It came as no surprise to Terry Gray when a White House report a couple of weeks ago found that the Department of Veterans Affairs was infected with a “corrosive culture” that hides its problems and retaliates against employees who try to bring them to light.
The report followed waves of revelations this year about mismanaged patient care and cover-ups at VA hospitals nationwide.
But as Gray sees it — pointing to his own painful experience — this kind of behavior is nothing new at the VA.
“If it doesn’t fit in, they make it disappear,” he said. “If you don’t fit in, they make you disappear.”
For 20 years, Gray tended the medical equipment at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita. By the time he retired in 2004 — forced to retire, he would say — Gray was a beaten and frustrated whistleblower.
He said he discovered that nurses in the hospital’s intensive care unit were ignoring the audible alarm that went off when electronic monitors detected something wrong with a patient’s breathing or heart rate. At first, nurses turned the speaker down low. Eventually, they disconnected it entirely. Gray learned that the alarm would go disregarded for hours; several patients may have died unattended after the alarm went off, he said.
“What we saw was criminal negligence,” he said.
Gray took it to the head nurse, who walked out on him. He took it to the safety committee, which kept his complaint out of its meeting minutes. He took it up the chain of command. An investigation ensued, but the ICU problem persisted. Eventually, an administrator warned him there would be serious consequences if he kept complaining.
“I knew it was the end of my career,” he said.
Gray was removed from his job supervising technicians and was left with virtually no real duties. He was bounced from one supervisor to another. At a low point in his life, thinking of suicide, he said to himself out loud, “If I had a gun, I think I would use it.” An office mate overheard him and reported the comment.
Hospital administrators chose to interpret his words as a threat. Gray said he was offered the choice of retiring or being fired.
Gray said he has no regrets about being a whistleblower. But looking back, he thinks he wasn’t as bright as some of his VA co-workers.
“Other people were smarter than me,” he said. “They didn’t bring it up.”
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