More Brains, Less Muscle

When disability made it hard to work, these four found new careers doing what they love

by Jan Blaustone on September 1, 2007 - 10:17am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 5

Physical health can be out of our control, but attitude is of our own choosing. Meet four people who took an “I’m going to do this” attitude when confronted by health limitations that ended their livelihoods. By using the strength and power of positive thinking, these four successfully transitioned into new satisfying careers.

Embrace yourself

Helena Madsen’s diagnosis of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy at age 17 was by chance. Assuming her fatigue was due to a viral infection, her doctor ordered a blood panel only to discover elevated liver enzymes, leading to her LGMD diagnosis. Having few symptoms of her neuromuscular disease, she spent much of her years to follow “in denial” and simply carried on with her life.

Helena Madsen
Helena Madsen

After college, and in her thirteen years traveling the country for a busy insurance company, her 20s began to feel more like her 40s.

“Here I was,” says Madsen, of Gilberts, Ill., “late-20s, single with my own apartment, very active in my church and enduring lots and lots of traveling for my job, and I felt tired, really tired.” It was then the light came on. Her muscular dystrophy had arrived. “It was just too fast a pace for me and I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

At that moment, Madsen became a strategic planner of her life. She eliminated the traveling aspect at work by entering their corporate training program, and becoming more involved in her church’s care ministries. Her church leadership role concentrated on volunteering as a “lay counselor.”

“Lay counseling is befriending someone in need where you walk with them through various aspects of their life,” she explains. “It’s not a substitute for professional counseling but rather a complement to it, and I love it. I discovered a different life purpose and began pursuing it as a possible career with the attitude of ‘I’m going to do this!’”

Madsen enrolled in a counseling program for her master’s degree at Northeastern Illinois University, going to school at night while working full time during the day for three-and-a-half years.

“When you have a goal and something to work for, it becomes very motivating,” says Madsen. “It has proved to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Madsen now counsels patients with chronic illnesses in her own private practice and works part time counseling students at Chicago’s community colleges.

“I fought my diagnosis for years,” she says. “I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to fit into a perfect-looking world and I told no one of my diagnosis. I learned there is such shame attached to disability, but you can’t embrace yourself if you are hiding the truth, and you must embrace yourself to progress.

“If I was never diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, if I hadn’t experienced so many ‘mini-losses’ along the way with this progressive disease, my career that I love may never have happened.”

Madsen’s advice to others with a progressive disease: “Don’t wait too long to go after it. Return to school while you still have the energy to do it, even if it means taking online courses. Your gifts need to be utilized. Find that ‘sweet spot’ in doing what you love, and have the faith and courage to say, ‘I’m going to do this!’”

Be prepared

Christopher Ney of Bridgeton, N.J., was working as a construction laborer when he had “an epiphany” one day on the job.

Chris Ney
Chris Ney

“I was 31 at the time,” says Ney, “and beginning to feel the physical challenges of the job with my diagnosis of Becker muscular dystrophy. Wondering how much longer I would be able to work like this, I looked up and saw our local college. I thought to myself that someday I was going to attend there.”

Five years later, Ney enrolled at Cumberland County College while working three jobs. His local vocational rehabilitation office was a “huge resource,” offering career assessment and any assistive technology support he required.

Another source of encouragement was his mother, who said Ney was “always good with children so why not become a teacher?” Ney’s wife was not surprised when he walked in the door from work one day and told her he had just enrolled in college. “My wife and friends tell me I have one speed and that’s full speed,” says Ney.

Ney earned his two-year associate’s degree with a 3.89 GPA and this fall will be attending nearby Rowan University to complete the two-and-a-half remaining years for his teaching degree. Meanwhile, he substitute teaches about five days a month.

“This [teaching] is what I should be doing,” says Ney. “This is my happy place.” Ney also plans to attend college for one additional semester and earn his certification in special needs education.

“I won’t let my disability stop me from living,” says Ney. “I want to live! Nobody can take your desire to move forward away from you. I know that teaching takes a lot of energy. When and if it becomes too hard for me, I plan to have something else to fall back on. For my next degree, I’m thinking of getting my master’s in counseling. I’m ambulatory now, but I really don’t know what the future will hold for me, so I want to be prepared.”

Willing to change

Like Ney, Bonnie Besseck of Sykesville, Md., contacted her local vocational rehabilitation office for a career analysis while in her 30s and still ambulatory.

Bonnie Besseck
Bonnie Besseck

“I was a dental assistant for an oral surgeon who specialized in root canals,” Besseck explains. “After five years, my CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease) began to affect my hands. While I loved my job, I came to realize that it’s not good when you’re in the middle of a patient’s root canal and your hands cramp up. It was frustrating, but I just realized I had to make a change.”

The vocational rehabilitation career center steered Besseck in the direction of nutritional education and, after attending school part time over the last four years, she is in her last semester at Baltimore City Community College to become a certified dietetic technician.

“I love the clinical aspect of nutrition and also teaching better nutrition to others,” Besseck says. “My ultimate goal is another two years of college to earn my degree as a registered dietitian.”

Now 44, Besseck says she continues to be willing to change. “Life happens,” she says. “You have to learn to pace yourself because if you overdo it one day, you pay for it the next. However, there are many worse things than CMT and a career change. The key is to pace yourself and do something you enjoy.”

Stay focused

Also 44, ambulatory and affected by CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease), is Michael Groesbeck of Mason City, Iowa. After realizing his work in retail sales and restaurants involved too much standing, he sought out new opportunities that “used more brain and less muscle.”

His true love of the last 15 years has been photography. Encouraged by his photography awards and a local career center, Entrepreneurs with Disabilities, Groesbeck earned his associate’s degree in business and communications before enrolling full time at Grandview College in Des Moines, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in communications in three years.

Groesbeck may have changed careers but he certainly hasn’t slowed down. While at Grandview, he worked part time managing the college’s audio-visual department and photo gallery. As a professional photographer and graphic designer, Groesbeck continues to teach digital technology on occasion at North Iowa Area Community College and lectures for the Iowa Arts Council.

It was no surprise that one of his photographs represented Iowa at its 1996 Sesquicentennial Celebration, but what was a surprise were the 186 posters Groesbeck was asked to autograph. “That was much harder than shooting the photo,” says Groesbeck. He sells his photographs and graphic services through his Website.

Groesbeck’s next goal is certification in various Microsoft programs so he can teach software applications on the side.

“Technology is forever changing and I don’t want to fall behind the game,” he says. “Dreams are always obtainable if you just stay focused and don’t give up.”

Jan Blaustone received a diagnosis of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy while a fire fighter. She later worked in advertising and authored two books while still ambulatory. Currently a power wheelchair user, she has substitute taught for many years and continues to do freelance writing from her home.

No votes yet
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email See comment policy