It started with an odd sensation in her right hand and a feeling of exhaustion so profound she could hardly get through an hour of work, let alone a full day.
After numerous tests and countless doctors' visits, Natasha Frechette, then 27, learned she had multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and can cause numbness, blindness and eventual paralysis.
In addition to grappling with the diagnosis, Ms. Frechette was concerned about keeping her job as a data manager for a small research organization in Brooklyn Park, Minn. "I didn't want to have to depend on someone to take care of me," she said. "But I know that I could wake up tomorrow and not be able to walk."
Workers with chronic illnesses face chronic uncertainty, forced to worry not only about their health but about their jobs as well. The protections afforded chronically ill workers in the United States are thin and somewhat vague. To protect their health and their jobs, workers must navigate employers' policies, which may include short- and long-term disability plans, as well as a patchwork of federal laws and regulations.
A recent study by the Center for Economics and Policy Research, a Washington research organization, found that among 22 rich nations, the United States was the only one that did not guarantee workers paid time off for illness.
Most other countries provide their workers not only with paid sick days, but also time off for cancer treatments, the study found. German citizens, for example, are allowed five sick days and 44 days for cancer treatment, if needed, in addition to vacation days.
Most employers in the United States allow employees to take days off for minor ailments, like the flu or outpatient operations, without docking their pay. And 41 percent offer employees days off — nine, on average — for illness or other reasons, in addition to vacation days, according to a 2007 survey by Mercer, a benefits consulting business based in New York.
Two laws offer workers some relief. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off each year for medical or family emergencies — but without pay. And the Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, often in the form of additional time off.
Ms. Frechette explained her condition to her supervisor and said she would need time off for physical and occupational therapy. Her boss readily agreed, and Ms. Frechette, who plans to marry this fall, continues to work full time.
"I'm careful," she said. "I don't want my disease to be seen as a cop-out."