In her job, Desiree Rufer hikes the Sierra Mountains year-round, in all kinds of weather, clearing trees and limbs and other obstructions from high-voltage powerlines. Life as a consulting utility forester is physically tough, requiring Desiree to haul 10 pounds of gear through some of the roughest terrain in North America. And she loves every bit of it.
Her commitment to her job is unquestionable. Much like the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night could keep her from hiking her assigned territory to guard against forest fires.
But on Sept. 22, 2017, Desiree’s strong will was tested, not by Mother Nature, but by severe bilateral pneumonia.
“I got up for work, put my boots on, and then had to climb back in bed,” she said. “I was so out of it. I felt like I was dying.”
Desiree tried to get out of bed a few hours later, but collapsed to the floor, her body in septic shock. She spent several days in a hospital intensive care unit, where she credits doctors for saving her life.
“I’m allergic to most common antibiotics, so to prevent my organs from shutting down I was prescribed a broad-spectrum fluoroquinolone antibiotic,” she said. “What I didn’t know at the time is that I was also allergic to it.”
Already recovered from pneumonia, fluoroquinolones toxicity hit about three weeks after Desiree started taking the drug. It took another two weeks to figure out what was happening to her. By the time it was diagnosed, Desiree said she was basically a quadriplegic.
“Doctors couldn’t tell me if I was ever going to walk again. I was so messed up, not only physically but mentally too,” she said. “I went from super fit and hiking 5 to 10 miles a day, every day of the year, to bed-ridden and my adult children waiting on me for everything.”
Desiree recalled being terrified because she had so much on her plate related to her recovery, but her first call from Rebecca Cunniff, the Unum disability benefits specialist assigned to her claim, started to alleviate those fears.
“I couldn’t keep my facts straight, and I was in constant fear that I’d miss a deadline and wouldn’t get a benefit check that I relied on, but Rebecca was so gentle and kind and empathetic and patient.”
Fighting back tears, Desiree explained how her short- and long-term disability benefits made a world of difference.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever recover, so I was preparing my girls for the possibility that I’d have to move in with one of them,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how grateful I was to have that insurance. It was a godsend to me and my family, because I didn’t want to be a burden on their young shoulders. It changed the course of my life. I had the freedom to be able to heal and to concentrate what little reserves of energy I had on getting better.”
Seven months after Desiree got sick, she went back to the job she loves, thanks in part to some help from Rebecca.
“I couldn’t go back to my normal routine, so Rebecca told me about Unum’s online return-to-work computer keyboard training that mimics day-to-day work activities. I practiced online assignments that helped strengthen my fingers and wrists. When I was ready, I went back to a desk job, but now I’m back in the field.”
Aside from the impact her Unum benefits had on getting her through a very difficult time, it’s Rebecca’s help that resonates the most with Desiree.
“She handled my case with the utmost professionalism, while really caring for me and truly understanding my situation. Rebecca was with me every step of the way.”