Recollections from a marked pharmacist

May 14, 2014

Every now and then when I'm listening to the radio in the car and I hear a female singer lamenting something or other, I think to myself, “That girl is singing my song.” When I read your blog post titled “A dose of pharmacy truth: Report from the front lines,” I almost fell out of my chair, because you were singing my song. I have been that marked pharmacist, except I call it PTFD ([pharmacist targeted for destruction). I didn't coin that term until after I'd already been fired.

Every now and then when I'm listening to the radio in the car and I hear a female singer lamenting something or other, I think to myself, “That girl is singing my song.” When I read your blog post titled “A dose of pharmacy truth: Report from the front lines,” I almost fell out of my chair, because you were singing my song. I have been that marked pharmacist, except I call it PTFD ([pharmacist targeted for destruction). I didn't coin that term until after I'd already been fired.

This is my story:

I started at a critical access hospital in a rural area about five years ago. Three years into my stint at Hospital X, the CEO of 28 years retired and was replaced by a new CEO with a reputation for slashing and burning. The CEO is best described as a hybrid between the store manager and the DM that you describe in your blog post, except that this guy had absolute power.

Soon into his tenure, he had replaced, fired, or force-retired about 30% of the hospital staff, brought in his own people from his previous job, and required all remaining employees to sign a document stating that they support and agree to comply 100% with the decisions of the organization and to conform to its stipulated standards of behavior.

The director of pharmacy, a non-PharmD with two kids in college and a long history of doing exactly what she was told, always and without regard to the welfare of patients, immediately signed it and was completely disgusted with me when I balked. My degree is a PharmD. None of the physicians were required to sign this document, which made me the only holder of a clinical doctorate at the hospital who would be required to sign this in order to keep their job. To me, there were approximately 100 reasons not to sign and only one reason to sign (keeping my job).

I sent the document to my former law professor from pharmacy school for some advice, and he agreed with me that the document was an attempt by my employer to usurp the board of pharmacy's regulations as the employer saw fit, which is illegal.

 

My professor advised me that since I lived in a right-to-work state, I most certainly could be fired for not signing the document, and the easier lawsuit to win would be the one where I signed it and was subsequently fired for violating some aspect of it.

So that I could sleep at night and still keep my job, I added a small addendum to the document stating that my primary obligation was to my patients and the board of pharmacy that licenses me to care for them, and that my secondary obligation was with my employer, but that I would comply with the new standards of behavior, provided that they didn't require me to break any state or federal laws or my profession's code of ethics. I thought this was a fair and suitable compromise. I was wrong, and in hindsight, this is when I became a marked pharmacist.

The aforementioned director of pharmacy was furious with me and told me that the CEO was "not amused by my antics," and that if I didn't sign the form with no addendum I would be terminated immediately. So I signed the stupid form, because I have a teenager who needs to go to college, and given the rural nature of where I live, there are no jobs to be had and I needed time to get my ducks in a row.

Unfortunately, it was too late.

I became the target of all those things that employers do when they are trying to get an employee to leave: last-minute shift changes, schedule upheavals, fictitious annual reviews, etc. I mistakenly thought my director was doing this just to get back at me for somehow making her look bad in front of the CEO, and that I could just ride it out. I was wrong. I suspect now that she was acting under direction from the CEO. 

One Saturday evening, after about four months of not being able to make plans because I never knew when my schedule would be changed, I was alone in the pharmacy with my technician, with the door shut, after the pharmacy had closed.

 

She asked me why I was there so late on a Saturday when the other weekend pharmacist usually left hours earlier. All of the anger and frustration I had been so careful to keep in check bubbled to the surface and I vented to the tech, saying that director was trying to get rid of me but that she had another think coming, because she had no idea just how stubborn I could be.

I made the poor choice to use language prohibited by the new standards of behavior and mentioned something about wanting to burn the director's house down and kick her teeth in. Obviously, these were idle statements made in the heat of anger, the intent of which was no different from that of one of my techs when she shook her fist at me and said, "I'm gonna beat you," when I made a silly mistake that caused them extra work.

I was venting to a technician I considered a friend. She was the only co-worker who has ever been to my house. And I thought the conversation was private. I was incorrect.

To this day, I don't know whether the technician randomly relayed my comments to the director, or whether there was illegal audiotaping in the pharmacy (I suspect the latter). Several weeks ago, I was fired for "communicating threats."

When the supervisor terminated me, she delivered the news with a mix of barely concealed triumph and unnecessary cruelty. She smugly repeated the comments I had made, verbatim but out of context, complete with theatrical distaste while she repeated some choice four-letter words.

I was given no chance to defend myself or speak at all, and I was treated as a common criminal. I was escorted out by security and have had no contact with any of my former co-workers from the pharmacy.

 

After five years of dedicated service, thousands of unpaid hours, and dozens of clinical programs initiated that will outlive me by many years, I was not even afforded the courtesy of being paid out the 180 hours of vacation I had rightfully earned. My firing felt like the most painful and soul-crushing of divorces, except worse, because at least in my actual divorce I got to keep a shred of my dignity.

The shame and the guilt associated with being fired is indescribable. The injustice of the circumstances of my termination was completely overshadowed by thoughts of worthlessness and the fear of not being able to secure another job. I couldn't shake the idea that I had somehow let evil win and that I had completely let my family down, just because I couldn't keep my temper in check long enough to find another job.  

I kept my termination from most of my immediate family and started grocery-shopping out of town so that I wouldn't run into any of my former co-workers. I found myself in a downward spiral of shame.

I struggled with how to explain my sudden departure to prospective employers during interviews, because I thought no one would believe my story. I thought that something like this could only happen to me. I thought I was the only one.

Your blog post gave me an incredible sense of peace, just knowing that I was not alone. I sent your blog to my mom and told her to pass it along to my grandmother and aunt and tell them the news that yes, I had been fired.

My story does have somewhat of a happy ending. I managed to land a PRN job at a hospital an hour from the house. It's only one day a week, but it's a start, and its "character trait of the month" this month is courage. I took this as a sign from the universe that I had found the right place for right now, because courage is obviously a character trait I can get behind.

Kelly Howardis a freelance pharmacist living in Southeastern North Carolina. Contact her at kelly@gottsman.org.