Former Vermont VA doctor claims firing was retaliation for harassment complaint

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A former anesthesiologist at Vermont’s Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital said she was fired from her job after filing a complaint that claimed another doctor allegedly bullied and harassed female employees.

The VA said Dr. Jennifer Keller was fired last October from her job at the White River Junction hospital after improperly leaving an operating room during two surgical procedures, putting patient lives at risk, the Boston Globe reported .

The VA denies the retaliation allegations.

Keller was one of four female employees who filed complaints against Dr. Fima Lenkovsky, the former chief of the hospital’s anesthesiology department. The complaint was referred to the VA medical inspector after determining they contained a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing.”

Keller and other female employees say her firing was reprisal for speaking out against Lenkovsky for allegedly bullying and harassing female employees, including a reported assault against a nurse during an operation in June 2018. The alleged assault occurred when the nurse’s arm was hit during an operation.

Two weeks after the alleged assault, Keller and three nurses, including the nurse who made the assault allegation, met with the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Brett Rusch. Following the meeting with Rusch, Lenkovsky was suspended during a five-week internal investigation. He returned to work in August and retired in December.

Lenkovsky had no listed phone number. There was no answer Monday at the White River VA’s media office.

VA officials dismissed the assault allegation as “blatantly dishonest,” The Globe reported. They said the blow to the arm was accidental and the allegation “disrespectful to actual assault victims.”

In a letter to VA officials, Dr. Stewart Levenson, a former VA official who served as medical services director for the New England VA, called Keller’s firing “perhaps the most shocking case of misuse of the disciplinary process that I can recall from my VA experience, one that fails on any level to pass the ‘sniff’ test.”

Keller’s clinical privileges were suspended by Rusch on the day Lenkovsky returned to the hospital, citing unspecified concerns that she posed an “imminent threat to patient welfare.”

Keller was fired after an internal review concluded she had walked out of a working operating room for brief periods during two surgical procedures on July 30, leaving an unlicensed, fourth-year medical student alone to provide anesthesiology care, the Globe reported. By leaving the operating room, Keller committed “an egregious breach of protocol during a surgery that could have led to the death of a patient.”

Keller said she stepped away during the first operation as a training exercise for the medical student, but denied she was absent during the second procedure.

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