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Meeting of March 15, 2011 - Employment of People with Mental Disabilities

Written Testimony of Donna Malone

Good afternoon, Chair Berrien, Commissioners Feldblum, Ishimaru, Barker, and Lipnic, and General Counsel Lopez. My name is Donna Malone. I am a 47 year old woman who has longstanding diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and Eating Disorders which include Anorexia and Bulimia. These diagnoses were the direct result of many years of well documented neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse at the hands of my mother, brother, sister, and two of my step-fathers.

At the age of 14, I was given the opportunity to work in a summer program through the state of Massachusetts. My first job was working with the Conservation Commission clearing and creating paths in conservation areas around Lowell, Massachusetts. This was the first time in my life that I felt a glimpse of self-worth. I was a quick learner and loved doing my job. At this point I realized that working hard was a way that I could feel good about myself and no one could take it away.

I continued to work part-time through high school and college. I was struggling with my psychological disabilities simultaneously. I was hospitalized many times in the 1980’s. During this time I was plagued with flashbacks as well as difficulty sleeping, my anorexia was at a life-threatening level. I was unable to do day to day functions on a regular basis. I felt incredibly lost and alone. Once I found a full-time job and began raising my own family, I was better able to manage my symptoms and illness with the help of a solid treatment team.

I began working at Land Air Express in 1992. I started as a Tariffs manager and worked my way up to Terminal Manager in Scarborough, Maine.

I was proud of my performance as a Terminal Manager. I maintained the lowest over-time costs, met all goals, had the lowest turn-over in employees, and was committed 100%+. Work stress, along with other non-work related stressors, strongly exacerbated my illness, and I required hospitalization. I was hospitalized April 2-21, 1999. I returned to work briefly and was hospitalized again from April 26 – May 3. Once I returned from this hospitalization, Sean Gill, Director of Operations, transferred me to the Pittsfield, Maine terminal as an Operations Manager – a demotion.

I took on my job in Pittsfield as the Operations Manager with 100% commitment. However, I was still struggling with my illness, as this situation was painful because I put everything I had into that company. I knew the job inside and out. I could step into 99% of the positions and not skip a beat in production and operate at a high level. Yet I was being treated like I was insignificant. It was like I was that little kid again being abused for no reason. This treatment exacerbated my flashbacks, increased my difficulty sleeping, and worsened my anorexia. I constantly feared that I was going to lose my job, and I was always feeling insecure. What would I do if I lost my job?? My work is a powerful aspect of who I am. A great deal of my self-worth directly related to my work ethic, my work ability, my commitment to get the job done at the highest level possible.

I realized in July 1999 that I again needed hospitalization. I spoke to the Terminal manager regarding the need for me to be hospitalized. I expressed great concern about having my job when I returned. The Terminal Manager, after making a couple of phone calls, informed me at that time that my job was secure and that he wanted me to do what I needed to take care of myself.

The third day of my hospitalization, however, I had a phone conversation with Sean Gill, Director of Operations. In this conversation Sean told me I no longer had my job at Land Air Express. He told me that he had to look out for the rest of his employee’s safety. I told Sean at this time that he could speak with my Doctor if he needed to verify that I would not be a danger to anyone. He made no attempt to contact my doctor. My treating physician at the hospital sent Sean a letter that gave me complete clearance to return to work on July 26th. Finally at the end of July my therapist contacted Sean at my request. The result of this conversation was more of the same. Sean continued with his belief that I could be a safety issue for his other employees. Sean never even requested a face to face meeting with me throughout this entire process where he was deciding my future. He never attempted to seek out an understanding of the illnesses I struggle with. His fear and general lack of knowledge regarding psychological illnesses nearly destroyed my life.

My termination triggered more and longer hospitalizations. My struggle became more difficult once I was no longer was employed. My self-worth plummeted drastically, and every day was a reminder of what I had lost. As a single parent with two kids, I had just bought a new house and the financial burden was tremendous. I had to file for bankruptcy. The termination pulled away my only source of self-esteem.

I knew of another situation where an employee had cancer and needed chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and she was granted time off without repercussions. The company sent flowers to this individual and expressed constant support and concern for her condition. All the RIGHT things happened with this employee…after all...it was cancer, an “accepted” illness.

The illnesses I struggle with are no different from having cancer, heart disease, lung disease, or any other chronic disease that requires ongoing management of symptoms, medication, and hospitalization when the illness is exacerbated. Fortunately, new work opportunities helped me rebuild my life. After brief employment with another trucking company, I chose to switch gears and get into the medical field. I began working at Maine Medical Center as a secretary in the emergency room. Maine Medical Center had classes available to gain nurse’s aide (CNA) certification within Maine. I was accepted in this class and began working on the medical surgical floor as a CNA while maintaining my position in the Emergency Room. Once an ER tech position opened up in the emergency room, I applied and was chosen for that position. I was then trained further in EKG and Phlebotomy. I also was trained in ER coding. I thrived in that job … again I was increasing my self-worth. I love working … my basket was being filled with positive feedback as I was a good employee.

I also sat on the Board of Trustees for Spring Harbor Hospital (a free standing Psychiatric Hospital) and a Performance Improvement Committee that addressed issues of Psychiatric patients being treated in an emergency room setting. I did continue to struggle with my illness but was afforded the time I needed to take care of myself.

Finally, in 2002, I moved to Massachusetts to start over again, as my son’s father had taken a job that relocated him. I found a job within five months at an ambulance company as the billing clerk for their ambulance runs. I put myself through school and achieved a masters certificate in medical billing and coding. I was promoted to Billing Manager and, in 2006, was promoted again to Director of Administration. In February 2011, I went part time at the ambulance company so I could take a full time job as a Physician Auditor for a major insurance company. In addition to these two jobs, I have been a professor at a community college in the Medical Billing and Coding program since 2006. Working at three different jobs sounds like a lot, but it keeps me going. I have had supportive experiences surrounding my illness from both the ambulance company and the hospital. I have been granted time off for hospitalizations. I also have been granted the flexibility to maintain my appointments with my therapist when needed.

Some of my new job responsibilities have presented some challenges in getting to know new people, new procedures, etc. I work hard on a daily basis to maintain stability within myself and within my surroundings. (I know when to reach out for extra support.) I have a supportive treatment team that enables me to continue to attain my goals in life.

In closing, I would like to express how important work is to someone like me who struggles with a psychological disability. Work gives me a purpose, a sense of pride and accomplishment. I am no different than anyone else who has a chronic illness. The difference is the public and private sector’s lack of understanding of psychiatric illnesses. Unfortunately, incidents involving psychiatric disabilities are sometimes portrayed by the media in a way that generates unwarranted fear of all people with psychiatric disabilities. These cases, however, only depict a tiny fraction of people with psychiatric illnesses.

In my case, my manager at Land Air, without any attempt to understand me or talk to my doctors, and without any legitimate reason, lumped me in with those few people who make the headlines. In doing so, he not only hurt me terribly and tagged me with the stigma of psychiatric illness, but he also lost a valuable employee. That way of doing business hurts many and helps no one.