The doctor fired for having cancer speaks up

I recently reported on Stephanie Waggel, the doctor fired by a prestigious U.S. hospital for getting cancer (story also the Washington Post). In a transcription of her whistleblower video, Stephanie describes how she nearly died due to obstruction of medical care:

It started during my intern year of residency. Which, bizarrely, was the happiest year of my life. And all my friends are like, “You’re an intern, you’re not supposed to be happy, something is clearly wrong with you.” But, I’m like, “I’m out! I’m doing psychiatry. This is what I’ve always wanted to do.” I absolutely loved it. I had so much energy, and I planned my outfits weeks in advance and had themes. And I had all these lectures for the medical students, and it was just everything that I always wanted, and it was completely delightful. I started having this pain, and it was waking me up from my sleep. And I really didn’t have time (because I was an intern) to get it worked up. But it was getting really, really bad. I was feeling really sick a lot and something had to be wrong so I really had to push to go to these appointments.

For example, one time I went to get an MRI, but the MRI machine broke and then I had to go again the next day. And then when I told my team and my attending the MRI machine broke, they made some joke about my weight. And I was like, “No it’s actually cause there’s some helium tank in it that broke.” They were not letting me go. It was awful, and I’m like, “No, I need to find out what’s wrong with me.” So I pushed and pushed and pushed and after wrong diagnosis, and everything, they finally found out that I had renal cell carcinoma. And I said, “Well, that’s going to be a lot more doctors appointments.”

So I went, and I had a partial nephrectomy [kidney removal] and I thought that everything could be set up because there are people having babies and things like that. So I would send my schedule, like when my appointments were, and say, “Oh I have this appointment, like, three Tuesdays from now.” That Tuesday would come, and everybody would be like, “Oh, we’re slammed today. You’re going to have to reschedule that appointment.” And I’d be like, “Okay.” And then, I’d reschedule it and then that day would come and they’d be like, “Oh, we’re really busy.” I would never be able to get to go to my appointments. So, eventually, I was just like, “I’m going, I need to go.” And my oncologist said that had I not gone, I would have died within at least a year or two. And, when he said that to me, I was like, “Well, I’m really glad that I went, because had I listened to everyone around me, I would be dead in a year or two.”

And I distinctly remember this attending that I had, on the day that I was diagnosed with cancer, told me to pick between being a doctor and being a patient. And up until that point, I never really thought about, “What if I’m a patient and a doctor?” But then, the entire year was just a struggle to be both.

So I went to my chief for help, I’m like, “I need to go to these appointments, like follow-up,” cause I needed genetic testing because what twenty-eight-year-old female gets kidney cancer? And he was just saying, “Ugh, we’re going to have to re-do the call schedule.” And I’m like, “I’m so sorry to inconvenience you, but I have cancer.” Then I went to governing bodies (that I won’t mention) and they were telling me, “This really isn’t our problem, it sounds like an institutional kind of thing.” So then I went to people in my program, I went to attendings, I went to the dean, I went to the hospital ombudsperson (who cried when I told her what was going on). She seemed to care a lot, but she basically said there is nothing I can do for you.

After that, I saw her in the hallway at work and she had this look like, “I’m so sorry that I can’t help you.” And she came over and handed me a piece of paper and hugged me and walked away. And I looked at the paper and it was the telephone number to a lawyer, and I’m like, “This is all just so bizarre.” So then, I really didn’t want to get the legal system involved, but there’s got to be somebody that can help me. So then I started writing to the university president and he didn’t reply to me either.

So I just got to this place where I decided to just fix everything on my own. So I made it a QI [Quality Improvement] project to create a system that I call PWP (which is physician wellness program). So that if anybody else has a chronic illness, or even needs to go to therapy every week or something, that they don’t go through all these hurdles that I was going through. And I spent a lot of time and research and effort into this and that’s how I found out about the National Day of Solidarity to Prevent Physician Suicide, which I worked on with Pamela. Once my department found out that I was doing this, they’re like, “You need to stop.” And I said, “But, you told me to do research and I’m doing research.” And they said, “You can’t have days about suicide.” And I’m like, “Why not?”

So then, I did finally get a lawyer and I filed a claim to the EEOC and then when they found out I filed the claim to the EEOC, they voted to terminate my residency. And, I appealed that cause my evaluations from my attendings, I had maybe two average and the rest were above average. And it just didn’t make sense so I figured that maybe they’d look my appeal and wonder, “Why are we firing her?” But then, when Care 2 published a little paragraph about why I got involved in the Day of Solidarity, and I spoke about how I had cancer and was having a really tough time getting off work to go. That is the day that they chose to send me a letter stating they’re terminating my salary and my health insurance, knowing that I still had more follow-up. So I just thought this is definite retaliation, the vote to fire me was after I filed with the EEOC and then the letter I got terminating all my benefits was the same day as my paragraph for the Care 2 page came up.

So, now I am unemployed, so I am full-time working on PWP. So if anybody has any connections to residency programs that they’d like to implement a wellness program into, I’m your gal.

Stephanie Waggel is a psychiatrist and can be reached at Improve Medical Culture. Pamela Wible pioneered the community-designed ideal medical clinic and blogs at Ideal Medical Care. She is the author of Physician Suicide Letters — Answered and Pet Goats and Pap Smears. Watch her TEDx talk, How to Get Naked with Your Doctor. She hosts the physician retreat, Live Your Dream, to help her colleagues heal from grief and reclaim their lives and careers.  

Image credit: Pamela Wible

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