WHEN YOU THINK of Caroline Gilbert, think of raw, putrid, stinking sewage.
Not that the two share anything overtly in common, mind you. For her part, Gilbert is a pleasant, polite, middle-aged woman with red hair parting around her face like a curtain.
And sewage, of course, is just shit soup.
Which is exactly what Caroline Gilbert gulped from a water fountain in a remote Alaska post office one day 11 years ago. It's what subsequently brutalized her health. And it's also what she's getting lots of lately, from a pair of federal agencies which apparently have colluded to drive her from their workman's compensation rolls.
Adding insult to this injury, a painting by her father, the late, prominent artist Dale Nichols, currently appears on one of the most popular postcards ever issued by the U.S. Postal Service--the same agency now ranking among Gilbert's prime tormentors.
But first back to sewage.
In 1987 Gilbert was a postal worker on the move, hopping from office to office and soaking up all the training she could get. By the time she hit Sitka, Alaska, she says the machinery was already in motion to award her postmaster status, and an office of her own.
The Sitka station took up the bottom floors of an historic building housing a number of federal agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service. During the summer up to 25,000 tourists a day would stream through for luggage and paperwork checks, and to use the head. Among them were enormous numbers of Southeast Asians.
While old buildings can exude charm, their plumbing typically does not. Such was the situation in Sitka that July day when the weary drain pipes finally burst, sending forth a torrent of Asian-generated crap.
It was dripping off ceilings, streaking down walls, streaming into the parking lots. It was also seeping into the drinking water.
All of which was news to Caroline Gilbert--after she and a co-worker quenched themselves from the only fountain still operating. What they drank was a toxic cocktail of drain cleaner, formaldehyde and sewage.
"It burned horribly," Gilbert recalls. "I knew immediately something terrible had happened."
Both promptly fell ill. But Postmaster Dick Rogers, the tundra version of Conrad's Col. Kurtz, ordered them back to work. "He shut the fountain down, but he decided that we didn't consume enough to hurt us," Gilbert says.
Within six months her co-worker was dead of general lymphatic failure. Gilbert toughed it out for a few months, until she finally collapsed one day at work. Only then was she diagnosed with a strain of hepatitis rarely seen in the West. It was carried in human feces, and well known in other parts of the world--particularly Southeast Asia.
In a flash Gilbert's bright, shining future had grown dark and tarnished. She tried to apply for disability, but says Rogers repeatedly refused to file her claims ("He said no one ever filed a claim in his office, and I wasn't going to be the first"). Her husband, unable to cope with a bedridden wife, eventually hit the road. And her healthy, active life quickly disintegrated into cloistered sickrooms, bed pans and hospital stints.
Her liver was shot, her career was ruined, and she was alone.
Lawyers didn't see much cash, so they wouldn't help, except to tell her that her case would have landed a multi-million-dollar settlement in the private sector.
Finally, Gilbert filed for workman's compensation directly with the U.S. Department of Labor. A year and a half after the accident, she was finally awarded her first monthly disability payment. She moved back to Tucson, and tried to rebuild a life. Today, at age 48, she hobbles about her modest home with a walker or uses a wheelchair. Her legs are swollen from liver damage and twisted by arthritis. She takes morphine for pain, and cares for her current husband, who's been diagnosed with another breed of hepatitis. Until recently, she was receiving monthly $2,700 payments from the DOL--half of her former working income--and spending her time battling Uncle Sam to keep it.
The upshot: No matter how you cut it, Caroline Gilbert's slice of life ain't pretty.
IT WASN'T MADE any prettier when DOL and postal officials sparked a concerted effort to bounce her from their books. And if what she alleges is true--and there's little reason for doubt--the abuse she's suffered at the hands of these government hacks is simply shameful.
This campaign reached its despicable climax on July 9, when the DOL completely cut Gilbert's medical benefits. The move came about a month after The Weekly first contacted the DOL about Gilbert--and after one DOL source assured a reporter that the case was in "a holding pattern."
The timing may be fishy, but the move culminates a long, apparently well-devised strategy. Here's how it worked:
Normally, the DOL will send its long-term claimants for a medical reevaluation every couple of years. By contrast, in the last 18 months Gilbert has been ordered to see more than 10 doctors. Most of those evaluations were redundant, and all but one doctor said she was unable to work. The sole exception was a physician who made his decision after a five-minute cursory exam. In an odd coincidence, that doctor also happened to be under contract to the Postal Service.
Gilbert has also been accused of selling her morphine. She has been forced to take drug tests and undergo psychiatric exams. She's been sent to medical offices lacking handicapped facilities, and browbeaten when she refused to go.
On the phone, officials have called her a fat, lazy slob. They've told her that she just wants to "sit around on her fat butt and watch TV."
One suggested we'd all would be better off if she just killed herself. Across her coffee table Gilbert spreads letters from ministers, friends and her own kids insisting otherwise.
"I remember my mom as being very active outdoors," writes her daughter, Kathleen. "She would take us camping, fishing, horseback riding. Now my mom has grandkids that she cannot take anywhere to have fun with."
Her son Michael, a Gulf War vet, is more blunt. "It...seems that there is a lack of compassion for someone who has faithfully served the United States Government for over 10 years prior to her illness," he writes. "Hmm, almost reminds me of how (the government) has treated us Gulf War veterans right along with the Vietnam War vets and others. We faithfully serve our government, whether through military service or civilian service, and when something happens...that was the government's own fault...we are quickly dismissed and shrugged off like bad luggage."
THE HARASSMENT OF Caroline Gilbert began last year when the DOL hired a nurse to coordinate her medical care. And local R.N. Mary Schacht coordinated in spades, working with DOL's Seattle-based claims examiner, Jean Graham, to schedule the slew of appointments.
Gilbert's prescription for slow-release morphine also became a quick target after she aced a mental exam. "The nurse said there was no way I could score so high if I was taking morphine," Gilbert says. "So that's when she accused me of not taking it, and selling it."
Gilbert alleges that Schacht told doctors she was "psycho" and "a trouble-maker," and implied that she was lying about her condition.
Gilbert says that one time a Postal Service injury compensation specialist named Danna Corbell met with her personal doctor and Schacht to review Gilbert's case, without notifying her. "They told the doctor that I was a working employee and a trouble-maker, and that I had no disabilities of note." And the post office had no business even meddling with her case, she says, since in truth she hadn't punched a time clock in 12 years.
According to Postal Service spokesman Brian Sperry, his agency doesn't get involved with former employees and their doctors.
But a terse letter from Corbell to Gilbert proves otherwise. Dated April 2, the correspondence concerned the doctor's office that was lacking handicapped facilities.
"Please be assured the facilities were inspected and a determination was made that the facilities meet the standard required to accommodate your needs," Corbell wrote. "You are expected to attend the appointment which has been made for you..."
If she refused to go, Gilbert worried that her disability payments would be cut. Finally, she sought help from the office of Arizona Sen. John McCain, and the appointment was canceled. She's also been discussing the incident with the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
Schacht says she's been removed from Gilbert's case. And she denies practicing subterfuge, or making disparaging remarks. "That's not the terminology I would use," she says. Schacht also denies making the numerous appointments, or suggesting that Gilbert receive drug testing and treatment. "The Department of Labor handles all that," she says.
Ultimately, she calls Gilbert's allegations "unfounded." As for her former patients' numerous complaints, "I think she generates her own," Schacht says.
Danna Corbell refused to comment.
Meanwhile, Gilbert says she was taking nasty flack from other Postal Service officials. She says that over the phone, Injury Compensation Specialist Ron Murray called her "a fat, lazy slob who just wanted to sit around on my butt and watch TV." In another telephone conversation, Human Resources Analyst Phillip Fuller "told me it would be better for everyone concerned if I just committed suicide," she says.
Neither Fuller nor Murray returned phone calls seeking comment. But spokesman Sperry says both deny making the remarks.
In November, however, Murray wrote Gilbert to say that "Danna Corbell of our Tucson Office...has informed me that you are an extremely intelligent woman with excellent re-employment potential."
At some point, the Postal Service even suggested Gilbert might need to fulfill that potential back in Alaska, even though the agency couldn't make her do squat without a DOL thumbs-up. But after months of doctor-shopping, the DOL finally found in Dr. Raymond Schumacher a physician who'd say the right stuff.
"He said that maybe I could work 30 minutes at a time, then take a 15 minute break, then work another 30 minutes, until I've completed two hours and 45 minutes of desk work," Gilbert says. "That was the best scenario. But he didn't mention that I was incontinent, and must change my protection and also put my legs up so they don't swell."
Attempts to contact Schumacher for comment were unsuccessful.
All other doctors confirmed that she was hardly able to work. Indeed, in letters to the DOL and to Danna Corbell, Tucson M.D. Christopher Puca cited her maladies, including "debilitating bilateral knee osteoarthritis which needs surgical correction." He went on to say that "Ms. Gilbert is on high doses of slow-acting, sustained-release morphine. Because of this medicine she cannot drive on a regular basis. Ms. Gilbert also has osteoarthritis in other parts of the body, including the spine, wrists and hips.
"However, Ms. Gilbert has notified me that she was told she may possibly be required to relocate to the State of Alaska, although she is currently living in Tucson, Arizona, in order for her to work 2-3/4 hours a day," Puca continued. "I find this astounding. I must protest any requirement that this woman be relocated to another state at this time."
Eventually, other sympathetic doctors like Puca were hounded to the point that they refused to continue handling her care, Gilbert says.
POSTAL SPOKESMAN SPERRY says his agency never tried to strong-arm Gilbert off its workman's compensation rolls. Nor did postal officials collaborate with the DOL to make her life hellish, he says. "We must rely on the Department of Labor and their determination as to whether the person has work capability. And the field nurse (Schacht) indicated to us that she had work capability." Sperry says the DOL told him Gilbert's case is currently "in a holding pattern."
Thus the plot thickens: Who exactly was playing lead in this brutish bureaucratic two-step?
If Schacht and DOL claims examiner Jean Graham were characterizing Gilbert as a problem client, as a liar and a cheat, they never made their opinions official. And if they informally urged her re-employment, they did so in the face of an army of doctors who felt otherwise.
Department of Labor officials wouldn't specifically discuss Gilbert's case. Speaking in generalities, Tom Markey, Director of the DOL's Office for Federal Employees Compensation in Washington, D.C., did say the number of evaluations Gilbert has undergone sounded excessive. "Still, it's hard to say if that number of medical opinions is too much," he says.
According to Markey, long-term claimants can develop "psycho-genic" problems "where there's not a lot of organic basis to the pain, but appears to be a medical and psychiatrically based reason for the pain."
In plain English, he means the pains could just be in their brains.
"If you had a situation like that, at a minimum it wouldn't be unusual to see three physicians--an infectious disease specialist, an orthopedist, and a psychiatrist," Markey says.
The DOL might seek a second opinion if the original doctor's opinion is unclear, he says, or if the doctor appears to be hiding the truth about a patient's condition. Other doctors will simply accept a patient's opinion about their own health. "That's not sufficient. That's basically the doctor saying that 'Mrs. Jones' is self-certifying that she's disabled to work. You know, (the doctors) may find our actions outrageous, but we're just administering the law. And whatever it is, the law is very broad as to giving us authority to go for a second opinion."
Or for that matter, 11 or 12 opinions.
While that many "is unusual," Markey says it's not unheard of when doctors don't "provide a medical basis for their opinions."
That also means the process--and the appointments--could continue indefinitely, until the DOL's curiosity was sated, or the agency found a pronouncement more to its liking.
Markey also says the Postal Service can't do much beyond making lots of racket about former employees. "The law is quite specific that the Department of Labor is the adjudicating body, and the employer, although they ultimately pay the bill, are not a party to the claim. They may not be happy with the decision, but they can't appeal it."
Since the law won't let the DOL simply settle with a client for a lump sum, many are on the books for a very long time, he says. Sometimes their conditions worsen, but sometimes they improve. "We ultimately look to return them to the workplace. The historical and social content of compensation is not as a retirement program."
Does that point to an ideological smoking gun behind the harassment of Caroline Gilbert and others like her?
Markey is circumspect. "For many years now we have been committed to returning individuals to work," he says. "Part of the workers' compensation program is to get people back into being productive members of society, and taxpaying members of society. The fact that it's a cost-saving measure just falls out of the process."
Those comments came in June. So did the comment by another DOL source saying there was no change in Gilbert's status.
Now, only a month after being questioned by The Weekly, the DOL's process has suddenly reached its bitter, mysterious conclusion. In the July letter axing Gilbert's medical benefits, Kim Whitney, a DOL senior claims examiner, said the decision was based on diagnoses made by Dr. Schumacher, a Dr. Dennes, and Gilbert's current physician, Dr. Puca.
According to Whitney's letter, "In the 7/14/97 note Dr. Puca stated that the claimant's liver function tests 'were normal last time we checked.'"
As of press time, the DOL hadn't returned follow-up phone calls seeking comment.
For her part, Gilbert doesn't recall ever visiting a Dr. Dennes. But of course she'll never forget Dr. Schumacher's singular diagnoses. As for Dr. Puca, she says he'd only given her an initial exam, and hadn't run tests on her, at the time comments in the July 9 letter were attributed to him. She also says Whitney's stance is ludicrous, since pinpointing her liver functioning at a particular point in time reveals nothing.
"But Dr. Puca is extremely angry at the DOL about this whole matter," she says. "He says those weren't his words at all."
Dr. Puca was unavailable for comment, citing his heavy caseload.
Meanwhile, Caroline Gilbert has 30 days to pack her diaper bag, tune-up her wheel chair, and apply for another job with the U.S. Postal Service.
Meanwhile, The Postal Service Profits From The Work Of Caroline Gilbert's Father.
IRONICALLY, EVEN AS the feds are working a squeeze-play on Caroline Gilbert, they're harvesting big bucks from her father's work. Dale Nichols' celebrated career included a long stint as art editor for Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the '40s he came to Tucson, and in 1946 started Tubac's first art school.
His signature works were elegant, heavily stylized and richly colored pastoral scenes. He chummed around with Norman Rockwell. Like Rockwell, he illustrated numerous covers of the Saturday Evening Post. His piece, "End of the Hunt," now hangs in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nichols also had a charitable bent. In 1943 he donated a painting to Father Flanagan's Boys' Town, which later gave reprint permission to the Postal Service. Today "John Comes Home for Christmas" ranks among the most popular postcard designs ever.
It's not known just how much the agency makes from the postcard, or how those proceeds compare to Caroline Gilbert's monthly disability payments. But the card has clearly proven popular: A 1996 readers' poll by Lynn's Stamp News, an influential collectors magazine, voted Nichols' creation the best design "by a wide margin."
"Even today I'm not sure the post office has made the connection," Gilbert says, holding up a copy of the card. She lays it back on the table, next to her letters.
"You know, this is the thing that really gets me," she says. "For years I worked for the civil service. I traveled all over the country getting training, and I wanted my own office. I loved working. My career plan was to retire from the post office, and now I'm getting screwed. Where is the responsibility here?
"They call me a fat, lazy slob, and say I just want to sit around and watch TV. What kind of life is that? Most days I don't even get out of bed. I have to use an adult diaper. If they think my life is so great, maybe they should come and live it for a day. Then they'd see just how great it really is.
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