As a child, I was often the teacher’s pet, a Hermione-type with my hand shooting into the air at each query from an instructor. I was a straight-A student, always on the honor roll, and frequently won achievement awards. Yet, since my early days, there was one award that always eluded me: Perfect Attendance.
I have Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), which is caused by my immune system running amok and attacking healthy joints and tissue instead of focusing solely on germs and viruses. Long before my eventual RA diagnosis, doctors knew something was wrong with my immune system. In first grade I was kept out of school for three months because my white cell count was so low that I was unable to fend off all the various germs kids that age pass around like trading cards. While it would be many years before I learned that RA can cause a low white blood cell count, it was obvious to doctors that my immune system was not functioning properly. They drew my blood weekly until my doctor deemed my white cell count had risen to a level where it was safe for me to be around lots of people.
That was the first of many extended absences from school I would experience throughout my childhood.
Even when my white cell count was adequate, there were the days spent at home due to all the colds and viruses I picked up so much more frequently than my peers, as well as the trips to the doctor and emergency room for “sprained” ankles or wrists (which in hindsight I feel sure were actually symptoms of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis). Anyone who saw my school attendance record would have been surprised that I was able to not only make up all my missed work, but also stay at the top of my class.
In adulthood, RA has continued to prevent me from ever having a perfect attendance record.
The semester that I was finally diagnosed I had to drop all of my college classes while waiting for my new treatment plan to start decreasing my severe symptoms. In graduate school, health-related exceptions to attendance policies sometimes had to be made. In my career, there have been several occasions when RA flares or the frequent infections and viruses I’ve had while on my immunosuppressant drug regimen have put me beyond my sick leave, resulting in docked pay. Even the frequent doctors visits and monthly trips to the infusion center add up. I know people who were able to retire a year or two early due to accumulated sick leave, and I look at their situations in wonder. I’ve been grateful on the rare instances when my number of accumulated sick leave days goes into the double digits; I can’t imagine ever seeing a three-digit figure on my leave balance.
There’s the saying that “eighty percent of success is showing up.” While that may be true for most people, much of my success is not “showing up” but rather “coming back.” Having worked for over a decade in education, I am well versed in the statistics about the increased risk of failure associated with excessive absences. Yet, I have always bucked that trend. While I have never won a perfect attendance award, I have repeatedly accomplished goals and received accolades for my performance. Living with RA means that I can’t always be in attendance; being a dedicated and incredibly determined person means that I’ll still get the job done one way or another.