How to balance a health crisis while climbing the career ladder, according to someone who’s done it

Two key lessons I learned during my ascent up the corporate ladder are that 1. health is a form of wealth and you need to guard it whatever your position. By health I mean your overall well-being, including the state of your support network should a crisis arrive. 2. Health crises happen when you’re least prepared to deal with them. The last thing my successful ascent needed was a family health emergency, but that’s what happened.

In 2000 I landed a job with Pfizer and I was on my way. For an ambitious young executive, the company was a great fit. Promoted almost every year, I ultimately became the senior director of strategy, earning the nickname “staffer to the stars.” The more the C-suite trusted me, the harder I worked.

But as for many executives, the rest of my life was a juggle. My schedule was grueling: my commute from Fairfield, Connecticut to New York City usually started at 5 a.m. and ended after 10 p.m. There was no time to exercise. Social engagements consisted of quick drinks or clam chowder at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, or “timing” a train to ride with friends back to the suburbs. Often my closest companion was Bauer, my Weimaraner, who kept the same hours. In the office, I power-napped under my desk to try and catch up on much-needed sleep.

One busy day, a FedEx package arrived in my office. My mother had sent over all the paperwork for her brain tumor diagnosis, revealed in an MRI. “This is how you tell me you have a brain tumor — by a FedEx at work?” I said when I called her.

“Well, you work at Pfizer and you’re busy,” she said. “Maybe you can find a doctor that knows this brain tumor.”

Healthcare is about content and connections, and I had both in spades at the time. Through a lot of reconnaissance, I found the top brain surgeon for my mom and her condition, though getting her into the affiliated institution was a challenge: a patient must “qualify for a study” to be seen this hospital. But the cause of her brain tumor was rare, and there was indeed a team studying it. With a lot of grit and stalking, we got her qualified for treatment — and she is alive and well today.

But during her health scare, I could not stop working. I sat by her bed, working on my laptop: I couldn’t miss a beat at work. I didn’t tell many people at Pfizer what was going on: my role was not easy to get, much less keep. I could not be absent, even if my mom did have a brain tumor. While bedside, I wondered how many others struggled to hang onto a job while caring for someone they love. Many on their ascent or in senior roles can’t call in sick — they just keep going. They may actually perform at their best when working through tough situations, but we are entering a sandwich generation with many executives are not only caring for children but now ageing parents who will tax them emotionally, financially and operationally.

Managing a health crisis during your career climb takes focusing not only on the crisis, but on surviving through to the other side. Here’s how to manage it and not fall off the ladder:

1. Focus on benefits and culture, not just title and compensation

Before taking a job, focus on the healthcare benefits and culture as intently as you do with your big title and compensation. Many of us spend more time considering car insurance than we do work benefits. Check on their culture of health including caregiving policies, commute time, flexible schedules and whether your employer has an onsite medical clinic. Don’t wait until a healthcare scare or a tragedy to find out that your employer or boss won’t have your back.

2. Set up a small team of ambassadors

During a crisis, you need allies. When the problem hits, tell the most senior person you trust and be honest about what you need to get through the situation. Ask them to be your ambassador and give you cover if you need to refocus your time. I told two coworkers about my Mom’s brain tumor, and they both ran interference, gave me a flexible schedule, and covered key work meetings. If you need to take a leave of absence, do so with zero regret. If your employer is not willing to be a partner when you are at your lowest point, they are not worthy of your talent.

3. Leverage your connections

When facing a medical emergency, don’t hesitate to use your connections. I conducted a literature search and got all the information we needed not only about the disease, but also the top institutions that treat it. Those institutions are usually marked by experience, research, and physicians and scientists who dedicate their lives to that particular disease. After you have zeroed in on the center or hospital, use whatever personal equity or grit you can to get an appointment or second opinion. You may not ultimately go to that institution. You be guided by your insurance coverage. But taking action will make you feel better about your family’s medical plan.

4. Employ a GSD (get sh*t done) mindset

Developing a mindset focused on getting stuff done was the only way I was going to survive my ascent. Having started my career as a nurse, I was already wired to the concept of medical triage. As I began applying GSD to my work, my focus became laser-sharp: tasks, emails, and meetings not on top of the list fell away. You must trust and delegate more than ever when managing a crisis. Work on what’s most important to the company and to your job; triage meetings and the work product. Determine what needs to be done every week, and be maniacal about it.

During your career climb, you may face a crisis that guts you, whether you like it or not. How you respond depends on those around to support you, and the effectiveness of your own coping mechanisms. During times of great strife (illness, job change, being fired, divorce, death, or deep financial trouble) I have found that one must focus on survival. Never forget that your own health is a form of wealth, and must be considered front and center no matter what. And be ready for the inevitable.

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