The last time I met with “The King,” I wasn’t planning on meeting with him alone. I never would. It was July 2019, and my family was flying to Europe the next day.
“The King” is the former hospital president/CEO, hired by the board in 2015. He was the former chief of pediatric surgery at a well-known children’s hospital who came along with a demand that his wife, who he often referred to in small meetings as his “bedroom buddy” or “pillow partner,” be hired to be his faculty recruiter.
A pediatric surgeon who was touted as being a world-renowned global leader arrived at the same time I was dissolving my non-profit, Teach a Kid to Fish, and moving over $500,000 of the assets, programs, and my staff to lead a population health center at Children’s. I had worked with Children’s to expand their HEROES pediatric weight management program. I was the pediatrician for HEROES, full of very complex patients. Teach a Kid to Fish had funded all the community programs with grant funding.
Soon after I started my position leading the center, I noticed “The King” lied. During meetings, “The King” would pull outcomes out of nowhere. I would sit there shocked. It wasn’t just little things either. He would say infant mortality rates in African American babies were decreasing in the community. When I spoke up to the C-suite about my concerns, I was told, “What are you going to do about it?” It wasn’t really a question.
“The King” kept lying, with a simple strategy: Make up outcomes to suit the target audience, control the narrative, and silence anyone who speaks up. I couldn’t let it go, so I emailed “The King” to let him know that the information he presented during a presentation to community physicians wasn’t correct. The only response to my email I received was a calendar invite to meet with the VP of pediatrics (not a physician) to discuss my role with HEROES.
According to The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Dr. Robin Stern, there are three stages of gaslighting:
Stage 1 gaslighting: disbelief. Leaves you confused, frustrated, and anxious. Your gaslighter says something outrageous, and you spend time convincing them they are wrong.
Stage 2 gaslighting: defense. Spend your time arguing, even in your head, with your gaslighter looking to win approval, searching for evidence to prove you are right.
The HEROES meeting with me was canceled. Over the course of the next several months, the programs and collaborations I brought to Children’s were cut. Then, there was a threat that the HEROES clinic was going to close. I talked to the physician liaison about it: “Karla, you need to meet with him (“The King”). He doesn’t get it. I’ll try to be there with you.”
Wow, that was fast. He got me on his calendar the next day. Driving the hour to the meeting, I thought, “Just give me five minutes. I can fix this.” Right Hand Man came circling around before the meeting, “Karla, I can’t make it to the meeting, but what I want to know is why do you care?” I regurgitated the whole story, and he promised to connect after my meeting with “The King.” Looking back, it’s chilling. A scene out of a movie. At the time, I hadn’t heard the term gaslight, and I had zero clue about the movie. I was being gaslit. I didn’t know at the time, but the plan was simple: have her meet with him alone and ask, “Why do you care?” and blame it on her personality. Her behavior is the issue.
In a big new office, sitting across the coffee table, myself on the couch, “The King” leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, looked at me, and said, “What I want to know is why do you care?” I coached myself, recognizing the meeting was a set-up. “I am here to show my support to keep the HEROES clinics open. Let me know what you need. I am willing to see patients. We have to keep the clinics open. Again, I’m here to support Children’s mission in the community.”
“The King” sat back and glared at me, flexed his jaw. “I’m not going to micromanage this. I’ll talk to Right Hand Man, and he’ll get back with you.” I sent an email as soon as I got back to the office to the rest of the folks who bowed out of the meeting at the last minute, letting them know I will never meet with “The King” again.
As everything continued to unravel, an article was published stating that “The King” had over 500 malpractice lawsuits against him. It was a beautiful day when I opened the email that announced, “The King’s retiring.” His last day was mid-August 2019.
Stage 3 gaslighting: depression. You’re too tired to argue, and you use up all your energy hoping to finally win the gaslighter’s approval.
I thought things would get better once “The King” left. But over the course of the next two months, they got worse for me. It was a mix of gaslighting and silencing. At one point, I counted 20 individuals who were participants in gaslighting, including members of the board who hired “The King.”
I resigned, effective immediately, per my attorneys’ directive. I’ve never gone back.
From 2015 through 2019, the former hospital president/CEO received significant executive compensation at two different children’s hospitals.
Karla Lester is a pediatrician, certified life and weight coach, and diplomate, American Board of Obesity Medicine. She is founder, IME Community, and can be reached on Twitter @DrKarlaA, TikTok, Instagram @ime_community, Facebook, and YouTube.