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From Issue #10 February 14, 2013

Ground Control

As he fell to snag the softball as it bounced, something nearly tore his life apart.

By Robert Palmer Twitter icon 

No one cared when I took off part of a day to play on the softball team fielded by my wife’s company. I’m a freelancer. I’m the only one who gives a hoot about my schedule. For five years, this line of work had been good to me. And it offered perks like daytime softball games.

But it was a few weeks after one of those softball games when I woke up late with a terrible headache and a crick in my neck.1 Michelle texted me from work, and when I couldn’t respond promptly she raced home. When she arrived, my eyes were bouncing around in my head, unable to track or focus on objects in my field of view. I was nauseated and vomiting, but she somehow carried me to the car and rushed me to the emergency room.

I had a small nick in the artery that supplies blood to my brain stem. The firmware, so to speak, that tells me how to see, walk, swallow, and breathe was being erased with frightening efficiency by a lack of blood flow. Vertebral artery dissections account for a quarter of strokes in the young and middle-aged.

In my case, a tumble chasing a ground-rule double stretched a badly designed part of my neck, and the artery tore in my sleep early that morning. If you survive the first few hours, the odds of recovery are actually pretty good. Michelle’s quick action and superhero strength, along with high doses of blood thinners, meant that I was going to survive.

The first few nights in the hospital I didn’t sleep much. I still couldn’t read, which bothered me most. With help, I was able to call or email my clients and tell them what happened. I worried that it would be the last contact I had with them as they moved on to find another Web developer. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to work again.

Good morning, joe

It was when I realized I needed a coffeemaker that I knew I had become serious about freelancing.

For 10 years in my full-time job, I was always the first one at the office, and I had always used the office coffee pot. I didn’t have one at home, so I bought the same model of Mr. Coffee we had in the office. It reassured me that one thing about my life would stay the same.

Whatever this new economy is, it seems like freelancing is starting to define what it is to work in America, reaching even the highest tiers of business. Sara Horowitz, the founder and former executive director of the advocacy group Freelancers Union, now sits on the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In the creative industry especially, more large companies contract with individual freelancers rather than traditional agencies.

Freelancing can liberate motivated talent from the soul-crushing detention of a cubicle deep in a low-rise, industrially zoned business park. Who cares about a trip to the supermarket at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday? Who cares if lunch on Friday includes a beer? Who cares if I take off a little early to play on my wife’s company softball team?

One of the more tautological mottoes I have for my business is, “We like working with people we like working with.” Enjoying and nurturing personal relationships with our clients to help them grow is most of what I do in a day. Design and code are just other elements in service of that goal, like writing estimates or copying files to Dropbox. I’m proud to say that companies that treat employees, temps, and freelancers as just resources don’t typically become my customers.

For those who are young and single when they start freelancing, as I was, much of the risk of starting a business seems miles away. Insurance, lawyers, and hiring are swiftly dismissed as solvable problems when (and not if) success rolls up to the door.

And then a softball strikes the ground and I chase it to keep runners from heading home.

Life is a pre-existing condition

While those outside the United States might not feel the same financial panic surrounding the costs of spending a night — or 15 — in the hospital, most working Americans rely on private insurance to pay their medical bills. People who work full time often have medical insurance provided by their employers. Freelancers do have insurance options, though they’re frequently expensive and only available or affordable to the healthy.2

My wife, in many ways, has it worse than I do. She had one of her dad’s kidneys transplanted into her nine years ago, and three years ago beat breast cancer. She would love to start her own company, but it’s impossible until 2014: Insurance companies, until an Affordable Care Act provision kicks in next year, can deny her coverage based on her pre-existing conditions. She has to have a job at a large company, because only they can afford to insure her, and insurers can’t exclude her from the company’s group-insurance pool.

Michelle has disability insurance, something she encouraged me to get before I got sick, but naturally I put it off. It was offered to her at a previous job, before her transplant, and she kept it after she moved on. While helpful for an individual, the payments offered by the policy probably wouldn’t cover our family budget (serving two adults and two cats). Public disability insurance options (like SDI, available in California) and supplemental insurance (like Aflac) are options too, but the juice sometimes isn’t worth the squeeze. Freelancers, of course, lack access to the HR professionals that employees of larger companies can talk with to learn about their options.3

Insurance — medical, disability, supplemental, or otherwise — is only part of the solution in emergencies like this. True, money to pay bills offers comfort during crises.4 More importantly, though, I found that I had laid the groundwork for a successful recovery just because I had genuine, friendly, human relationships with my clients. To their credit, and to my relief, every one of my clients was compassionate, understanding, and patient. They valued more than my work — they valued me.

Back to work, you

In the hospital, I had a client agency send me flowers. A client. Flowers. Compared to the attitude that freelancers are little more than temporary, disposable chair-warmers, this was a pleasant surprise indeed. Later, when I could type a thank-you note, the creative director replied, “You’re part of our family, Robert. We watch out for our own.”

My eyesight gradually returned, and reading got easier with the help of a piratical eye patch. Even with the wheelchair the hospital ordered for me, I had to be constantly supervised to avoid falls when I stubbornly tried to walk. I set up shop at my parents’ house, but work went slowly at their dining table. Exhausted from physical therapy, practice walks, and new medication, I could only be productive for about an hour. Michelle, perhaps more tired than I was, worried that I was trying to do too much, while I felt like I was falling farther and farther behind.

My clients stuck with me. My brain started repairing itself, and three months later I could work a full day again. My backlog of things to do eventually emptied out, and new projects sparked to life. A good customer made the rest of the year much easier with a retainer contract for some technical illustrations.

I realize very clearly that I’m privileged not only in my life situation and the ability to choose my work, but also that I survived an often-fatal health event that didn’t render my family destitute. I’m lucky; but why does luck have to be part of any freelancer’s fallback plan? If the economy relies on small businesses like mine, why are there so few affordable resources and options when these things happen? I often wonder if it would have been easier to get sick — and recover — in Canada or the UK.

Perhaps the new quintessential American experience is freelancing: With freedom comes risk. You make your own schedule and drink what you want with lunch, but you also assume responsibility for yourself and your family. Before you start down that trail, have a plan for when the wolves show up.

There’s a temptation after events like this to avoid the risk at all. Maybe go back to a desk job at a big company, pour a cup from its Mr. Coffee in the morning, and fly under the radar for a little while. Know that the risk will always be there, shiny and exciting. Freelancers understand this better than most: The temptation of safety will always be there for us too, but I’m not sorry I dived for the ball.

Illustration by Naftali Beder.5


  1. Of course I promptly wrote two terrible jokes about it on Twitter, as one does. 

  2. For many years I had my own health insurance. I eagerly gave that up shortly after Michelle and I were married last March, since it would save us $500 a month. I’m now on her company’s plan. (When a firm offers insurance to any combination of domestic partners, those in a civil union, and same-sex married couples, the partner not at the company must pay tax equivalent to the cash value of the premium.) 

  3. Editor’s note: Your editor, a freelancer of long standing, looked into this option after he and his wife had children, and couldn’t get disability insurers to define what portion of his freelance income averaged in some fashion over years would be replaced by a policy. –gf 

  4. I usually invoice clients on 30-day terms, so I was happy to open checks in the mail along with get-well cards. 

  5. Naftali Beder is an illustrator living in Astoria, New York. His drawings have appeared in The New York Times, PLANADVISER, and PLANSPONSOR, among others; and his work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, and Applied Arts Magazine. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2010. 

Robert Palmer is a full-stack Web developer who lives and works in Encinitas, California. If you see him, kindly remind him he has to go to work tomorrow.

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