Amber Howard, 31, was just starting her vacation from her job as a passport agent at the Exeter post office on Front Street in July, when a debilitating abdominal pain brought her to the ground. A visit to Exeter Hospital revealed she had acute necrotizing pancreatitis, in which the pancreas stops working and its enzymes attack other organs. She soon developed sepsis and was med-flighted to Boston.
“She’s on a rollercoaster,” said her mother, Karen Wessling, who raised Amber in Exeter. “She has battled like a warrior.”
Wessling now lives in South Carolina but has been staying for months in a hotel in Somerville, Massachusetts at a hospital rate of $165 per night, which she said would be impossible without the GoFundMe page’s $11,000 raised. She said cards and donations have come from countless people who know Amber through the post office.
“I didn’t realize how many dear friends and customers she had there until this all happened,” Wessling said. “It’s definitely family there.”
Amber’s medical leave comes as residents have expressed concern about the Exeter post office’s ability to deliver mail. A U.S. Postal Service spokesperson confirmed the Exeter location has some staff out for personal reasons. On Facebook chat, residents have learned about Amber after airing complaints about not receiving their mail and packages becoming lost.
“In case anyone didn’t know,” posted Michelle Chetwynd in the group “Exeter, NH Community Forum” on Facebook, “Part of the reason why the Exeter USPS is struggling right now is because one of the valuable full-time employees is fighting for her life.”
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Amber, who went to Exeter High School, was living in Newmarket nine years ago when her mother said she began using the town’s post office and became acquainted with its employees. One of them told her she should consider applying for a job.
“She said, ‘I can’t do that,’ immediately,” her mother recalled. Amber was coaxed into trying the first test required to become a postal worker and did well. She decided she would continue the process, her mother said, and came out of the final test with one of the highest grades in her group. She applied to the post office in Exeter and got a job at the front counter where she helps customers.
“She’s face to face with these people every day,” Wessling said. The team she works with is like family, one co-worker calling herself Amber’s “postal mom,” according to Wessling. On the weekends, another co-worker calls herself Amber’s “Saturday postal mom.”
Wessling said Amber had taken two weeks off from work this summer, which is why Wessling came up from South Carolina to see her daughter. She had been feeling unwell with a stomach bug and left work early in the time leading up to her painful first episode.
“It started just suddenly,” Wessling said. “You don’t imagine this is a life-altering disease.”
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Wessling said it is hard to tell which services at the post office are directly affected by Amber’s absence, but she has seen the Facebook chatter about mail not being delivered.
One resident posted she was frustrated with how difficult it is to call or email the post office about her 100-year-old book she mailed in September that is still “MIA.”
Complaints about service at the post office go back to at least 2018 when USPS’s Northeast region strategic communications specialist said a shortage of carriers in the region was causing delays and that more staff would be hired in Exeter. Last week, Amy Gibbs, also a regional spokesperson for USPS, said Exeter’s post office “is adequately staffed with a handful of rural carrier assistant positions open.”
“Exeter is in the process of on-boarding new rural carriers and currently seeking more applicants to fill vacant positions,” Gibbs said. “Additionally, some of their staff is out due to personal reasons and will return.”
Amber thinking of her post office family
At Massachusetts General Hospital, Wessling said Amber has undergone numerous surgeries, improving her health to a less life-threatening status than during the summer. Her mother said her daughter still has days that are more difficult than others, but that she also seems unaware of how far she has come.
“You can’t believe your child has it in her to survive like this until you see her do it,” Wessling said.
Those who know her from the post office are thinking of Amber as well, many leaving donations on the GoFundMe page that was started by Wessling’s friends. Natalie Alarcon left a donation saying she met Amber at the post office and was grateful for her help with the passport application process.
“My Amber, you know you are my Favorite at the Post Office,” wrote Jacqueline Flores with her donation, adding she always waited to go in her line. “I think of you and pray for you daily.”
Amber also receives weekly cards from her co-workers at the post office, and her mother said they have been on Amber’s mind as well. She said sometimes Amber even thinks she’s at work when she’s coming out of sedation. She talks about the individuals and what they must be going through as the busy holiday seasons approach, her mother said, and wishes she was there.
“The post office is kind of her life,” Wessling said. “They are family.”
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Exeter NH post office worker Amber Howard in Boston hospital