|Fist-size cancer found in Head Start whistleblower |
| Published in The Messenger on 9.7.07 |
This one’s for you, Pamela Castleman.
After three failed attempts to reach you by phone, it’s obvious that you will not talk to this reporter. So I’m using this approach.
As administrator of Northwest Tennessee Head Start based in McKenzie, you are the boss lady of about 350 employees assigned to multiple offices in a 13-county district. Also, you manage an annual budget of $10.2 million funded by a federal grant which pays for services to low-income families and employee salaries, including yours.
Had I succeeded in reaching you by phone, I would have asked about one of your former employees, James Churchwell of McKenzie. You fired him on April 9, but quickly changed his status from “fired” to “suspended with pay.” Although he no longer worked at Head Start, where he was a maintenance technician, he continued to receive his weekly paycheck of $800. During a meeting on Aug. 13 with Head Start and Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council officials, a federal team probing Head Start problems expressed strong concern about the Churchwell issue and why he was still being paid. On Aug. 18, the team interviewed him about three hours.
Churchwell asserts that from the time he was fired or suspended, he was never told, either verbally or in writing, why he was let go. He suspects it’s because he and two other former employees, Tiffany Moseley and Lora Wofford, contacted some powerful folks and blew the whistle on perceived Head Start misdoings.
As of last week, he was still suspended, still being paid. And he’d still not heard a word from you.
But that changed this week.
But first, this background: A few weeks ago, Churchwell began suffering pain in his gut and had other alarming symptoms. He went to a McKenzie doctor who performed a colonoscopy. “They didn’t get very far before they hit a mass,” he said. “(Dr. Volker Winkler) told me, ‘I don’t want to alarm you, but I think you have a cancer.’ He referred me to a specialist in Paris. I went to see him. He told me, ‘You’ve got a massive tumor in your colon.’ He said he knew the best surgeon (Dr. Stephen Behrman of Memphis) who works on these type cases and he would get me an appointment with him.
“I went to Memphis. They checked me out. He told me right then, ‘To save your life, I need to perform surgery on you today.’ I said, ‘What are my options?’ He said, ‘You have no options. If I don’t do this surgery today, you will be dead in a week.’ So I said, ‘Do what you have to do.’
“Dr. Behrman told me, ‘You’ve got cancer. It’s about the size of a fist.’ I don’t know that the word ‘terminal’ was used. He just said it was bad. I was left with a bag sticking out of my stomach to catch waste.”
Arrangements were made for Churchwell to begin chemotherapy and radiation treatments next week in Paris. Behrman wants to reduce the size of the tumor before he operates to remove it.
Tuesday, when the Churchwells returned home after a week in Memphis, a letter from you was waiting for them. You may recall Churchwell said he’d been fired on April 9 but had not been told one word as to why. Well, the letter spoke to that, and more.
Here’s an excerpt:
“As of Sept. 4, your employment with Northwest Tennessee Head Start program and the Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council is terminated due to unacceptable conduct. You have 10 days from the date of this letter to agree to the termination.”
The letter also states that he will no longer be receiving that weekly paycheck.
So, Mrs. Castleman, I wondered about your letter and the timing of it. I’d like to ask you about it, but obviously that’s not going to happen. Thus am I left with only one side of the story, so to speak.
Churchwell says you knew he had cancer when you sent the letter. Would it have made a difference one way or the other? I would like to think it would. After all, this is a tough time for the Churchwells.
Churchwell’s wife, Melanie, works for you. She’s the human resources coordinator for the Head Start program.
“My wife has stayed in touch with Mrs. Castleman the whole time, spoke to her personally, told her, ‘James has cancer. I’ve got to be with him. He’s having surgery,’” Churchwell said. “Also, we have an e-mail from her, saying, ‘I’m sorry he’s got cancer.’”
So I suppose you knew.
With his firing, as announced in the letter, Churchwell’s health benefits come to an end. “I have no other (health) insurance,” he said. With the pending surgery to remove that fist-sized tumor, he and Melanie face enormous medical bills.
Thus, Churchwell is not certain he can retain the services of Dr. Behrman. He may have to turn to VA for help. He is certainly eligible. A veteran of 23 years’ military service — seven years of active duty with the U.S. Army and 16 with the Tennessee National Guard — he served in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.
“Without health insurance, I couldn’t use Dr. Behrman any more,” he said. “I don’t know how long it would take to get set up to get VA help. In that time, I could die.”
Churchwell speculates but does not know for certain that he is protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act which seemingly protects employees who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He just doesn’t know. He also plans to speak with an attorney about the federal whistleblower’s act.
So you see, Ms. Castleman, there are a lot of questions associated with the Churchwell situation. Like it or not, your agency is funded by taxpayer dollars. The taxpayers have a vested interest in it.
Meanwhile, we can take a cue from James Churchwell. He’s obviously a very sick man who faces an uncertain future. But oh, such a sterling spirit he has.
“Even though life is hard, God has been good to me. I’ve got no ill will toward these people. I did the right thing (in speaking up),” he said. “There are things these folks did wrong and we just wanted them to fix it. I still contend I did the right thing. I’ve said it and I’m going to keep saying it ’til my death.
“I have a strong faith in God. That’s the only thing that’s going to get me through this. If something happens to me, I hope my family pursues this. They know I’ve always tried to do the right thing.
“Most people out there don’t know me, but I’m asking for their prayers.”
And that includes yours, Mrs. Castleman.