A Day Like No Other
April 9, 2014 began like any other day for me. Well, like any other day since I’d been sentenced to purgatory in the library of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System (PVAHCS). But this day would end like no other.
I went upstairs to get the daily paper, the Arizona Republic, smiling and saying hello to a few folks along the way. Some smiled back. That was a far cry from much of the previous year when many of my colleagues refused to meet my eye or, if they did, looked at me as if I were some kind of Judas. If you’re an accused security risk and charged with “serious allegations of misconduct,” people tend to believe the worst. When hospital leadership rules by fear, and a whistleblower stands up to take them on, allies are hard to come by.
Anyway, after I retrieved the paper, I took my long journey back to the library, dreading each step. For some reason, I suddenly felt the full weight of the past sixteen months burdening me once more. Some of it had lifted over time, as the occasional positive newspaper story appeared, or if my representatives scored wins against the monolithic bureaucracy that was the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But what had begun as a bogus 30-day investigation of me back in December of 2012 had now stretched out to almost a year and a half, and the end was still nowhere in sight. My legal bills were stacking up. My family was unraveling. My depression was deepening. My emails were being monitored. The higher-ups were doing everything in their considerable power to force me out. And despite many, many letters and phone calls to VA in Washington, no one was paying any attention. It felt like I was reliving a nightmare.
Back in the library, I returned to business as usual: checking people onto the computers; making photocopies for the veterans; faxing their documents; letting them use the phone; sharpening their pencils; checking books in and out; helping staff find the medical literature research they needed; reshelving books; ensuring forms were signed and training credits were captured; and preparing for an upcoming continuing education forum, where I was the administrative point person. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was what a Temporary Library Technician (my new “title”) did. It was a far cry from what I’d been doing before Sharon Helman and Lance Robinson, the top two executives at the hospital, had forced me from my position as Public Affairs Officer and orchestrated a campaign to smear me professionally and personally, but my job was to perform my duties, no matter how mundane. That’s what members of the military do, and I was a decorated Navy veteran honorably discharged, and then re-enlisted during Operation Desert Storm. The fact that my library job was drudgery was not relevant.
As I went through my tasks, about the only thing that would break the monotony was taking a few minutes to watch a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing later in the day. I’d cleared it with my supervisor because, by that time, I cleared everything. Even my bathroom breaks. The length and frequency of those trips were monitored, too.
For the first hour and a half of the hearing, nothing earthshaking happened. Then U.S. Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, the committee chairman, began to question Dr. Thomas Lynch, who was the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Operations at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Congressman Miller told Dr. Lynch that the next topic was “unofficial wait lists at the Phoenix VA.” Dr. Lynch seemed unfazed by the fact, but he didn't know what the chairman knew, the secrets that I and my friend and fellow whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote knew, and the secrets that my superiors at the Phoenix VA had tried so hard to conceal – through intimidation, harassment, data manipulations, sham investigations, and the threat of career-ending personnel sanctions:
Executives at the medical center had engaged in a conspiracy and cover-up that was killing our veterans.
Congressman Miller eyed Dr. Lynch. Even on a computer monitor, and even though I am legally blind, I could see the restrained anger in his face. A moment passed. Then he asked a question that would bring down the house of lies that Sharon, Lance, and their confederates had so cruelly constructed:
“It appears as though there could be as many as forty veterans whose deaths could be related to delays in care. Were you made aware of any of this in your lookback?”
Winston Churchill once famously said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” On April 9, 2014, however, it was the truth that would rocket not just halfway around the world but all over the world.
One of the darkest episodes in VA history would be exposed.
The dominoes would fall.