September Featured Advocate – Nancy Tongue
By Jonathan Pearson on Tuesday, September 11th, 2012
Cultural anthropologist Nancy Tongue says for those who know her, it’s almost as if they know one of two people. “There are those who know the ‘healthier’ me, and those who know the ‘sick’ me. There are few who know both.”
For nearly thirty years, Nancy has been engaged in a sometimes lonely, always difficult struggle to receive support and compensation for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers whose post-Peace Corps lives are seriously impacted by debilitating illness or injury. Over that time, she has been in contact with several hundred other RPCVs (including recently returned volunteers) facing similar challenges.
There is positive dialogue and action currently underway with the Peace Corps’ soon-to-be Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet on how to address these issues. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the roles and responsiveness of the agency and the US Department of Labor (USDOL) is also in the works. Nancy says unfortunately, there are volunteers who continue to return home seriously sick and injured who still face issues of being unable to get the care they need, obtain general health insurance, or struggle to live on the disability income that the Peace Corps “pay scale” qualifies them for.
These concerns led her to form Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers in March 2012, a growing group of advocates whose stated mission is “to ensure that Peace Corps Volunteers who become sick and injured due to their overseas service obtain the support and benefits to which they are legally entitled.” It also provides a built-in support group for one another. The group is now launching a survey which all RPCVs are encouraged to take, in an effort to better assess the depth and scope of the problems. [NOTE: Please be aware that the comment section of this survey is currently very limited in accepting your comments. Should you wish to share additional comments or particular information about your circumstance, please go to the Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers website and leave a message. Sorry for any inconvenience.]
A Rural Health Educator in Chile in the early 1980’s, Nancy says Peace Corps was one of the greatest experiences of her life. But the aftermath has been just the opposite. Upon returning to the U.S, Nancy began the process of readjustment, settling into New York City and securing a position of Director of the local Ronald McDonald House.
But soon, she started to feel ill.
Subtle and intermittent at first, by 1984 her condition worsened to the point where she became bedridden, needed to leave her job and move back home with her parents. Her parents took her from one medical center to another in an attempt to diagnose and alleviate her symptoms. It was at this point where Nancy says she faced numerous administrative and bureaucratic obstacles. “Once sick, the Peace Corps assumes that volunteers will file for a Federal Workers’ Compensation claim through the USDOL but does not help them do so. Without a clear diagnosis one cannot obtain a claim and without insurance, one cannot get appropriate medical treatment. Additionally, most medical specialists will not accept USDOL claimants because reimbursement can take months.”
Eventually, Nancy was diagnosed with extra-pulmonary tuberculosis, a condition that stemmed from her service which affected her immune and neurological systems. The symptoms of her illness continue to wax and wane all these years later, as they do for many with post-Peace Corps illnesses or injuries. Nancy says that predicament poses other problems. “The (federal support) system is not set up to accommodate people who are well enough to work episodically or sporadically because of their health, or even volunteer part-time, without having their disability coverage or workers’ compensation claim jeopardized.” Nancy did return to her career at various times and each time was inadvertently dropped out of the system entirely. Nancy says Peace Corps did little to help, and from her personal experience through contact with other RPCVs, understanding and working through the system to secure and maintain disability assistance can be overwhelming and time consuming, causing many deserving individuals to give up.
How You Can Help
And what about the broader Peace Corps community. How can they help Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers? “First, they need to believe us and recognize that systems are fallible,” says Nancy. Listening and empathizing are also important. “Earlier gatherings with the Peace Corps community were challenging. Anything I said was viewed as a betrayal of the Peace Corps. But we are the ones who feel betrayed because we have suffered physical, mental and financial anguish with little support.”
Along with the new survey and strategies to address policy changes, Nancy and her colleagues are also considering other steps and activities to raise awareness and build the level of acceptance and support for those volunteers facing serious injury or debilitating illness. Follow this link to stay connected.
** All RPCVs are encouraged to take the brief survey. Please forward the survey to other RPCVs you know. And be on the lookout for future updates. (NOTE: The comments section of the survey currently does not allow for lengthy responses. If you want to elaborate on your situation, go to the website of Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers and leave your comment).