Painful Surgery

The Free Clinic draws blood with a staff cut.

Road Trip
The shrine co-workers constructed outside - Loisdaughter's old office. - Jacqueline  Marino
The shrine co-workers constructed outside Loisdaughter's old office.
In 1973, Jane Loisdaughter lost her way to a rape hotline training session and found her calling.

Loisdaughter, then only 17, was directed to a training for Free Clinic hotline volunteers instead. Too shy to leave once she realized she was in the wrong room, she became hooked on the idea of volunteering at the Clinic, where she could assist young drug users who had nowhere else to go for help.

Loisdaughter volunteered for two years before joining the staff in 1975. Since then, she has weathered low pay, long hours, and the continuing crises created by the ever-growing demands of the Clinic's changing patient population. In her most recent capacity, as the director of education and supervisor of the hotline, she would have celebrated her 25th anniversary at the Clinic in August.

But to the great surprise and dismay of many of her co-workers, Loisdaughter was fired on May 8 -- several months after filing charges of physical harassment and retaliation against Executive Director Martin Hiller.

Her termination unleashed an outpouring of sympathy and protest from volunteers and staffers, some of whom spent last week wearing tie-dyed purple ribbons of support and turning the front door of her office into a shrine. On Friday, more than 30 staffers and volunteers attended an emergency meeting called to demand answers from Clinic trustees.

"I thought Jane was the Free Clinic," John Mihalik, a volunteer psychiatric intake worker, said at the meeting. "I just can't believe it."

The workers' outrage follows several months of internal turmoil within the charity health care organization, stemming from an organizational restructuring as well as a number of grievances filed against several supervisors, alleging racial and sexual discrimination. At Friday's meeting, staffers and volunteers insisted that Loisdaughter's firing constitutes a betrayal of the very soul of the Clinic.

With her patient demeanor, flowing, waist-length hair, and tie-dyed skirts, Loisdaughter was, in many ways, one of the last vestiges of the Clinic's roots. To many Free Clinic workers, her departure represents a break with the Clinic's humble, patients-first philosophy and a foray into the type of politics and bureaucracy that pervades larger health care organizations.

"It's horrible," says Loisdaughter, who still thinks of herself as part of the Clinic. "It's sad. It's killing us at the Free Clinic."

Board of Trustees President Adam Fishman, who addressed the staff at their regular Monday meeting in lieu of Friday's, blames the internal turmoil on "growing pains."

"We're trying to bring [the Clinic] up to today's managerial standards for a 501(c)3," Fishman says. "That's not something we're doing because we want to. It's something we're doing because of the size of the organization, the complexity of the health care industry, and the increased demand of our funders for more detail and record-keeping and accountability."

The Clinic is indeed facing troubled times. Its patient load has tripled in the past three years, from 550 per month in the medical clinic to more than 1,500. More of the city's poorest, most chronically ill patients are flooding the Clinic, as hospitals close or tighten charity-care policies.

To meet the challenge of treating more people with less help from the health care establishment, change isn't just inevitable, says Executive Director Hiller. It's necessary for the Clinic's survival.

"I've tried to make changes that would allow the organization to function more effectively," says Hiller, who also began his tenure at the Clinic as a volunteer in the early '70s. "I like the organization I came into, too. But we have a job to do, and we have to do it."

To many staffers and volunteers, however, the changes undertaken so far have simply added an extra layer of bureaucracy to the Clinic while disempowering nonmanagerial employees, who complain they are no longer encouraged to voice their opinions in staff meetings. Several employees at Friday's meeting indicated that they believed Loisdaughter's firing was a warning to them all.

"Jane had the courage to speak up and articulate for all of us," one said. "And look where it got her. If it could happen to Jane, it could happen to all of us."

Loisdaughter says she and Hiller have a long history of contentiousness, which culminated in a physical confrontation on November 4. According to Loisdaughter, the two were arguing loudly about a personnel issue in his office, and she accused him of lying. She was crying when he placed both hands on her back and tried to shove her out the door.

Hiller later apologized, Loisdaughter says, and asked her to sign a memo as "formal notice" that her "accusatory behavior toward me is insubordinate and will not be tolerated at the Free Clinic." She agreed to do so, as long as he signed a memo she wrote, outlining her version of events. Hiller never signed her memo. Then he stopped communicating with her, she says, hindering her ability to do her job and prompting her to file a formal grievance on November 22.

After four months of investigation, the board issued reprimands on March 15 to both Loisdaughter and Hiller. Unhappy with the board's decision and what she perceived to be a retributive demotion, followed by a suspension without pay, Loisdaughter refused to give up on her grievance. She was subsequently fired when she refused to accept a severance package and resign.

Hiller declines to discuss personnel matters involving Loisdaughter. In his correspondence with her, he said he only touched her on the shoulder during the confrontation in his office "to guide you to the door." He also upheld her suspension and denied her claims of retaliation and collusion on behalf of her supervisors.

Fishman also denies that Loisdaughter's firing was retaliatory. "From the board's standpoint, Jane's change in status in the organization had nothing to do with any allegations or any other matters, other than the organization was heading in a direction Jane chose not to be a part of," he says.

At Friday's emotional meeting, staffers and volunteers were clearly distressed over Loisdaughter's dismissal. Several volunteers, including River Smith, who runs the domestic abuse program for men, threatened to not come back to work until Loisdaughter was reinstated. There were also calls for unionization and the resignation of Hiller and the entire board of trustees.

Some of the concerns echoed complaints listed in an anonymous memo that has been circulating among board members, funders, and media since mid-March. Though no one claimed authorship, a number of staffers agreed with the memo's conclusion that "the Free Clinic is dying."

The real tragedy, Loisdaughter says, is that "all this energy and passion is being used to fight for the Free Clinic's survival, when it should be poured into serving the patients."

An unfortunate situation for any health care provider, but especially this one. Especially now.

Jacqueline Marino can be reached at [email protected].

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