Down but Not Out

Duke's disability insurance protects employees when they are sick or injured

Susan Johnson with her dog, Sherlock.
Susan Johnson, a compensation analyst for Rewards and Recognition in Duke Human Resources, with her dog, Sherlock.

Susan Johnson was writing an email about three years ago when the words for her message escaped her. In the following weeks, she forgot words in the middle of conversations and struggled with comprehending what she read.

The situation worsened for Johnson, a compensation analyst for Rewards and Recognition in Duke Human Resources. She struggled to walk and speak coherently and took an indefinite leave to determine what
was wrong. 

“It led to a lot of anxiety,” Johnson said. “My daughter would have me pick out a recipe and try to complete it. I couldn’t figure out what to do. The words just didn’t make sense.”

 After multiple doctor’s visits and an MRI, Johnson was diagnosed with cystic meningioma, a noncancerous brain tumor. The tumor, which had a cyst attached, forms around the brain and spinal cord. In June 2015, she underwent surgery to remove it. 

 During her recovery, Johnson had income protection with Duke’s disability program. The program, offered by Duke, provides up to 60 percent of an employee’s base salary if an employee is unable to work due to illness or injury. 

“Duke’s disability benefit helped me focus on my health,” said Johnson, who has worked at Duke 11 years. “It came through when I didn’t know what the next day was going to bring.”

 Employees like Johnson with at least three years of full-time continuous service are eligible to participate in the Duke provided benefit plan. Employees with under three years of continuous service can enroll in voluntary disability plans; the cost for that coverage is based on age and annual base salary. Several exceptions and specific eligibility criteria apply for the plans; all details are in plan descriptions at  

Sonya Stewart, senior analyst for Duke Benefits, said voluntary disability insurance is an important benefit for new hires to consider for income protection before becoming eligible for the Duke paid coverage.

“If you become disabled, how would you pay for groceries, your house payment or other necessities?” she asked. “We have this in place to help cover those expenses.”

While Johnson was out of work for five months in 2015, she used a combination of sick and vacation time before the disability benefit took effect.

During recovery, Johnson went on daily walks with her Goldendoodle, Sherlock, to build up her strength. After she returned to work, she participated in the “Gallop and Gorge 8K” in Carrboro with her grandson, Drew. 

Johnson kept a steady walking pace for the first two miles. That’s when Drew, who had finished the race, circled back to her. He told Johnson to lift her head up, move her arms, focus on the people in front of her and start running. 

She crossed the finish line only five months after surgery.