A former resident at George Washington University Hospital sued the university last month, alleging that she was dismissed because she had cancer.
Stephanie Waggel started as a psychiatry resident at George Washington in the summer of 2014, her lawsuit says. In the spring of 2015, she was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and, after she informed the program, a “pattern of discriminatory conduct” began, according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District.
Waggel, whose suit says she had to work “more than 100 hours a week,” received “letters of deficiency” after alleged shortcomings on the job in the wake of her diagnosis.
Such letters were “in retaliation” for her “exercise of her right to take medical leave,” the suit says, and because of the “misguided perception” that Waggel could no longer perform her job because of her illness, Waggel was dismissed in May.
A GWU spokeswoman denied Waggel’s claims but declined to discuss the case in detail. The school has yet to file a formal response to the lawsuit.
“We are dedicated to supporting our medical residents suffering from health conditions and have programs in place to assist them,” Anne Banner, the university spokeswoman, said in a statement. “It is important to understand that Dr. Waggel’s account of her dismissal from the psychiatry residency program reflects only her allegations.”
In the lawsuit, Waggel says she was denied trauma counseling after she found that a patient had tried to hang herself. She also says she was “exposed to blood from another suicide attempt, but was not provided information as to whether the patient had HIV.”
“GW made no effort to accommodate Plaintiff and, in fact, did the opposite — choosing to discriminate against Plaintiff on account of her medical condition,” according to the suit. “Even though Plaintiff was able to perform the essential functions of her position with or without accommodations, Defendant refused to let Plaintiff work.”
A letter of deficiency Waggel received, which was provided by her attorney, faulted her “management of patient aggression” on the night of one of the suicide attempts, saying she had attempted to discharge a patient “in the middle of an acute behavioral crisis.”
“Your communication with the patient which exacerbated, rather than contained, the heightened emotions, demonstrate deficiencies in Interpersonal Communication,” the letter said.
Although Waggel’s attorney declined to make her available for an interview, Waggel wrote about her experience in a letter to Pamela Wible, a physician and advocate for doctors’ mental health, that was published online.
“Despite major surgery, tubes, drains, fainting, constant vomiting, and panic attacks I was still able to be a good doctor,” Waggel wrote. “. . . I was BOTH a doctor and a patient and despite pressure from above I received excellent evaluations from my attendings. So how on earth did they have justification to fire me?”
Wible, who said she met with Waggel recently at an event to raise awareness about physicians’ mental health, said the former resident “stands out as somebody willing to tell her story.”
“Some [residency programs] believe they are above the law and don’t have to honor their own employees’ mental and physical health,” Wible said. “The stories that come out are shocking.”