A personal story: Krystal Johnston, 29, Vancouver

February 4, 2014

In the fall of 2010, I moved from Saskatoon to Vancouver, where I worked as an ironworker at a stadium construction site. By January 2011, I started feeling pain, tingling and loss of sensation in my hands and arms. I got hurt pretty quickly, I think from using the big vibration tools that weighed about as much as I weighed. At first I thought I was just tired from working too many hours, but the symptoms just got worse and worse. It was like having pins and needles all up and down the arms. If I reached into my pocket and felt a lighter or a pen, I couldn’t tell which was which. I had no feeling in my hands. Here I was, an ironworker who worked in the air, and I couldn’t hang on to my tools. Not a good thing, right? 

In April 2011, I made a workers’ compensation claim with WorkSafeBC but did not qualify for benefits because it couldn’t establish that the injury was related to work. Then I got put on light duty, watching cranes all day. I toughed it out for as long as I could, then I took a layoff in December 2011 and went on Employment Insurance (EI). In March 2012, I had surgery done on the first hand. That was when I received Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits.

I went back to work in May, two months after the surgery, which was maybe too soon. I had to use an impact gun at this site. It wasn’t as big as the tools I was using at the stadium, but big enough to bother me. I took a second layoff in September and worked on my journeyman’s training while waiting for surgery on the other hand in late November 2012. I just did my last exam this past December. I figure if I get the ticket, it might open doors for something at a higher position in the construction world.

But I don’t know what to do next. My conditions haven’t improved since the surgeries, and my doctor has told me I probably can’t do ironwork anymore. Construction was where I was comfortable, and now I’m being forced out of it. And I’m all alone trying to figure it out. I’m really good at building things, but not so good doing research on how to change my entire life around because my nerves are damaged.

I’ve been off work for a year and a half now, and Vancouver isn’t a cheap place to live. I’ve used up EI and EI Sickness Benefits. I’m currently getting long-term disability benefits (LTD) through my union, and I’m very thankful for that. But that runs out after two years. And it’s not enough for me to pay my next month’s rent. I’ve been denied social assistance (because of my LTD), so I don’t know if I’ll have a home next month.

I’m sure I’ll get through this but I’m completely alone. Some days I have so much drive and I’m feeling great. But some days I’m like, “Holy crap. I don’t know what to do now.” It’s very scary.