Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Category: Cancer and Employment

Pants on Fire

When I was a child we used to sing a nasty little ditty about people who tell lies. It alleged that liars could be observed. Their pants were on fire and their noses were longer than telephone wires. It’s not true, of course. You cannot tell a liar from such signals. Of course, some people claim that liars reveal their deceit with telltale signals such as blinks, averted eyes, or inconsistent verbal and nonverbal messages. See http://www.blifaloo.com/info/lies.php/. We have devices known as lie-detectors, but they can be unreliable. Antipolygraph.org. Credibility is often established after all the facts are in and impartial persons evaluate them. Can you tell if someone has deceived you? Does it bother you if you are taken in by someone’s false statements? Does it matter to you that the false statements were made from ignorance, social benevolence, or calculated effort?

In the last week I have pondered non-stop the motivations of people with whom I work. I have sought to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have tried to take people at their word. I have opened my mind to the possibility that my own instincts are faulty. In the end, I have been disappointed by people I want to trust. Something smells funny here. Is something burning? What do you think?

In October of 2011 I learned that I had uterine cancer. I had started to hemorrhage. I lost so much blood that I had to receive eight bags of blood by transfusion before I could undergo a hysterectomy. I called the schools where I was teaching to say that I could not teach that week but would teach the following week. My surgeon told me that I would be released two days after my operation and be able to work the following week. I understand he is one of the best surgeons in this field in the city. All of my supervisors seemed understanding and supportive at the time.

I did return to teaching three days after surgery, but not at the DePaul College of Law. I taught for two paralegal programs and a law school back then. The law school told my students that I was not returning before it told me. Even when I called to say I was ready to return, the law school did not tell me that I could not return. My direct supervisor said that having a hysterectomy was like having a baby. People don’t come back to work that fast. I should plan to rest another week. My class would be covered for me. I did not find out until another day later that my students were reassigned to other classes. I learned the law school’s decision by email from the head of the LARC Department. It was clear from her words that people with cancer could not be relied upon to meet their work obligations. She said:

I need to let you know, though, that after fully consulting with the Dean of Faculty, I felt compelled to make the decision to reassign your students to other LARC III sections. I sincerely hope that you recover from the surgery immediately, but it has been my experience that people in this situation always have slower come-backs than they anticipate. I had no way to hedge against the risk that you might return to teaching this week and then right away, or a few weeks later, find yourself simply unable to continue. My first responsibility is to the students’ learning and the smooth functioning of the LARC department, so I made the decision that increases the chances of maximizing both. I am sorry if my decision disappoints you, and I hope that you are able to understand the situation from my perspective.

That hurt. It’s just plain wrong. Don’t you agree? I wrote to the law school’s Dean to ask if the law school would at least pay the remainder of my contract for the semester. The Dean did not answer me. He had the same person who terminated me for having cancer send me another email to say that I would be paid. I did not get to meet with either of them. I did not observe their behavior. I had only their words to evaluate.

The words were not good enough to explain job action taken on the basis of my diagnosis with cancer. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), people with cancer (and other disabilities) are afforded protection from ignorance and bias. You can read about its protections in an earlier posting on this blog (see the links below). Many former students and friends wrote on my behalf to the law school’s Dean and the university’s President. To my knowledge, the President never answered anyone. The Dean of the law school finally spoke with me by telephone in November of 2011. He said that the head of the LARC Department had gotten some “bad advice” before she acted. She stated in her email that she consulted with the Dean of Faculty, a man who operates a legal clinic for the disabled. My direct supervisor also is an attorney. She represented employers in disability discrimination matters before joining academia. Is this ironic? I think so. I guess some possible explanations of this are that they advised her poorly, were not consulted, or their advice was not heeded. The Dean also informed me that I was not “terminated.” My class was reassigned. I was being paid. I was welcome to return in the next semester. I gathered from this that both of us agreed a termination would be a problem under the ADA. The implication was that the wrong done to me was “benign.” I was intended to be benefited by this paternalism. No one apologized for the rush to a poor decision. I never asked for involuntary leave–paid or not. I wanted to work.

The ADA doesn’t permit discriminatory “job assignments” either. I guess that the Dean has not read the ADA recently.

I tried to talk with the Dean about how we might address the unresolved injury done when the law school took me out of the classroom. He did not like my suggestion that the school offer me full-time employment. I thought it would address the injury done to my reputation by a mid-semester termination. He repeated his semantical objection to my use of the word “termination.” He said he would be hiring no full-time professors to teach legal writing in the next year. I offered to divide my time between teaching and career advising.

Our profession has suffered during the recession. It has been tough for graduates to find employment. I have many ideas for finding jobs. He said he could not consider such a position in the next year. This past week I learned that the Dean has hired a new career services person who also will teach legal writing–a full-time position with responsibilities to two “departments.” That’s amusing. We were to speak again thereafter, but the Dean did not respond to my call.

The next week I began chemotherapy and radiation, which were grueling. I kept on working my other jobs, including at the DePaul Paralegal Certificate Program. My fall paralegal classes ended and spring classes began in February 2012. Once I returned to work after surgery at my other teaching jobs I did not miss any classes despite going through five weeks of radiation and six infusions of chemotherapy. When I had to be hospitalized for infections associated with cancer treatment I was on holiday break.

In October, after the so-called “reassignment” of my students, the law school paid me one last time. It stood out because the payment was the only one I received that pay period. There was no payment from the paralegal program that week. After that, my paychecks kept coming in uneven amounts. I could not tell from my pay stubs which DePaul program or school paid me, but I trusted the assurances of the Dean of the law school and the head of the LARC Department when they told me I was being paid. In January of 2012 I returned to work at the law school.

This is not to say that the remainder of the academic year passed without incident. I have been told I can continue teaching but cannot miss any more classes–even though last semester I covered a colleague’s class for her when she was out for another reason. That’s inconsistent, isn’t it? I heard that the LARC Department head had been discussing disparagingly my conversation with the Dean with people not involved in the matter. I tried to speak about this matter with the Dean and another person at the university, but my calls to the Dean and the other person were not returned. Instead, the person I tried to speak with sent me two solicitations of charitable contributions to support a civil rights clinic at the law school. I find this unfortunate. Do you?

I finished my academic year at DePaul at the end of June. I tallied all my contracts for the law school and the paralegal program and discovered that I was short $2500. It was the amount of one of the seven contracts I had with DePaul during the academic year–a paralegal program contract. After several calls and emails I learned that the paralegal program had paid me what it owed me. However, the law school had terminated my pay in October of 2011, meaning that it still owed me $2,500. Now that was funny. I cannot tell you how many times I said to people that it had to be that the paralegal program had made a mistake. There was no way that the law school would refuse to pay me after I complained about how I was treated, the law school had put it in writing that I would be paid, and we had done so little else to try to “normalize” our relationship.

What do you call a decision to reassign a teacher’s students to other teachers and the termination of payment of salary? I call it termination. It was done because I had cancer, which made me unreliable. It was done by someone who did not speak with me. It was done by someone without a medical degree. It was done and denied. But the denials were false. I believe that the law school terminated me for having cancer.

After numerous calls last week, many of which were unanswered, I was told I would be paid the $2500 by direct deposit on August 3. Again, no apology for the nine months of delay. But I checked my bank balance that day and over the weekend and the money did not hit my account then. That made me so disappointed that I felt sick all over again.

On August 6th I asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate the matter. I did not have the time to continue pursuing this matter on my own. It was time to file charges or let the injury pass. Last week I had been prepared to let the deadline for filing in this matter pass. I was thinking that I had made my point. Cancer patients are like everyone else. They are not innately unreliable. They need to be treated with respect, not biased preconceptions. No one should be able to tell someone in my position that she will suffer setbacks that will make her unreliable.

On August 6th I felt that, even if I ended up getting paid, I had to object to the manner in which my case has been handled. I am tired. It has been a very long year. I still suffer the side-effects of having had cancer. I did not have health insurance when I became ill. I still have medical bills. I would like to move forward with my life. But, as several people have reminded me, if a law school will treat a law professor this way, then it may do the same to people without the ability to call them out for doing it. It’s time to put it on the record and demand that the law school explain what happened and make this right.

No more pretending that people at DePaul College of Law meant well. Someone at the law school told the payroll department to stop paying me. I think it’s time the explanations came out so that we can all decide if there was ignorance, social benevolence, or calculated effort.

To read the emails from the head of the LARC Department, my letter to the Dean, and other details about how the law school handled this matter, start with the following blog entries: https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/bad-day-at-the-office/; https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/excuse-me-for-living/; https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/owning-my-cancer/; and https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/woody-the-woodpecker/.

What do you think?

Saying My Prayers

I saw Dr. H Monday. Dr. Z apparently completed his studies. He was not present. Last year’s junior doctor whose name I never discovered greeted me (I’m going to call her Dr. Y until I can get a good look at her ID card) and took me back to the exam room. She reviewed my CT scan results with me, checked my lungs, and examined my healed incision. She verified that I had enough prescription refills to keep me going until October. My appointments will now be spaced out over three months. She asked me how I was feeling and made notes. I had her undivided attention.

Dr. H came by at the end of the appointment, followed closely by a young man in a white coat. I educate young lawyers so did not think he looked too young to practice medicine. I said, “Hello doctors.” The young man looked at me and smiled tentatively. His black and neon green backpack hung on the back of the examining room door. I know it was his because I first wondered if a patient had left it. Dr. Y looked at it and smiled. “It belongs to my new colleague.” I wondered if all professions had “trappings” that were being reconsidered in modern times. If doctors have exchanged little black bags for backpacks, what have lawyers adopted in place of leather briefcases? I no longer have a conventional leather briefcase. I have rolling carts in various sizes and a Tumi leather backpack that cost me several hundred dollars in wealthier times. Maybe we’re all becoming pack animals!

I recall once carrying a lovely calf skin briefcase engraved with gold letters that read Arnold & Porter. I received it my first day as an associate at the firm. I used it to carry my research materials and case files when my office was in one downtown office building and the partners for whom I worked were in another. I recall joking that carrying the briefcase all day long spared me the experience of being asked to go get a partner coffee. In those days there were plenty of female associates but few female partners. I did go fetch a few cups of coffee in my time. I did it with an ironic smile.

Dr. H commands respect without any trappings. She came in, asked me how I was feeling, and listened intently to my report. Her husband has cancer. That must be the worst experience an oncologist can manage. You spend your life treating cancer and your spouse succumbs to it. Her husband, like me, has experienced severe burns to the bladder during radiation. She left the room to call him to ask for the name of an over-the-counter medication that has given him some relief from bladder pain. When she returned she handed me a prescription for Cystex. It is ordinarily used by persons suffering from urinary tract infections. The pills contain a high dose of cranberry with something to ease pain. It is intended to soothe until a person can see a physician and obtain an antibiotic. She told me to take it to a Walgreens as the hospital does not carry it.

I like this doctor. I have several times seen her and been told to suck it up–pain, bleeding, burns, weakness. Nevertheless, I am comforted by the fact that she let me decide whether to go nuclear or cross my fingers when faced with the unknown condition of my untested lymph nodes, she gave me her cell phone number when things started to get grim during my treatments for cancer, and she has offered me the latest in care offered to no less than her husband.

I hope that she can continue to treat me. When it came time to arrange my next appointment I learned that she only has clinic hours on Monday mornings. I will be teaching Monday mornings this fall. I had no idea that she met patients on no other days of the week. I would have moved my class schedule had I known this. But it is too late to do that now. Students already have signed up for the class. If my appointments will now be spaced at least three months apart, then it will only be the one Monday when there will be a conflict. I discussed the matter with the receptionist. I will be teaching my Monday class at the law school. I have been told that I cannot miss any classes. That was a condition to my being offered the opportunity to teach Transactional Drafting. I was not offered the class all last year. Before I had cancer I would have considered asking my students to reschedule class for later that week. I would have felt bad about it, but I would have asked them to accommodate this one event as it is critical to my care. No longer. As I stood there I was afraid that seeing my doctor might cost me my job. I thought, maybe that’s me doing my best to stay professional. What did I read recently about professionalism? “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them (David Halberstam, quoting Julius Erving).” David Halberstam, Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam. Even as I worried that it would be a mistake to miss an appointment, I worried more about how my supervisors would react.

I told the receptionist that I would have to miss an October appointment. She asked me why. I told her briefly and she closed her eyes and sighed. She asked, “Is it a catholic institution?” I nodded. She told me that she was the victim of racial discrimination when she worked for such an organization a number of years ago. It was strange because I really was not looking for this connection. I anticipated that the system would let me slip through the cracks. I was headed next to the pharmacy that refills prescriptions for county patients. You can’t drop off or pick up a prescription on a weekend at the hospital. It is only open Mondays-Fridays 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. I’ve wondered before how people manage to hold down jobs and still receive care and have figured out that they adapt or go without care. So I was resigned to missing care so as not to lose my job. But the receptionist was not prepared to let me do that. She studied her computer screen and scheduled me for an 8:15 a.m. appointment. She told me to arrive at 7 a.m. and check in as soon as the clinic opened. She told me to ask for the receptionist who had originally greeted me that morning. “Tell her about your employer,” she told me. “She’ll make sure you get in first. Tell the nurse your story when she takes your vitals. She’ll help you, too. That way maybe you can make it on time to your 10 a.m. class.” I thanked her for her advice. I wondered, not for the first time, whether or not someone “upstairs” was looking out for me, guiding me through the difficult path that I have been walking.

I headed next toward the Fantus Clinic, located in another building, where I drew a number and waited my turn to pick up my medicines for the next sixty days. As I leaned against a pillar waiting for someone to call B214 I tried to remember the last time I felt safe. It has not been for a long time. I have felt loved. I have felt cared for. I have felt pretty good. But I have not felt safe. I have worried that I might die. I have worried that I might not recover from cancer treatment. I have worried about my job. I have worried about medical bills. I have worried about my reputation. I have worried about cancer returning. I am not prone to worry about things. I have always had a strong belief in the potential for things to work out even when they don’t. As I stood there thinking about the receptionist I decided to stop being afraid. I think things will work out even if I do work at a place that might terminate me for seeing my doctor to ensure that cancer has not returned. If I keep on thinking that way maybe things will work out. And, if they don’t, well, maybe there are things that have to be accepted no matter how difficult they will be to bear. Haven’t I already met many wonderful people who have had to accept grim medical situations? Haven’t I been a witness to at least one failed effort to fight cancer?

Professionalism isn’t education. It isn’t a degree. It isn’t title. It isn’t experience. It isn’t income. It isn’t a calf skin briefcase or a black bag. It isn’t something you acquire. As Julius Erving said, it is how you do your job. Dr. H is a professional. Her two doctors in training are professional. The oncology clinic’s receptionists are professional. It may be the county hospital and many of the patients may be without insurance or financial resources, but the hospital is a teaching institution and it is teaching people to be professionals. I am grateful for the care I have received there. Over at the law school, I will handle my situation as professionally as I can and hope for the best. Maybe the only way to maintain professionalism is to continue to demonstrate it. Joyce Meyer has been quoted as saying, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers and decided to go forward anyway.”  Joyce Meyer, I Dare You: Embrace Life with Passion. I’m saying my prayers that the next time I need my employer’s support to secure my continued good health that the school will not let me down.

Four Kind Words

“How are you feeling?”

I saw Martha, my immediate supervisor today and she actually asked me how I was doing. She has not said anything much to me since I was terminated for having cancer. She certainly hasn’t mentioned my health.

I answered honestly. I’m doing pretty well. My hair is growing back in. I’m feeling stronger.

I am a lawyer so understand why people engaged in conflict stop asking polite questions, but I am a person, too. I appreciated the return to ordinary conversation. It has been a lonely year in many respects. I have attended meetings with colleagues and felt less than collegial even though most of my colleagues have no information about what is happening and so have no reason to inquire about me. The subject of my health was the subject over which my employers and I disagreed. Accordingly, no one felt comfortable asking even such mundane questions as how are you feeling. Thank you to all my friends from other aspects of my life. This could have been so much worse if I had to get through it without your calls, emails, cards, and visits.

I know a woman who is a hypochondriac. She never has a bruise. It’s a hematoma. She claims to have had infections without cures yet later cannot quite recall what ailed her when one inquires as to how she’s doing. She sees at least one doctor every week. She monitors her blood pressure, her pulse, and her blood glucose regularly. She once made an appointment to see her doctor to discuss a dream she had in which she was ill. She suffers from numerous complaints that I have never seen discussed elsewhere. When her contemporaries suffered from hot flashes, she made us leave restaurants and go elsewhere because she had hot feet. She got a disabled parking tag because she has a “trick knee” that can go out at any time but never has when I have been with her.

One of my family members warns us before we see this woman that we must be careful not to inquire about her health. “Don’t even ask how she’s doing because once you do she will never hush up.” Asking about another’s health is usually a social nicety. But it can become a bottomless pit of need if one has nothing else in one’s life to discuss.

I hope I have other things in life to discuss in addition to my health. I would hate to think that one day that might be the only subject I knew anything about. That’s one of the things that was so upsetting when the law school reassigned my students to other teachers’ classes. I was defined by a health condition. I became unreliable. I became unnecessary. I became a liability. I was sidelined for the rest of the season. I was benched. I was marginalized. And the subject matter of my condition became something we could not discuss without risking making our relationship worse.

So those four kind words meant more to me than Martha will probably ever realize. Instead of my health being the thing that isolates me, it has gone back to being something people ask about to be polite.

The next time Martha asks me how I am feeling I will answer with four equally kind words, “I am feeling better.” Maybe if I let it go at that neither one of us will need to say more to mend our fences and go back to being good neighbors.

 

Woody the Woodpecker

Woody the Woodpecker. That’s what my hair looks like now. The sides are still very short, but the top is about two inches long and determined to stand up straight. There is no longer any pretense of laying down to cover the wide part on the left side of my head. What’s on top of my head is as light and fluffy as baby’s hair and standing up straight. I fuss with it constantly, but every time I think I have gotten it to lay down it springs up again.

My niece Maureen suggested that I dye it a cheerful color. Pink would be cheerful. I still remember the cancer survivor at Stroger Hospital with her scarlet plumage. My fear is that the law school faculty might find me too stodgy.

I went to a faculty event this evening–with hopes of introducing myself to the dean, who never did answer my last email–but the man made a brief thanks to the adjunct faculty for being the bridge for students between the academics and the profession and departed before I could meet him. He did not make the rounds and introduce himself.

I cannot blame him. He most likely had no idea who I was as I stood in my new dress and the first high-heeled shoes I have worn since my surgery. Many of the adjuncts are alumni. I am not, but, if I were, I would also be interested in meeting him. And, if I were the new dean at a law school, I would view every unfamiliar face in the room as one to which I would like to put a name. People willing to work for inadequate compensation might be sources of future contributions to the university. Alas, the dean was not interested in meeting people.

I did see Susan, the woman who terminated my teaching/reassigned my class while I was in surgery in October. We actually exchanged brief smiles and nods and she met my eyes. That’s a hurdle behind us now. It was painless for me. I think an apology is in order for what happened, but lawyers are not good at apologies. Lawyers call them admissions against interest.

I went tonight hoping to meet the dean. I wanted him to put a face to my name. That did not happen. But I showed up. That’s more important. I am putting a face to what it means to be a cancer survivor. I show up. I have been showing up to my classes since I returned from surgery. I have been showing up at as many lunches of legal writing instructors as I could make when I have been teaching a class that ends forty-five minutes after the lunches begin. I am showing up for office hours when students want to meet to discuss their concerns. I am showing up because, contrary to the prejudice of one of my supervisors, some people in my situation don’t let others down. She wrote to me:

I sincerely hope that you recover from the surgery immediately, but it has been my experience that people in this situation always have slower come-backs than they anticipate. I had no way to hedge against the risk that you might return to teaching this week and then right away, or a few weeks later, find yourself simply unable to continue.

I have continued.

If I were a betting woman, I would bet money that I will continue to teach.

I am reminded of my first day of law school at Catholic University of America. Professor Harvey Zuckman called on me in Torts class. I stood to recite my brief of the first case. Professor Zuckman quizzed me as if we were in court. I had prepared meticulously for class because I intended to treat school as a job and be prepared for every class.

The questions came one after another. Thanks to the wonderful coaching of my former debate coaches from college and high school, I was having fun.

At the end of his examination, Professor Zuckman said to me, “If you mean to continue law school the way you began it today, you’ll do very well indeed.”

To this day it is a memory that spurs me to prepare for every class I teach the way I prepared for that first class. And the echo of that encouragement is there when I read a student’s paper and write, “I like this. Write more like this.” It is in the back of mind when I must criticize someone’s work that no doubt called for the student to work long hours. I never use a red pen because I must be honest about weaknesses, but I try not to draw blood with my own pen strokes.

It is a good day when my criticisms are remembered as fondly as a compliment. One former student wrote to me:

I kept the email that you sent me after my appellate oral argument in my “Atta girl!” file and I pull it out when I’m having a rough week to remind myself to just keep swimming.  It really meant a lot.

Another student wrote:

I want to thank you again for your tutelage. I remember receiving a low mark from you on some cite-checking assignment. You wrote in your remarks that although the work might be tedious, a good attorney challenges himself to excel. I credit your comment with forcing some much needed introspection. From that point on, my GPA went from a 2.6 to well over a 3.5. The work sometimes remained tedious, but I pushed through!

I love my job and I am so lucky to be able to keep doing it. One of the reasons I got through the events of the last seven months was that I had classes to teach. Let me say that with the precision I require of my students: I survived the events of the last seven months because I had students to teach.

For anyone out in the world who thinks people in my “situation” will let them down, I am going to respond like Woody the Woodpecker. It was Woody, with his zany plumage and his relentless enthusiasm for his mission who said, “Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!” Some of us continue because all of us handle this as we see fit rather than as others might expect.

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