“Take the patient down for an x-ray,” my new boss said. It was on my first workday at a rehab hospital and my first job out of college. I did exactly what I was told–except that I had no clue where either the x-ray or the patient was!
Finally figuring it out, I arrived 15 minutes late at the x-ray where I found the director of the department standing at the door, arms folded.
“So, who are you, and why in the hell are you late?”
“Excuse me, ma’am I’m new here and…”
“I don’t care if you’ve been here 100 years or just arrived. Do not ever be late to my department again!” She grabbed the wheelchair, spun the patient around and ushered him into the examination room.
That was my first encounter with Dr. Jonas (not her real name), chief radiologist. I thought her manner of speech sounded odd, but then many of the hospital staff were from different parts of the world, so I thought it was my problem.
On day three, I was assigned once again to take a patient to x-ray. This time I made sure that I arrived early. When I walked into Dr. Jonas’s office, her head was bent over a drawer in her desk. Obviously, I startled her, and she jumped to attention, slamming the drawer shut.
“What are you doing here?”
“I brought Mr. X, a patient scheduled for an x-ray.”
“Oh…okay,” she said. “Take him in there,” pointing to a room at the right.
I rolled the patient forward and then looked back. Dr. Jonas had her head bent over the drawer again.
Two weeks later, I had another assignment to deliver a patient to x-ray. This time I parked the patient outside the door and walked in. Dr. Jonas was at her desk.
“Pleash come in,” she said. “How ARE You?”
“I’m fine, Dr. Jonas. I have Mrs. Q ready for her x-ray.”
“Mithus Q? Now why would she want an xth-ray?” she wondered aloud. The slur in her speech was unmistakable.
“Are you okay, Dr. Jonas?”
“Shhhhhure, honey, I’m just fine. Bring her on in.”
By this time it was clear to me Dr. Jonas was in no condition to have a patient in her care. I thought quickly. “You know, doctor, I think that she’s not feeling well, so I’m taking her back to her room.” Dr. Jonas protested, but I left.
The next morning, I called the hospital director’s assistant and asked for an appointment. “I’m sorry but he’s really very busy,” she said. ” Can I help you?”
“No, you can’t,” I said. “Please tell him that I need to speak to him about someone jeopardizing the life of patients.”
“Oh, well, in that case, please have a seat. I’ll let him know you are here.”
It turned out that Dr. Jonas had been on the staff for 19 years—and drinking on the job for 18 of them. No one had had the courage to come forward. At 25, I was too inexperienced not to.
At first the director protested about Dr. Jonas’s age. “You know, dear—she’s 60 years old and this is her life. She’ll be retiring in just a few years. It’s really not so bad, is it?”
I informed him that it was worse than bad and that I would not stop pursuing this if she were going to continue to administer X-rays to patients while drunk. Dr. Jonas retired a month later after being put on administrative leave.
Doing what’s easy and doing what’s right is not the same thing. I often think back on this incident, wondering why no one else spoke up about Dr. Jonas’ drinking on the job in the eighteen years she was on staff there. My conclusion is they cared about her and didn’t want her to lose her job. It was easier to pretend they didn’t know and hope that she wouldn’t do too much damage in the radiology department.
Caring about people on your team is admirable, but not when it endangers people in their care. While I can see why no one spoke up, I don’t think it was the right thing to do, although I can see it was a choice made out of kindness.
Even though I know it was right to urge action on the part of the hospital administrator, it wasn’t easy. It also isn’t always the nice or the kind thing to do. I can only hope that Dr. Jonas faced her drinking problem and had a lovely retirement. The truth is, I don’t know if she did or not.
Leaders bear the responsibility to accept this as part and parcel of their role. It is our duty to do what’s right, even if it isn’t easy, and to make our peace with our choices.