
“Being 56 and finding oneself out of work after being employed at the same place for 25 years is not a pleasant thing even in a healthy economy, let alone this one,” he said. “While I’m happy to be alive, I feel like I dodged one bullet only to have the bastard reload and fire again.” !