In the fall of 2016, Holly Bertone, a federal civil servant in Washington, encountered a stressful situation at work, not an uncommon challenge in the area. But the crunch arose at her agency not from extraordinary assignments with tight deadlines, but from her manager’s unwillingness, or inability, to accommodate Bertone’s health problems.
Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39 in 2010, she endured a year’s radiation and chemo treatments. Then, in 2012, she came down with Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid. Her symptoms included chronic fatigue, joint pain and cognitive problems. She felt better early in the day, and “hit the wall” in the afternoon. “Workplace stress added to my already inflamed system,” Bertone said in a recent interview. “And the stress arose from agency’s insensitive reaction to my condition.”
In February 2017, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint and later appealed for relief through Family and Medical Leave Act. Ultimately, none of that worked.
“I was bullied as a child,” Bertone later wrote, “and I felt like I was back in the playground at my elementary school. Only this time, the bully was my boss. Someone who I was supposed to respect. I felt like I had no voice. I felt trapped with no way out.”
Bertone quit last April, and has since dedicated her life to helping others lead healthy lives, cope with debilitating illness, and, most importantly, aid those with autoimmune diseases find stability and peace in the workplace.
BERTONE GREW UP in Waynesboro, a township in south central Pennsylvania. She graduated from nearby Elizabethtown College with a BA in psychology, and then earned a master’s degree in IT from Johns Hopkins University. Bertone began work at her agency as an onsite contractor in 2004 and became a federal employee in 2009.
Her breast cancer forced an exhaustive regimen of radiation treatment and chemotherapy that lasted for seven months. Her coworkers and managers reacted with heartfelt compassion and support. “When people hear cancer,” she said, “they immediately go into empathy mode, a visceral reaction.” Her fellow workers and managers went out of their way to help Bertone, who lost her hair during chemo. “They gave me special parking space, allowed me to take naps and allowed flexible hours. They did everything possible allow me to keep working and go through treatment.”
In March 2011, while still in treatment, she married Carter Bertone, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer who had retired two months earlier; he is now a federal employee. Her future seemed promising, both personally and professionally, but all that changed when Hashimoto’s invaded part of her autoimmune system in 2012.
Along with the fatigue and sluggishness, the chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis produces memory loss and a litany of aches and pains. “Since many autoimmune diseases are invisible to people around a victim, they think you’re tired or worse, lazy,” Bertone said. “Everyone told me to drink some coffee, or get more sleep at night.” Moreover, her division underwent a management change in the fall of 2016, and her new supervisor was less interested, according to Bertone, in accommodating her illness.
Bertone filed her unsuccessful EEO and FMLA claims and petitions in February 2017, but with no significant satisfaction. After discussions with her husband, Bertone abandoned further legal action and resigned in April 2017.
ALTHOUGH A STEPMOTHER to a teenage son, Bertone set about becoming what she describes as a “health entrepreneur” to help others facing the challenges she has encountered. She is now a certified natural health professional and a certified essential oils coach. Additionally, she is enrolled in a naturopathic doctorate program at Trinity School of Natural Health.
She is president and CEO of Pink Fortitude, LLC, and runs much of her business through her website, https://pinkfortitude.com/. There she dispenses advice on healthy lifestyles, home and garden activities and promotes copies of her seven self-published books. The latest is titled, “Thriving in the Workplace with Autoimmune Disease: Know Your Rights, Resolve Conflict, Reduce Stress.” Shortly after it became available online in early September, the book became the #1 new release in the Law–Specialties–Disabilities category on Amazon.
Bertone is an active public speaker and was a headliner at last year’s Healing Hashimoto’s Summit; she is also a member of the National Cancer Survivor’s Day Speakers Bureau. She serves as an ambassador for the Tigerlily Foundation, which is dedicated to helping women diagnosed with breast cancer. That organization presented an Inspire Award to Bertone in 2015.
“Throughout her illnesses and treatments,” Carter Bertone said of his wife, “I never heard her complain or wallow in self-pity. It is my hope that through her outreach she can empower other individuals with chronic illnesses to develop these same characteristics of grit and fortitude.”
Bertone, her husband and stepson live in Waynewood. She loves gardening and is an inveterate flea market and garage sale shopper.