Why I refused to let my chronic illness destroy my professional career

I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease, back in January, 2015. 

Though I had been unknowingly suffering for (presumably) years, it wasn’t until I was laying on the bed in an operating theatre, after having my large intestine removed, that surgeons found it was severely ulcerated.

I was given a stoma, where my small bowel was pulled out to the front of my abdomen, with a bag fitted over it to collect waste. Basically, I could still go to the toilet, just not in the same way any more.

A few days after having my surgery, still in hospital, I received a call from my boss. I’d had weeks off due to illness before the surgery, and I was terrified to tell him about the operation and that I’d need time to recover.

It turns out, it didn’t matter. He made an excuse to fire me, and did so there and then on the phone. After a quick search online, I’d found out he’d been looking for a new assistant two weeks into me being critically ill.

Obviously, I was devastated. I thought my life was over. I’d been so ill, I’d been given a bag, and now I’d lost my job. And, to top it all off, I had to move home with my parents so my mum could care for me.

At first, I couldn’t look at the bag, let alone the stoma. My mother would change it for me, and she somehow seemed to make out it was all okay, like the bag didn’t matter. Because of her, I started to look at it, and I began taking over the duty of changing it too.

It turns out, it was just so foreign to me that I didn’t know how to deal with it, but once I’d gotten used to it it was like it wasn’t even there.

Three months after my surgery, I decided I wanted to start a blog. I wanted to write about what it was like to be a young girl (19 at the time) with an ostomy. I wanted to talk about fashion, sex, relationships and body image. And so I did.

I started http://www.morethanyourbag.com, and within a month it was sponsored by a medical company called Clinimed. I was making real money from it – I would write several blog posts a week and share them to my social media channels and I would be paid a real wage. I loved it. I could work when I wanted, where I wanted, and it was all down to me to set myself challenges. And I loved that.

A little while after I began advertising on my blog – a clothing company who specialised in stoma-wear.

Within four months of blogging I had been featured in all of the national papers, several magazines, I did two radio interviews, one with BBC Sussex and another with The Kyle and Jackie O Show in Australia. I even ended up filming an ITV pilot with Davina McCall.

It was amazing.

At times, having a bag was hard, it would leak, I had incredibly sore skin most of the time and my OCD made cleaning myself up an impossible task.

But I was determined to have a career and to make a name for myself.

During the eighth month of having a bag, I landed myself a job interview at one of London’s national papers.

I started off doing freelance shifts (I was also freelancing for LADBible and blogging for Huffington Post at the time) before going full-time in September 2015.

Seems the mail online saw my blog post! Even though I'm not actually a student, I run my blog for a living…

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I decided to opt for a reversal in October 2015 and therefore to sell my blog and aim for a fresh start as a proper journalist.

Since, I have had my reversal and I have sold my blog – and I am still a journalist for the same news site. It’s the most incredible job I’ve ever had and I work with some truly wonderful, understanding people.

Unfortunately, I have to work from home a lot because my reversal has been very, very restricting. It’s frustrating and I feel like I’m not good enough at my job because of it but my lovely colleagues are always telling me not to worry.

They have been incredibly accommodating and I can’t thank them enough for all of their support over the past two years.

I know this piece has been mainly about my working life, but that’s what I wanted.

Because to be honest with you, I think it’s needed.

Scars are so light now ☺️☺️

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We see so many articles about living with inflammatory bowel disease, and sometimes they can make it out as though it’s impossible to have a career or to work hard when you’re ill.

I refused to let my illness destroy my professional career because it had already taken so much away from me. My career was one thing I could hold in my own hands and there was no way I was letting it fall.

Sure, when you have a chronic illness, maintaining a career is definitely harder, more limiting and there will be times when you just can’t work at all. But I’m writing my experience for all of those chronically ill people who are terrified that having surgery is going to affect them professionally.

While all employers are different, your illness does not limit your talents. And instead of worrying about what you can’t do, you need to focus on what you can do.

Because you CAN do it. You CAN get back into work, and you CAN have a fulfilling career.

Just be easy on yourself, focus hard and take the right amount of time to get there.

Words by Hattie Gladwell

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