Danielle Hetu, a vocational counselor with PVA’s Veterans Career Program, recently had an anniversary. It didn’t necessarily warrant candlelight and romance, but it surely showed her that tenacity pays. 20 years ago, Danielle was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). In that time, she has learned some important lessons that she is able to share with the PVA members she serves in the New England chapter and beyond.
Born in Westerly, Rhode Island, one of Danielle’s favorite field trips was going with her dad to visit her Uncle Charlie at his marina, where they would get worms and tackle and go fishing.
“Uncle Charlie had polio when he was a child and lived in an iron lung,” Danielle recalls. “And in my child’s brain, I didn’t think he had legs,” she remembers – although he did. They just didn’t work properly. She adored Uncle Charlie. He had bought his marina after being on social security disability his entire life after the polio.
“So I grew up with somebody that worked, even though he didn’t walk.” Uncle Charlie also taught youth sailing, and started the Sea Scouts in their area which is still going strong today.
“I think it’s just part of my upbringing – the expectation that if something bad happens, you can still contribute to the world and to life.”
Danielle’s journey with MS began just after she had her daughter in January, 2001. She was deeply and constantly fatigued; she just didn’t feel right. Everyone, including her doctors, attributed it to her being a new mother. She went to see her neurologist, who gave her anti-anxiety-type medication. It didn’t help and the symptoms went on for months before she had what she thought was a sinus infection. She went to her ear, nose and throat doctor and after some probing about her symptoms and some tests, she was finally diagnosed with MS.
Over the years, Danielle and her family have kept a keen eye on her triggers, such as fatigue, heat and stress, all which could worsen her symptoms. She’s learned to take care of herself and even to eat differently. She changed medications. But she’s never let the disease thwart her plans.
She had her second daughter in 2003 and was working as a vocational counselor for people with severe and chronic mental illness when her neurologist suggested she not work anymore.
“I remember leaving that appointment being so upset because I was thinking, ‘Here I am trying to get people who are on social security disability, or SSI, back to meaningful activity and work. And he’s trying to make me disabled before I am’.”
Her daughter was three months old when Danielle returned to earn her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. She also changed neurologists.
Before joining PVA last October, Danielle worked as a vocational consultant/vocational expert at Occupational Resource Network in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She provided the Social Security Administration weekly vocational expert testimony for disability hearings. She also provided vocational rehabilitation to injured workers and conducted employability evaluations, vocational assessments and labor market surveys.
Her work is important to her.
” I think work is needed by people to know where their place is in the world and to feel like they’re contributing to it. And that can be paid work, volunteer work, something that brings us something outside of ourselves and takes us out of our own heads. So, I find it to be therapeutic. And I also think it’s just as important to me as my injections.”
She now works as part of the employment network with PVA, helping people go back to work after being on disability. She’ll soon train to become a certified benefits planner, helping veterans navigate the complex process of returning to work and determining the impact it will have on benefits.
“I believe that being able to help people find something that’s going to get them to the best version of themselves that they want to be is what I enjoy doing. Working with veterans, specifically, as has always been something I’ve wanted to do. And at my age, and at this level of my career, I’m finally able to do that.”