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Three Boxes of Justice

(I haven't posted in a while, and this post diverges from previous themes. I hope it inspires the reader.)

Today, I burned ten years of my life.

I swear I heard a couple of screams when the flames licked at the reams of paper generated from my fight with my former employer over a work injury. Appropriate, given how much pain I was in when it all started in 2001. I kept the documents all these years, thinking maybe I’d write a book about it. It’s not something I revisit easily. As anyone who has been through a debilitating work injury can attest, the injury is only one side of the devastation. The other side is the betrayal of an employer that abandons the injured.

I got a call from my attorney a couple months ago. He had retired and was cleaning out his office. He asked how I was doing (fine) and then asked if it was okay that he destroy the three banker boxes of documents my case generated (yes). He reminded me that in his thirty-some years of practicing law, never had a client generated so much paperwork. It’s not a distinction one aspires to.

My case was complicated. I’d suffered a back injury while a student nurse during clinical practice. Because of this, the hospital required that I register with the Second Injury Fund prior to employment. I suppose if the hospital hadn’t been hard up for nurses at the time, I wouldn’t have been hired. I was told the SIF was established to protect workers with a pre-existing condition. Great! It meant I got the job of my dreams! In reality, the SIF exists to serve the employer, not the employee, as I eventually discovered.

Fast forward thirteen years during which I mostly worked in critical care nursing. While moving a patient, I re-injured the same area of my spine. I did what the hospital required and documented the injury. I was bounced from the hospital’s occupational health doctor to physical therapy to accommodations at work, all of which ultimately failed to restore my physical abilities. After a designated period of time, I was free to see my own physician. Spinal fusion followed, which at first relieved a good deal of the pain, but as time wore on, pain returned with a ferocity that is hard to describe.

Months passed and the pain worsened. I was given the name of a spinal surgeon in Minnesota who, upon evaluating my records, said he suspected the fusion had failed. Indeed, it had. During the ensuing second surgery, the hardware implanted to immobilized my spine was discovered to be completely loose and the spine was still grinding on a disc that was “nothing but mush”.

In the meantime, the hospital denied my work comp claim. I retained an attorney. I subsequently had to make a claim against the SIF. Both took the spurious position that my injury was ‘personal’ and had nothing to do with lifting patients every day I worked, this based upon the brilliant opinions of doctors being paid by the hospital and the Fund for their brilliant opinions. In my most cynical moments I could never have imagined physicians whoring their opinions for a buck.

The hospital began harassing me, at one point accusing me of taking a vacation. I was willing to work in any capacity that did not involve direct patient care from which I was restricted. Jobs mysteriously disappeared the moment I applied. Eventually, I was terminated. My beloved profession slipped away and I grieved.

Workers Compensation supposedly exists to compensate job-injured employees for lost wages and medical care. I discovered the hospital’s Work Comp carrier (Michigan Health and Hospital Association) invested the premiums in the stock market. No matter how legitimate the claim, the hospital wasn’t going to jeopardize their earnings from investments. I’m not ignorant; there are people who try to scam the system. I was not one of them and anyone who looked at my work record would have known that.

I was angered over the mistreatment and set myself for battle. The filings and depositions, hearings and motions, lies and obfuscations all took a toll on me. I had also developed a complication from the surgery that caused scarring on the spinal nerves. To this day I believe had I not been under the emotional stress of having to battle the hospital, I would not have had the complication. In practical terms it meant I could walk no more than a block without excruciating pain. A wheelchair became my chariot. Where I had once competed in 10K races, I couldn’t even walk to my mailbox.

Eventually, my case went before an administrative law judge. I was warned by my attorney the judge had a reputation of favoring employers. There was nothing either of us could do about the judge docuted to hear my case, but I asked God for favor before him. When I was sworn in at the hearing, I locked eyes with the judge. Something unexpected happened in that moment, an exchange that transcended words. I got the distinct feeling he knew I was a straight shooter. In that instant, I knew I was going to be okay.

I'd kept a notebook through the travails, writing everything that had happened to me since the injury, all the hoops I was put through, all the times I tried to find alternative jobs at the hospital and all the times I was turned down. As I testified, the notebook proved invaluable. When opposing counsel attempted to shoot holes in my testimony, the judge at one point referenced my notebook with a wry smile and said, “She already answered that if you’d been listening, so move on.” I had to stifle a laugh. So did my attorney.

I won my case. The hospital had to pay in the end. They had to pay so much more than if they had only done the right thing to begin with. Eventually, the State of Michigan settled and I walked away with a lump sum. In terms of work comp, it was a large award, a three-banker-boxes-full-of-documents large award.

The question is sometimes asked, why didn’t I use my private insurance and forget workers compensation? Every insurer asks if an injury was the result of an accident or occurred at work. My injury was documented according to hospital policy. I had no choice but to pursue compensation. Furthermore, I knew the law and it was clear. My injury was covered.

Over the last five years, my condition has stabilized. I’ve had help along the way, friends who stayed close, family who supported me and a remarkable physician to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. The complication still exists, but the pain gradually lessened to the point that I can now enjoy a reasonably active life.

There are larger lessons in this tale, justice being the central theme. Justice is a word that is blithely tossed around too often in these tumultuous times. When someone is legitimately wronged under the law, justice is a noble goal, a righteous goal. However, perceived slights or consequences for one’s own misdeeds is not injustice. My rights under the law had been violated. It took ten years for justice to prevail in my case. Justice was initially denied, but it ultimately triumphed. Fighting for what is right and just is worth the strain, even if it takes ten years.

I burned ten years of my life today. It felt good to watch that old pain go up in flames, smoke and ash, but I confess I also had to fight tears that are buried deep where some of it still exists.

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