Some good news, for the short run, since I am out for at least six weeks because of the L5-S1 spine surgery -- I've qualified for the Kiel Memorial Vacation/PTO Donation Program.
"The Duke University Vacation and Duke University Health System Paid Time Off (PTO) Donation Program allows employees the opportunity to donate accrued vacation or PTO Short Term Bank (STB) hours to fellow employees who have experienced a catastrophic illness or injury and who have exhausted all accrued time, thus resulting in a prolonged, unpaid leave of absence."
It's still not clear whether I'll be out longer than six weeks (I need another MRI to see if the flu has caused me cough badly enough to have re-herniated), but I hope to be cleared to go back to work even part-time in March. The surgeon could only guesstimate for the leave form an average period of time that a patient having a bilateral discectomy is out, not knowing what he/she will find once they get in there or if there are any complications. So in my case the magic date is March 4 to return to work. I see him again this month to see what's up at this point.
At least I have the good fortune to have this work benefit. So many do not. FMLA, the fed benefit for unpaid leave has been a help, but since it accrues on a rolling basis, I've nearly exhausted it because of my medical absences for my rheumatoid arthritis. That's an entirely different issue that can still place my job in jeopardy.
Navigating so much paperwork when you're ill, in pain or both is a challenge, and since I had to file all of it pre-surgery it was a reminder that our health and work benefit bureaucracy is a huge machine. I wish there was some way to simplify the these matters, but we all know that's not changing any time soon.