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Two women reveal how they turned serious illnesses into good opportunities

Friday 28 September 2012


From Scottish newspaper the Daily Record:


Isobel Alford
Isobel used illness to forge new career

Two women reveal how they turned serious illnesses into good opportunities

11 Sep 2012 06:30

WHEN the going got tough, two women refused to give up the fight when they were struck with life-threatening illnesses.

BEING diagnosed with a long-term illness or condition can be devastating, with a knock-on effect on family relationships, social life and career prospects.

Learning to manage the condition - whether it is diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome or perhaps asthma - can be difficult and involve much trial and error.

However, it is possible to have a fulfilling life after such a diagnosis, although it can take a lot of determination to overcome the setbacks.

We speak to two women who were forced to give up good jobs because of their conditions, but who refuse to be beaten and have gone on to forge new careers in a completely different sphere.


DEVELOPMENT worker Isobel Alford has used the experience of battling a long-term condition to forge a new career.

Isobel, 49, has struggled with ME/CFS or chronic fatigue syndrome for 12 years and, as a result of the illness, swapped a job in TV production for one working with a Scottish charity.

“I couldn’t say I’m happy to have lived with the condition but as a result of it I feel I am making better choices about how I live my life,” said Isobel, who lives near Penicuik in Midlothian.

“I really enjoy my new job and it is great working for a worthwhile organisation like Pink Ladies 1st.”

Twelve years ago Isobel’s life was very different. Married with a young son, she had an extremely busy job working for an independent TV production company.

“I was travelling about the country going on film shoots, managing budgets and enjoying the experience – but it was pretty full-on,” recalled Isobel.

Her busy life took its toll and she contracted flu-like symptoms that never really went away. Isobel struggled on for 18 months, and was eventually diagnosed with ME. Severe symptoms meant she was unable to go back to work.

“I refused to stay in bed but I was sofa-bound most of the time as I was completely exhausted,” she said.

Her limbs ached, giving her a lot of pain, and she could not look at the TV or computer and was sometimes unable to have the curtains open as the light hurt her eyes.

“It’s very debilitating and, to make matters worse, it was not a recognised illness at the time, although it is now,” she said. “It is not life-threatening but it is life-limiting.”

Life continued like this for several years until Isobel heard about the Thistle Foundation in Edinburgh, who support people with disability and run courses for people with long-term conditions.

Isobel Alford with Pink Ladies
Isobel with Pink Ladies

“I went on a 10-week course and it made a big difference,” said Isobel. “I learned how to pace myself, how to relax, how to manage sleep, how to manage my time better and the impact of stress on the body.

“I started to adopt some of the suggestions and it worked.”

She was so impressed, she trained with the foundation for a peer-supporter role and worked with them as a volunteer.

“That was really important for me. It opened up a whole new area of work and interest.”

Her biggest step forward, however, was when she attended an event run by the Long Term Conditions Alliance Scotland and met Sheila Peaston and Maria Martin from Pink Ladies 1st, a Midlothian-based charity who support women with mental health problems. They were looking for a development worker and Isobel got the job, starting in January this year.

“I love it,” said Isobel. “Pink Ladies help women make positive changes in their lives and it’s really encouraging to be part of that.”

• Pink Ladies 1st, 07774 505 773,
• Thistle Foundation, 0131 661 3366,



IF someone had told Katie Russell 18 months ago that she would win two awards for weaving, she would have laughed at them.

Although she enjoyed her career as an art teacher, her job left her little time to express her own creativity, so any weaving was confined to her spare time.

Katie Russell
Epilepsy forced Katie to give up teaching

“I always had a passion for creative work but I wasn’t all that confident about my weaving,” explained the 39-year-old, from Castle Douglas.

It was a blow when her epilepsy forced her to give up teaching, but Katie decided she would use the opportunity to concentrate on her craft.

And despite starting her new career just 12 months ago, she has already won awards from Craftmakers South West Scotland and the Theo Moorman Trust for Weavers.

“It’s amazing how things have changed,” said Katie, who has epilepsy. “I enjoyed teaching but now I can focus on enjoying and developing my weaving skills.

“Weaving has opened up new opportunities for me and I’m getting to meet people I would not have met had I stayed in teaching.”

Katie has had epilepsy for 25 years but, despite some bleak times at school when she was diagnosed, she taught for 12 years after gaining an art degree and a postgraduate teaching qualification.

Her determination to do something worthwhile, and support from the charity Epilepsy Scotland helped her, as did medication to control seizures.

However, she found teaching became more stressful and her seizures – which range from jerking in the limbs to full-blown episodes – got worse until they started to affect her ability to teach.

“I was having to take too many days off so I decided to leave teaching and concentrate on weaving,” Katie said.

And not only is she enjoying her new career, but the lack of stress means it has been months since she has suffered a tonic-clonic seizure – when the person loses consciousness, falls over and starts convulsing.

“I love weaving, it’s keeping me healthy and I aim to develop it further,” she said.

• Contact Epilepsy Scotland on 0800 200 2200, or go to



PEOPLE who live with a long-term condition are less likely to be employed and are particularly vulnerable at the moment due to the economic downturn.

A third of employers in Scotland say they deliberately exclude people with a history of long-term sickness or incapacity.

However, the My Skills, My Strengths, My Right to Work employability project, from Long Term Conditions Alliance Scotland (LTCAS), is beginning to work with employers from all sectors to improve understanding of how people with long-term conditions can be supported to find and remain in meaningful employment.

Funding of £285,000 has been given by the Scottish Government Equality Fund to LTCAS to help develop good industry practice in this area.

LTCAS bring together over 220 organisations who represent the two million people living with long-term conditions in Scotland and their carers.


The above originally appeared here.



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