Fired for cancer?
The termination of a Reno hospital employee raises questions of fairness and compassion
Laura Denton seems the type of worker that most employers would want to keep around—not fire.
An intake representative in the Emergency Department at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, Laura was the person who—clipboard in hand—would greet people in distress as they came through the doors; the calm, reassuring woman with a sincere smile and beautiful brown hair that flowed down her back, all the way to her waist.
Denton is fluent in both Spanish and English; her mother is from Mexico. Her skills in both languages were a blessing to St. Mary’s, which didn’t have a translator on staff. Day in and day out, Denton would leave her post to volunteer her services, not only in the E.R., but also throughout the hospital, earning her the gratitude and respect of her co-workers.
“She always went out of her way, even when it would put her own workload behind,” one recalls.
In November 2006, when an aggressive form of cancer forced her to have both breasts removed, it was no surprise that the troops rallied behind Denton in her time of need.
Her co-workers—clerks, nurses and even the doctors—donated cash and food to help see her and her two daughters, ages 11 and 16, through the hard times. Then, when Denton’s medical leave ran out, several colleagues donated their PTO (Paid Time Off) hours through the hospital’s Good Samaritan Program, so that her paychecks would continue during the lengthy recovery.
“Everyone was very, very good to me and my family,” says the 49-year-old Reno native.
After 18 years in the same position, Denton was concerned about keeping her job. She truly loved her work, but beyond that, she needed the income and the all-important health insurance.
At first, she remembers her supervisor was supportive, just like everyone else in the E.R. Denton says her boss, Rae Cummings, told her, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s going to be fine. Your job will be here.”
Those reassurances evaporated last August, when Denton was fired for seemingly trivial missteps: She had been written up for failing to clock-in after forgetting her ID badge at home and for having food in a cupboard in her work area.
Those are indeed violations of St. Mary’s policy, but Laura’s firing raised plenty of eyebrows among her colleagues. According to the St. Mary’s employees interviewed for this article—all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals—such transgressions happen all the time without even the slightest repercussions.
An E.R. nurse says staff members often forget their name badges and that—even after several occurrences—the standard response from supervisors is simply, “Please try and remember to wear your badge.”
That longtime employee adds that “everybody” brings food and drinks into the department and—outside of patient care areas—grabs a bite or a gulp whenever time allows.
“The reality is you don’t get regular breaks, and … you’re going to bring some food in and eat it.” Given that fact, the employee says, managers turn a blind eye to the coffee, soda and sandwiches.
So why did the hammer fall on Denton for doing what was apparently common practice? She says her double mastectomy—which was performed at St. Mary’s—changed everything. According to Denton, the cold shoulder was evident almost as soon as she returned to work in February of last year, two months after her surgery.
At the time, Laura was in the midst of chemotherapy. The treatments not only left her bald, but with a weakened immune system, as well. On the advice of her oncologist, Dr. V. Suresh Reddy, Denton says she was given a temporary “light duty” job processing Medicare claims down in the basement, so that she wouldn’t have any face-to-face contact with patients who could infect her.
Laura says that supervisor Cummings started calling her into the office a couple of times each week to complain about the amount of work she was missing due to doctor appointments. Denton admits she sometimes had to leave work on short notice—such as when her doctor would call with concern over the results of some lab work—but she claims she always sent Cummings an email before leaving her desk.[page]
“I confronted Rae in front of [senior managers] Joe Hall and Sharon Lanier,” Denton says. “I said, ‘You knew I was going to have chemo, doctor’s appointments and my radiation, and you said there wasn’t a problem. And now you guys are harassing me about this.'”
As the weeks wore on, Denton says both Cummings and officials from Human Resources turned up the heat. In early May, Denton says she was given an ultimatum: Return to her regular position in the E.R. or be terminated.
Her oncologist, Dr. Reddy, says he felt Laura wasn’t strong enough to return to her regular job.
“Please keep patient at current duties,” he wrote on May 9. “We will reevaluate in two months.”
But just four weeks later, on June 7—with Denton fearing that her job was at stake—the doctor wrote a second note, simply stating that “Laura Denton is released to work with no restrictions.”
Denton was soon back at her old desk in the Emergency Department, but the alleged harassment continued. The meetings with Cummings continued. Ominously—at least in hindsight—the warnings about her forgetting her ID badge and having food in the workplace were put in writing.
On Aug. 2, 2007, Denton again found herself in the boss’s office. Cummings told her she was being fired for “unsatisfactory” performance of her duties.
“I confronted Rae,” she says. “I said, ‘You got to be kidding! You’re firing me for this, something that all my co-workers do [without recrimination]?'”
At that stage, Denton says Cummings threatened to call security if she didn’t shut up and leave.
Losing her job at the hospital in which she had been born was devastating to Denton. She grieved the loss in stages.
“I just came home and cried and cried and cried,” Denton recalls, her voice trembling, tears filling her eyes. “I was so hurt, because I was so loyal.”
Loyal and hard-working, according to various performance reviews over the years.
“Laura has great customer service skills,” a supervisor wrote in 2004. “She is a level headed, easy-to-work-with employee, who is respected by her team.”
Another review, from 2006, was equally glowing. “Laura has a great sense of what patients and their family [sic] needs.” The evaluation—written seven months prior to her cancer diagnosis—concluded, “Laura is very knowledgeable and doesn’t mind sharing and helping new and existing employees.”
A loss of a job can mean a loss of pride, something Denton learned in the weeks and months following her dismissal. She filed for unemployment benefits and began getting a weekly check for about $325. But the payments stopped just three weeks before Christmas, after officials from St. Mary’s told state investigators that Denton had been fired for serious misconduct and therefore wasn’t eligible for unemployment compensation. Denton was forced to apply for welfare.
“It was very hard for me. I was embarrassed,” she says, sitting on a sofa in her west Reno home. “I had to think of myself and my daughters that I had to support, so I had to leave my pride aside. There was nothing else I could do.”
Welfare provided for food stamps and health insurance through Medicaid. Denton had to turn to family members for money to pay the mortgage and utility bills.
Depression made it hard for her to even get out of bed in the morning.[page]
“I wasn’t myself. I couldn’t function. I was so, so depressed,” she says, a lump forming in her throat. “You start thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?'”
A doctor put Denton on medication for depression but not before the stress had manifested itself in yet another medical condition: Bell’s palsy, a syndrome that causes paralysis of the facial muscles, appeared shortly after the cancer surgery. As a result, she sometimes slurs her words. Her generous smile is now lopsided, deformed by the palsy.
Laura’s physical appearance might be the real reason for her termination, speculates a former colleague.
“This is just my guess, but she’s a little bit heavy. She’s got that Bell’s palsy. She was minus her hair [due to the chemotherapy], and they just decided she was too unattractive to be in the workplace.”
That, of course, is just one employee’s opinion, but the same thought had crossed Denton’s mind.
“I wasn’t attractive at all,” she says. “I had lost my hair, so I had to wear wigs. I was on steroids, so I put on lots of weight.”
Officials both at St. Mary’s and its parent company, Catholic Healthcare West, refused to address any of the concerns expressed by Laura and her former co-workers.
“Is this an anti-St. Mary’s story?” asked Lisa Dettling, St. Mary’s director of marketing and business development, when asked for comment. When told—matter of factly—that that was up to readers to decide, she said she’d look into the matter.
However, within just a few minutes, Erica Vest, a communications specialist for the hospital, called back.
“We consider all employee relations to be confidential, so it is our policy not to comment,” Vest said.
When pressed further about the negative impression of St. Mary’s with which readers might be left, Vest refused to be drawn out.
“That [the public perception] does not change our policy,” she said. “We don’t comment on personnel issues. That is for the employee’s confidentiality, as well as ours.”
Christmas at the Dentons was as bleak and depressing as a Dickens novel. There wasn’t any money for presents for her kids. Had there been any, there wasn’t even a tree under which to put them.
“The little one kept saying, ‘Let’s get a live tree, let’s get a live tree,'” Denton recalls. “I wasn’t able to buy my kids anything. Nothing.”
Officials at the state Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation (DETR) effectively played the role of Scrooge, telling Denton that—in addition to being cut off from unemployment benefits—she might have to give back the money she had already received. That was more than just a few shillings, too. The payments totaled $6,358, and the money was already spent.
Despite Denton’s woes, her friends managed to maintain the Christmas spirit. With their help, she found the strength to appeal the decision.
“My hardship is extreme,” Denton wrote in a Dec. 11 letter to the DETR. “I have ongoing medical care related to my cancer, as well as multiple medical bills from cancer treatment that I still owe, but I cannot pay. I can’t afford Christmas gifts for my family. I am almost out of food. At this point, I can barely afford to put gas in my car.”
A lawyer for Nevada Legal Services championed Denton’s cause at a hearing. Citing previous rulings, Stephanie Shannon says she told the three-member Board of Review that Denton hadn’t committed any intentional misconduct.[page]
“Misconduct is when you intentionally ignore your employer’s wishes, rules or regulations,” she explains. “There has to be an element of wrongfulness. It’s not just making a mistake by forgetting your name badge.”
Shannon’s legal observations and Denton’s passionate plea worked. On Jan. 14, they ruled that Denton had not committed misconduct.
The written decision says that while undergoing cancer treatment, Denton “had inadvertently forgotten her identification badge at home” which precluded her from clocking in. But the board also noted that Denton followed hospital procedure by completing a handwritten time sheet. Therefore, they concluded, her actions “did not contain the necessary element of wrongfulness to support a finding of misconduct connected with the work.”
St. Mary’s and CHW had until Feb. 5 to appeal the ruling to Washoe District Court. No appeal was filed, according to a search of court records.
Denton’s unemployment checks resumed, but within weeks, they stopped—for good. Denton had reached the maximum benefit amount of $9,724. She is back on welfare.
The food stamps total a couple of hundred bucks a month, and the state’s energy assistance program has given more than $1,100 to Sierra Pacific Power to keep Denton’s lights and heat turned on. She and her two daughters have health insurance—with, thankfully, no co-pays—through Medicaid. But, there’s a rub. Like many doctors in Reno, Denton’s oncologist, Dr. Reddy, doesn’t accept Laura’s Medicaid plan, so his office referred her to another doctor for follow-up care. However, Reddy says he is working on a plan which, if successful, would allow him to continue to provide her care.
“I’m willing to do anything I can to help her,” he says. “We really have no control over the Medicaid stuff. It’s just the crazy system we have.”
And the debts keep mounting. The unpaid medical bills, let alone all the others, amount to thousands of dollars. It is, of course, very distressing to Laura, as is the thought of one possible option: bankruptcy.
Her car has broken down, and with no money for repairs, she now gets around in an old clunker her parents have loaned her … that is, when she can scrape together a few dollars for gas. She clearly is strapped for cash.
Despite the overwhelming calamities that have left her fighting for both her life and her livelihood, Denton is not a quitter. She is looking for a new job, although she suspects that her still-thin hair, her facial paralysis and her cancer could be discouraging some would-be employers.
In the meantime, Denton has taken her plight to the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, charging St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center with discrimination.
“I believe I was discriminated against,” Denton writes in her complaint. “I was harassed and treated differently than others.” She cites her breast cancer and the resulting physical limitations as a “disability” that hospital officials refused to accommodate.
“I was being treated different than others,” her complaint continues. “Other employees were placed on light duty without incident, whereas I was facing the threat of discharge.” Her claims are still being investigated.
It is no coincidence that Denton was born at St. Mary’s, as were three of her four children. She also chose to have her bilateral [double] mastectomy there. All are testaments to her Catholic faith, and to the mission statement on the back of her occasionally forgotten ID badge: “We believe the mission of St. Mary’s Health Network is to extend Christ’s healing presence to people of all faiths by providing quality healthcare that restores, preserves, and promotes physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.”
At the beginning of last year, St. Mary’s was acquired by Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), a San Francisco-based corporation that manages hospitals in 31 cities in Arizona, California and Nevada. CHW’s mission—according to its website—is “furthering the healing ministry of Jesus.”
According to its website, CHW’s five core values are dignity, collaboration, justice, stewardship and excellence. The website defines justice as “advocating for social change and acting in ways that promote respect for all persons and demonstrate compassion for our sisters and brothers who are powerless.”
Readers could conclude that Denton is a “powerless sister” right now and that her dire situation is the result of her employer’s failure to “demonstrate compassion.” Yet when asked for a response to that, Vest, the St. Mary’s spokesperson, said tersely, “That’s it from here. There’s just no comment.”
Even though she faces financial ruin and an uncertain future health-wise, Denton remains relatively upbeat most of the time. She continues to look for suitable work and remains hopeful of finding a job as an intake representative or possibly a medical receptionist in a doctor’s office.
Denton’s biggest worry is that she is now questioning her religion, her Catholicism. She feels let down by St. Mary’s for failing to provide the mercy and support she so desperately needs. The resulting challenge to her faith sends her over the emotional brink into uncontrollable sobs.
“They’re supposed to be there for everyone,” she says, her tissues fighting a losing battle with the tears now streaming down her face. “I find it very, very disappointing that they’re not following their spiritual mission.”