Engagement * Bargaining * Advocacy * Justice * Empowerment * Support
by Carolyn Matzinger, MEA‑Retired
Let me say with full-throated enthusiasm thank you, thank you, thank you for all of the support the MEA gave me to prevail against an unjust decision about my qualifications for non-duty disability retirement due to my Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL).
My case was an outlier in some ways. Before I began teaching, I had two other careers: hotel sales and American Red Cross Blood Services management. Toss in service in the U.S. Peace Corps in the Philippines, volunteering for a summer on a kibbutz in Israel, travel to 39 states and 18 countries, and I was proud to “bring the world” to my classroom. Starting teaching at the age of 42 gave me a rich set of experiences to share with my students.
When at the age of 54 I was diagnosed with CLL, it was a huge shock! I learned that more men than women get this form of incurable cancer and the average age of diagnosis is 70, so how did I get this? My head was full of questions and my heart full of worry. It was really tough to break the news to our child Grace, my family and students. My doctors told me to keep active, keep teaching and to avoid being around people with colds, to focus on getting enough rest, and if I fell ill, take plenty of time to stay home and recover. Easier said than done for a teacher!
The next year of teaching went pretty well. My CLL slowly progressed, as expected. What was new was that every time I became ill with a respiratory infection, it took longer and longer to recover. Stress levels and fatigue increased and my beloved students started to feel like individual vectors of disease.
In the fall of 2015, school started with promise and I was hopeful. But after five weeks I felt a cold coming on, and by Friday, Oct. 12 I just knew my goose was cooked. The bout of bronchitis I developed was extremely severe and went on and on (and on). By the third week, I was still gravely ill and my doctor said I should not return to the classroom. Repeatedly becoming ill, and needing antibiotics and steroids to recover, was doing irreparable damage to my body.
You can imagine how awful I felt! Coughing, sleeping poorly, unmoored and adrift from my classroom, financial and retirement plans in total disarray—I was a physical and emotional wreck! My home is two blocks from my school and I passed it every day. I missed my students!
But then the MEA stepped in in three important ways. First, our local Petoskey Education Association had bargained for teachers to be able to donate sick time, and with many generous gifts of sick days I bridged from short-term to long-term disability.
Secondly, the MEA provided the stellar legal services of Karen Schneider, from the White Schneider law firm. Karen not only provided me with excellent legal advice but helped me push through repeated rejections of my appeal. I could breathe a little easier. And when we received a third review and rejection from the same doctor, Karen helped me ask the MEA for more help, and yes, we prevailed.
The best part of this experience for me was to know that my case changed the system and now if an appeal is rejected, a different medical professional is tasked with the review. That fact means a great deal to me. And yes, the retroactive benefit money was welcomed to my family’s coffers.
Thank you again. I’d like to end with a quote that has great meaning for me. “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
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