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Jim Kenyon: Creating a ‘Hardship’ for Nurse With Cancer

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 9/17/2017 12:44:18 AM
Modified: 9/17/2017 12:44:19 AM

Sherie Laraway became a registered nurse the hard way. At 30, she enrolled in community college, sometimes taking night classes while holding down a day job and raising a family. Her hard work paid off.

For nearly 10 years, she’s worked in the same-day surgery recovery unit at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon.

Laraway considered APD something of a home. She was born there, as were her two sons. After graduating from Lebanon High School in 1988, she worked as a clerk in the hospital’s record-keeping department for nine years.

But APD recently informed Laraway that it was cutting her loose. It seems Laraway had missed a lot of work, which according to a Aug. 31 letter she received from APD had created a “hardship for your department.”

The reason for Laraway’s extended absence?

Those pesky chemotherapy treatments she was undergoing for her cancer.

In 2015, Laraway was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Better known as CLL, it’s a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that usually doesn’t strike people until their 60s.

Laraway, who lives in Hartford, is 47.

“In CLL, the leukemia cells often build up slowly over time, and many people don’t have any symptoms for at least a few years,” according to the American Cancer Society’s website. “In time, the cells can spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.”

For more than a year, Laraway managed the disease pretty well. But with her white blood cell count soaring, her oncologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center recommended chemotherapy. In late January, she started three days a month of outpatient chemotherapy for six months. Other than the time around her monthly treatments, “my plan was to work as much as I could,” she said.

But the first round of chemo hit her hard. Keeping down food was a challenge.

On Jan. 30, Laraway began a leave-of-absence from work under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables employees to take unpaid leave without fear of losing their jobs.

But when her leave expired in April, Laraway was still undergoing chemotherapy and unable to work. APD granted her an additional 14 weeks of medical leave, allowing her to continue to collect short-term disability pay (70 percent of her salary). APD, unlike many employers, provides the insurance at no cost to its workers.

With clearance from her oncologist, Laraway returned to work Aug. 1, a Tuesday. By Friday, however, she was experiencing shortness of breath. The next morning her husband, Mike, took her to APD’s emergency room.

Although she still wasn’t feeling up to par, she went back to work the next week. “I still couldn’t breathe very well, but I wanted my supervisor to see that I was really sick; that I wasn’t making it up.”

Laraway lasted less than two hours. That same week, her primary care physician diagnosed a lung infection, and referred her to a DHMC pulmonary specialist.

On Aug. 16, Laraway gave APD a note from her doctor that indicated she should remain out of work until at least Sept. 11. On Aug 22, Laraway got a call from APD’s human resources department with startling news: She was no longer a full-time employee with benefits. She was being switched to per-diem status. In essence, she would become the hospital’s equivalent of a substitute teacher. If APD needed her to work, they’d call.

Laraway was given about a week to find health insurance for herself and her husband, a self-employed electrician. “I was in tears,” she said. “None of it felt fair. I didn’t choose to have cancer or get a lung infection.”

After she pled her case, the hospital extended the couple’s health insurance benefits through Dec. 31.

No doubt that APD is in a belt-tightening mode. Earlier this month, the hospital laid off 17 employees in its patient accounts department and outsourced the work to a Maryland company.

But firing (what else do you call it?) a long-time nurse who is battling cancer seems harsh. If any business should grasp the ups and downs that confront workers undergoing treatment for cancer, I’d think it would be a hospital. It’s not as though Laraway was skipping work to go on a six-month Disney cruise.

On Friday, Brenda Blair, APD’s chief administrative officer, was good enough to meet with me. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers aren’t obligated to hold a worker’s job after 12 weeks, but in Laraway’s case, “we followed our policies, and then some,” said Blair, noting that APD had given Laraway an additional 14 weeks of medical leave.

It’s also APD’s policy that employees provide a doctor’s note that specifies a return-to-work date. The note from Laraway’s doctor didn’t give a specific date so it was “unclear when or if she would return to work,” according to a statement APD gave me.

The hospital has yet to find her replacement. Nurses who work in the surgical recovery unit are hard to find, Blair said. “It’s a specialized nursing role.”

Blair said Laraway is a good nurse and if APD had her doctor’s OK, “we would hire her back today.”

Laraway recently learned from a friend that DHMC was looking for a nurse with her skill set. She starts next week. It’s a per diem job with no guaranteed hours or benefits, but she hopes it leads to a full-time position.

Along with working at DHMC, she could be assigned to its affiliated hospitals, which include Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor and New London Hospital. APD is another affiliate, but Laraway asked not to be sent there.

“It’s too soon.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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