The Washington Post

Md. leukemia patient stunned by firing

Marla Gilson had just returned home from a second round of chemotherapy to treat an acute form of leukemia when the e-mail arrived.

She had asked her employer, an association of Jewish homes for the elderly, for permission to work from her home in Chevy Chase for six months while she recovered from an upcoming bone marrow transplant. The
e-mail, which was sent to her by mistake, contained the group’s reply.

She was being fired.

In the e-mail, two board members said that the Association of Jewish Aging Services of North America, where Gilson was president and chief executive, would face “an undue hardship, if not irreparable harm,” if she worked from home. A search for her replacement would begin immediately.

Gilson was stunned, family friends said.

“I think it is hard to fathom how people who are executives for institutions whose mission is to care for the frail and elderly could behave so callously, independent of their legal obligations,” Julie Rabinowitz said.

Gilson’s case has been taken up in Jewish media and is probably headed to court. She is preparing for her transplant and declined to comment.

Gilson took over the association in June. The 51-year-old association, which represents 112 facilities for Jewish elderly in the United States and Canada, including the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville, hired her for the job after a seven-month nationwide search.

The timing was good for Gilson, 59, an experienced lobbyist and Democratic Party operative. She had been laid off from Hadassah, a volunteer Jewish women’s organization, after the Bernard Madoff scandal forced the group to cut staff. Hadassah has agreed to pay Madoff’s investors $45 million that it made from Madoff-linked investments.

By all accounts, the association board was pleased with Gilson’s performance.

But in December, Gilson experienced flulike symptoms. Friends recall seeing her carving turkeys and doing dishes at a holiday party. Ten days later, she was so weak, she couldn’t walk.

In early January, after a hospitalization, she got the diagnosis: mylogenic and bilineal leukemia. Her best chance for recovery meant chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.

Friends and family launched drives to identify suitable marrow donors. Neighbors set up shifts to care for Gilson and dropped off food for family members.

While hospitalized, she was visited by two board members, Chairman Barbra Gold and Chairman-elect Martin Goetz, who were initially supportive.

Over several subsequent conversations, they told her they were worried about how her illness would affect the association. Face-to-face meetings in Washington and some out-of-town travel are part of her duties. In her first seven months on the job, Gilson’s work took her to Dallas, Denver and Florida.

Goetz declined to comment, as did Warren Slavin, an association board member and president and chief executive of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities. In a statement given to Washington Jewish Week, Goetz said, “AJAS is deeply saddened by the unfortunate turn of events that have made Marla Gilson unable to continue in her capacity as President/CEO of AJAS.”

Goetz has said that Gilson was one of only three employees at the organization and that the other employees cannot fill in for her because their positions are administrative.

Gilson tried to reassure board members in writing that she could continue doing her job. Copies of her letters were provided to The Washington Post by family friends. In the letters, she said her doctors had told her that if the bone marrow procedure was successful, she would need to stay home for six months to protect her immune system but would be able to work almost every day. She said she could return to the office by Sept. 1.

Gilson was then mistakenly
e-mailed a draft letter from Goetz and Gold informing her that she would be terminated. The draft said that if the board was unable to find a replacement by Sept. 1 and Gilson was able to carry out the “essential functions” of her job, “we will, of course, welcome your return to AJAS.”

The letter ended by saying, “In a short period of time, you have become a fine colleague and good friend. Again, we wish you a speedy recovery.”

In a March 7 letter to Goetz and Gold, Gilson wrote, “I can understand your belief that it would be easier for AJAS to ‘move on’ as you have expressed to me in our phone conversations. While I appreciate your desire to give me the opportunity to ‘not worry about the office and focus exclusively on my medical treatment,’ you surely can understand the difficulty of doing so when I am worried about the financial well being of my family and finding new employment following my treatment.”

Gilson is the primary source of health-care coverage for herself, husband Carl, who is a self-
employed consultant, and one of their two children. She is eligible for COBRA, but that will eventually run out. If she is not able to find another job, she and her family might not have health insurance.

“If the transplant is not successful,” Gilson noted in her March 7 letter, “that will soon be apparent.”

She offered to take a pay cut from her $155,000-a-year salary to enable the association to hire a consultant to handle tasks the board thought she couldn’t do from home. The board said hiring and training a consultant would be too much of a burden for AJAS.

Gilson plans to file a discrimination lawsuit against the association, her friends said.

Her firing might run afoul of District laws, legal experts said. The D.C. Human Rights Act classifies cancer as a disability and also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled, including granting unpaid leave for treatment and restructuring job functions.

Gilson, who is scheduled to begin chemotherapy this week in preparation for her transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been visiting with friends.

“The only thing she can’t do right now is be in a public setting,” Rabinowitz said. “Her mind is good.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.


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