A Devastating Diagnosis Ended My Career, But Here's How I Got A New One

by Minerva Siegel

I'm an autistic person with a learning disability, and have faced a lot of limitations that made choosing a career difficult for me. Finding a niche is so important when you’re neurodivergent, because the mainstream academic world and workforce aren’t made with any kind of neurodivergence in mind. Ultimately, I found that precious niche for myself in dog grooming, but a devastating diagnosis ended my career and I was left to figure out how to procure a new one.

I’ve always loved animals, and I wanted to be able to transform neglected, matted dogs into comfortable, happy pups. I quickly gained a reputation for being able to handle dogs that others couldn’t, and and amassed a loyal following of clients. A lot of them had been turned away from other grooming salons for aggressive behavior, and I specialized in working with giant breed dogs. The work was messy, loud, and difficult, but I absolutely loved it.

Some days were really overwhelming to my senses as an autistic person. After a day of bright lights, loud dryers, and barking, I’d sometimes go home feeling terribly overstimulated and stressed, but a lifetime of therapy equipped me with a lot of coping mechanisms to help with sensory overstimulation that kept the meltdowns to a minimum. Overall, I absolutely loved grooming, and was so happy to be carving out a modest living for myself and my rescue dogs. In a world where autistic people largely aren’t seen as capable of holding jobs or making a living independently (which is definitely not true), I felt like I was cheating the system. I was proud of myself. I was beating the odds.

The Fateful Day

There are certain events in our lives during which it feels like time slows down. During these times, we can remember little details with remarkable clarity. People often talk about remembering exactly where they were and what they were doing during major historical events. It’s in that sort of way that I remember the day I first felt a horrible crack in my dominant wrist. I was holding bright green Andis clippers in my right hand, and I was in the middle of working on a very tedious, technical groom on a standard poodle. I lifted the clippers to make another swipe, and I suddenly felt a sharp sort of grinding in my wrist as my hand involuntarily shifted to the side. I dropped my clippers and doubled over in pain. Luckily, that poodle was my last dog of the day, and I’m somewhat ambidextrous. There was no one else who could finish the groom, so I bore down and ended up finishing the groom completely with my left hand while in absolute agony.

I cried in the car on my way home because of the pain, but I’d assumed it was just a bad sprain, probably from overuse. I’ve never had very strong wrists, and they’d been prone to pain my whole life. I’d had surgeries on both wrists, and, over the years, I’d gotten used to having painful, weak wrists and hands. I'd accepted it, and it honestly wasn’t a very big deal to me until that fateful day.

The worst part of it all was not knowing what was happening to me.

After that crunch in my wrist, my whole world started to fall apart. My hand was instantly useless. I couldn’t grip anything, I couldn’t bend my wrist fingers, write, type, or groom with that hand anymore. I didn't have insurance, so all I could do was hope it would magically get better, but it never did.

My left hand wasn’t very strong to begin with, and it couldn’t handle the pressure of having to make up for the loss of use of my right hand. In hardly any time at all, I was left with two useless hands. They shriveled up and contorted into ugly claws. Before long, my then-fiancé (now husband) had to prepare meals for me, help me eat, and even help me get dressed. I could do almost nothing independently, and it felt like my whole world had come crashing down around me. The scariest part was just not knowing what was happening to me, because I didn’t have insurance and couldn't afford a visit to a specialist.

We canceled the big wedding I'd been planning and we were married in an intimate courthouse ceremony so that I could get on my husband’s insurance plan more quickly. I was depressed, angry, and scared.

Finally, A Diagnosis

Image of Minerva's post-fusion x-ray

The orthopedic surgeon I’d gone to see had a sorry, pitying look on his face as he delivered the news upon reading my test results. I remember everything he said to me. He said, “You’re in Stage 3B of a disease called avascular osteonecrosis. It’s very rare to have bone necrosis in the wrist. I've never seen it, personally. You also have severe arthritis as a result of all this. I’m sending you to someone who specializes in hand micro-surgery.”

Avascular osteonecrosis is characterized by bones losing blood flow, dying, and crumbling apart. The bone fragments had been floating around in my hand, which caused arthritis. The specialized hand surgeon squeezed me in with an appointment that week, and I had a total wrist fusion soon after that. During a six-hour operation, he broke my arm bones and the remaining bones in my hand and fused them together with bone grafts, a titanium plate and eight titanium screws. I’ll never bend my wrist again. My dog grooming days are over forever.

Getting Over My Pity Party and Making The Most of Silver Linings

I threw myself a little pity party for about a week after the diagnosis. I think I needed that time to wrap my head around it all. I felt useless and defeated. I'd thought I’d beaten the odds by becoming a dog groomer as an autistic person, and was honestly devastated to have lost the career I was so proud of cultivating. However, I knew I didn't want to let a grim diagnosis sour my life. There are always silver linings to be found, if you have the courage to look for them and run with them.

The wrist fusion operation had a year-long heal time, so I had a lot of time on my hands without a job to keep me busy. In that time, I started an Instagram, which quickly gained a big following. Photographers reached out, asking me to model for them. My fusion made my body feel foreign to me, and my newly-immobile wrist affected my physical self-confidence, so I decided I needed to be proactive about dealing with my confidence issues. My way of doing this was by agreeing to model for local photographers. Soon, clothing brands started sending me clothing to model, and things just kind of took off from there. Now, I have around 60,000 Instagram followers, and my modeling work has been published in magazines and with major online publications.

I also used my free time to take writing more seriously. I started going to local writers' groups to improve my writing skills, and, now, I work as a freelance writer and editor. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’ve been lucky enough to find a second professional niche that works with my needs and limitations as a physically disabled, autistic person with a learning disability, and I love my life. I’m happy.

My disabilities have taught me so much about self-confidence and self-worth.

Being diagnosed with my bone disease and subsequently losing my career was a big blow to my confidence, and from that experience, I learned so much about myself. I now value myself in a whole new way. I no longer correlate so much of my self-worth with my professional performance, because careers can be lost in the blink of an eye (or the flick of a wrist, as I discovered). Rather, my pride now comes from how much courage I show in the face of life’s challenges, and from my ability to transform negative situations into positive ones. I'm actually kind of a lion-hearted lady. Who knew?

I discovered that our whole lives can completely change trajectory in an instant. It takes hard work, ingenuity and guts to take advantage of silver linings, and I’m proud of myself for not letting my bone disease ruin me. I’m in bloom now, and my disabilities were the catalysts that gave me the time and motivation to really work on myself and become the thriving, happy person I am today. I'm grateful for them. They're part of my story, my identity, and my ultimate success. So, the next time life throws you lemons, don't let them sour you. Instead, pull a Beyoncé and make lemonade.