VA hospital still reviewing lesbian vet’s complaint

Officials to decide on discipline for nurse accused of anti-gay tirade

Esther Garatie

Esther Garatie

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

Officials at the Dallas VA Medical Center are expected to decide within weeks whether to discipline a nurse accused of discriminating against a lesbian Marine veteran who sought mental health treatment.

The VA Medical Center has placed the nurse, Lincy Pandithurai of Cedar Hill, on administrative duty pending the outcome of its investigation into a complaint from 28-year-old Esther Garatie of Irving.

Garatie, a former Marine lance corporal who was honorably discharged in 2006, said she sought treatment for severe depression and possible post-traumatic stress disorder — including thoughts of suicide — on Oct. 12.

Garatie alleges that during a two-hour tirade, Pandithurai told her she was living in sin and said that was the reason for her mental health issues. Garatie said the nurse advised her to accept Jesus and become straight.

Monica A. Smith, a spokesman for the VA Medical Center, said this week that the hospital’s investigative board completed its inquiry into Garatie’s complaint on Friday, Dec. 2. The investigative board’s report will now be forwarded the hospital’s Executive Office.

“The Executive Office, Human Resources, and the Office of General Counsel will review the board’s report and determine what, if any, actions are necessary,” Smith said. “We expect this will take no longer than a few weeks.”

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition at Change.org calling for the VA Medical Center to terminate Pandithurai based on Garatie’s complaint. Garatie has also filed a complaint against Pandithurai with the Texas Board of Nursing.

Both the VA Medical Center and the Board of Nursing have policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Pandithurai didn’t return phone messages from Dallas Voice seeking comment about the complaints.

Since Dallas Voice first reported on the complaints in late October, both the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News have published articles.

Jessica Gerson, Garatie’s close friend who’s been assisting her with the complaints, said this week that the ex-Marine is holding up well despite the publicity. However, Gerson said the VA Medical Center is still “dragging their feet on providing real therapy.”

Gerson said Garatie has finally been assigned a permanent therapist but won’t be able to see the doctor until Dec. 16.

“This is rather disheartening, as you might imagine, but unfortunately not particularly surprising at this point,” Gerson said in an email this week. “The publicity has been hard for her, particularly the need to relive what happened at the VA (and some of her other traumatic experiences) over and over again, but she’s been a real trouper, as ever.

“She’s such a private person that this publicity has been deeply uncomfortable for her, not only because of the need to relive her experiences, but also simply because she’s the kind of person who prefers to stay quietly in the background,’ Gerson said. “It’s taken a great deal of courage for her to set her preference for privacy aside enough to seek justice for what happened.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

VA nurse accused of anti-gay tirade

Lesbian Marine vet files complaints against employee at Dallas hospital

READ THE FULL TEXT OF ESTHER GARATIE’S STATEMENT

Garatie.Esther

Marine veteran Esther Garatie

JOHN WRIGHT | Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

A wounded lesbian Marine veteran who sought mental health treatment at the Dallas VA Medical Center claims she was subjected to an extended anti-gay tirade by a nurse practitioner.

Esther Garatie, 28, a former Marine lance corporal who lives in Dallas, has filed complaints against the nurse practitioner, Lincy Pandithurai of Cedar Hill, with both the VA Medical Center and the Texas Board of Nursing.

Garatie and her friend, Jessica Gerson, have also launched an online petition at Change.org calling for Pandithurai to be fired. By Thursday, Oct. 27, the petition had more than 1,300 signatures.
Pandithurai didn’t return phone messages left at the VA Medical Center or her residence in Cedar Hill.

Garatie, a native of New Orleans who moved to Dallas earlier this year, said she was honorably discharged from the Marines in 2006 after severely injuring her leg while on active duty.

She said she went to the Dallas VA Medical Center on Oct. 12 to seek treatment for severe depression and possible post-traumatic stress disorder — including thoughts of suicide.

In a three-page written statement about the incident, Garatie alleges that Pandithurai inquired about her sexual orientation at the outset of their meeting. After Garatie responded that she was a lesbian, Pandithurai told Garatie she was living in sin and said that was the reason for her mental health issues, according to the statement.

“She sat down and looked at me, and her first question was, ‘Are you a lesbian?’” Garatie wrote in the statement. “Her second question to me was, ‘Have you asked God into your heart? Have you been saved by Jesus Christ?’ This is when I realized that I was no longer a United States veteran in her eyes, I was just a homosexual.”

The session lasted for more than three hours, with Pandithurai citing the Bible and repeatedly telling Garatie she was living in darkness and would be doomed to hell if she didn’t “come back to ‘the light,’” according to the statement.

Pandithurai told Garatie she could change her sexual orientation. Pandithurai also told Garatie homosexuality was a diagnosable condition until President Barack Obama changed that, the statement alleges.

Penny Kerby, a spokeswoman for the VA Medical Center, confirmed that Garatie’s complaint is under investigation.

“VA North Texas Health Care System does not tolerate discrimination on any level and takes any allegation of such behavior seriously,” Kerby said in a statement. “Each employee who interacts with every veteran patient is expected to demonstrate our core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence. This allegation is being investigated and if substantiated, appropriate measures will be taken to address the issue.”

Bruce Holter, a spokesman for the Texas Board of Nursing, said the agency doesn’t comment on investigations that are in progress.

The state’s Standards of Nursing Practice prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, Holter said.

According to the board’s website, Pandithurai has been registered as a nurse in Texas since 1993, with no previous disciplinary action against her.

Garatie said she’s not the type of person who would normally try to get someone fired, but she wants to prevent the same thing from happening to other gay veterans — particularly after the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

DFW’s homeless gays heading north to Denton, advocate says

HUD housing intervention counselor Michael Raven says what has traditionally been considered an urban issue is growing in rural areas

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Michael Raven

HUD housing intervention counselor Michael C. Raven, says he has seen an increase in the number clients who are gay and homeless moving into Denton.

Raven serves as secretary for HOPE, Inc., which provides financial assistance and case management to families who are homeless or at-risk of being homeless and seeking to secure permanent housing.

Before coming to HOPE, which is non-faith-based, Raven worked for the Salvation Army.

Rven said that compared to Dallas, homeless numbers in Denton are low. The latest count is 103 people in the city of Denton and 547 in the county. Homelessness is more of a rural problem in Denton County, he said, and many of the county’s homeless live in tents in the woods.

Raven, who is himself gay, said the biggest problem he has seen with gay homelessness in Denton County is that the Salvation Army provides Denton’s only shelter — and that organization does not welcome gays or lesbians.

“It takes awhile to get someone off the street and into affordable housing,” Raven said. “We give them three years to graduate into self-sufficiency.”

Raven follows everyone who contacts his office.

“With housing counseling, we hope they’ll have a surplus each month,” he said.

The goal is to get them into transitional housing and then something permanent.

Among the many reasons for homelessness are mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse and family violence. But unemployment is the top reason for homelessness currently in Denton.

Of those who reported a cause, 20 percent said loss of a job and another 15 percent were “unable to pay rent or mortgage,” mostly related to employment issues.

Not everyone who is homeless was without work, Raven said, but some may be working at a much lower-paying job or only finding part-time work.

Raven said he has notes about available jobs all over his office and is constantly checking a number of sources. If he knows a client has a particular skill, he tries to make the connection.

But he said employers are terrible about taking advantage of the homeless.

Raven cited one case of a client with a degree in accounting. A retail store didn’t have an accounting position open, but hired her as a cashier and taught her the accounting process for their business at the same time. After four months, she was doing most of the store’s accounting work but was still being paid as a cashier.

A major retailer hired another of his clients. When they found out that she had a degree, which required a higher salary by their own company rules, they fired her, Raven said.

Once every two years, Denton counts its homeless population. Raven is part of that counting process, which will start after the New Year.

He said he doesn’t like to just show up and take census figures, so he asks his HOPE donors for personal care items and blankets to distribute on counting night.

While usually associated with urban areas, Raven said homelessness is increasing in rural areas.

During the recession, he’s noticed that everyone’s watching their money. But he thinks that people are just being more prudent because homelessness could happen to anyone.

Contact HOPE at 940-380-0513.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Dallas doctor chosen for new oversight board

Dr. Brady Allen chosen based on work with Dallas County Medical Society on substance abuse issues

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

ADVOCATE  |  Dr. Brady Allen of Dallas said members of the new Texas Physician Health Program, to which he has been appointed, will be advocates for the doctors with whom they deal. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)
ADVOCATE | Dr. Brady Allen of Dallas said members of the new Texas Physician Health Program, to which he has been appointed, will be advocates for the doctors with whom they deal. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Dr. Brady Allen has been appointed to the board of the new Texas Physician Health Program.

For the first time, physicians in Texas can report themselves voluntarily for substance abuse and physical and mental health issues without jeopardizing their medical licenses. Friends, relatives, patients or co-workers who have reason to suspect problems may also make referrals.
The law creating this new board passed in the last legislative session. The board was formed last November and includes six medical doctors.
In addition to Allen, who is openly gay and is one of the area’s foremost HIV specialists, the board includes Dr. Allison Jones, a psychiatrist

from Austin who is lesbian.

Allen said he was chosen for experience he has working with the Dallas County Medical Society on substance abuse issues. But he thinks inclusion of gay and lesbian members on the board sends a message that this new program is safe and welcoming.

“We’re hoping to be physician advocates,” Allen said.

Previously, doctors referred to the Texas Medical Board for substance abuse issues would be investigated for disciplinary action.

Allen said that when the board was created, about 150 physicians were transferred to them for their recommendations and oversight. He said the board is hoping to get about 60 new referrals a year.

“Other states that have done this have had great success,” he said. “We’re modeling ourselves after other successful programs.”

Doctors can be referred for drug and alcohol abuse. Those found with addiction problems can be referred for treatment and then followed for a period of five years.

For the first year, they undergo random urine testing weekly. When they successfully complete that year, the monitoring and testing schedule can be reduced.

Allen said that most doctors entering this program go for an extended 90-day treatment program rather than the more common, but less successful, 30-day treatments.

Doctors may be referred to the panel for mental and physical problems as well.

A variety of conditions may prompt concern. Dementia, bipolar disorder or Parkinson’s Disease are three Allen mentioned.

A doctor with bipolar disorder might need his or her medication checked and the panel could require supervision of a psychiatrist. Parkinson’s, which causes shaking, might require a surgeon to stop operating. A physician with Alzheimer’s could be monitored to determine when he needed to retire.

Some mental problems are a result of daily stress, Allen said, adding that the routine stress could be compounded for lots of gay and lesbian professionals who are not out at work. He said he wondered whether that contributes to self-destructive behaviors.

Allen said he thinks the program will be very successful.

“We have a big economic hammer over their head,” he said. “If their license is in jeopardy, they could lose their livelihood.”

While confidentiality for the doctor is assured, patient safety is also important. To maintain confidentiality, a doctor signs an agreement with a long list of conditions. Failure to comply with any of them can move the case to the medical board for punishment.

The program is self-sustaining, costing physicians who participate $1,200 annually. Those subject to random testing pay for their own screenings.

More information is available online at txphp.state.tx.us.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 10, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas