A Rural Health Educator, Nancy Tongue (Chile 1980-82) says the 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 the 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
“First, you 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.”
Nancy and her colleagues are also considering other steps and activities to raise awareness. Stay connected. Check out: www.HealthJusticeforPeaceCorpsVolunteers.org