Troubled veteran's call leads to firing: VA patients lament loss of psychologist



As he sat alone, feet propped in a chair, it was as if someone turned a slide projector on overdrive behind his eyes. Flashbacks -- images of dead bodies and the fireball from a roadside bomb -- came in rapid fire.

In the early morning hours of April 2, 2007, Jared Rhine had a choice: Pick up a gun and end it all, or pick up a phone. He chose the phone.

Rhine dialed the number for the Memphis Veterans Medical Center and demanded to speak to clinical psychologist Sidney Ornduff, who was at home, asleep. He refused to talk to a crisis intervention counselor.

After some argument, a medical administrative assistant patched Rhine through to Ornduff. The patient and psychologist talked for more than two hours. Rhine cried, yelled, swore. But he finally agreed not to hurt himself and to go to bed and keep his appointment with another psychologist the next day.

"She was tellin' me it ain't my fault, that I wasn't goin' back; I already done my job," Rhine said. "She always got through to me."

All was not well, however.

A tangle of questions and conflicting stories about the early morning events surrounding that phone call would, over the next year and a half, alter Rhine's life and wreak havoc on Ornduff's career. It would leave veterans wondering what happened to the popular doctor removed without explanation.

And it would spur one congressman to take the case all the way to Washington.

After agreeing to go to bed, Rhine hung up the phone, took off his uniform and fell asleep. The next thing he knew, police officers were in his bedroom.

"I was looking down the barrel of nine guns and had two Taser marks in my back," Rhine said.

At Ornduff's home, the phone rang again. The administrative assistant who'd patched Rhine through was on the line, Ornduff recalled. The West Plains police wanted to speak to her.

"She told me she had listened in the entire time, and not only that, but that she had also patched in members of the police department in the small community in which this veteran resided," Ornduff said.

When Ornduff found out police had taken Rhine to the emergency room, she called the attending physician, who said the veteran was calm and cooperative and allowed to go home.

The psychologist, known to veterans as "Dr. O," taught coping skills as part of the residential program for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder she created in 2005, when the hospital hired her. Rhine had completed the program two days before the predawn phone call.

The next day, however, Ornduff was reassigned to another department and told she could have no patient contact. Shortly thereafter, Ornduff requested a meeting with Memphis VA director Patricia Pittman.

"I had no idea that people were literally, what I consider eavesdropping on my private home line," Ornduff said. "By sharing my concerns with the director of the hospital, I believe that set in motion the eventual outcome.

"They didn't want it to get out that, in fact, I did feel my rights and the rights of this veteran had been violated and that perhaps crimes had been committed."

Willie Logan, spokeswoman for the VA, declined to discuss Ornduff's case.

"Due to issues involving privacy, the VA Medical Center is not at liberty to share information about providers or veterans," she said in a written statement.

Soon after Ornduff's reassignment, scores of veterans, including Rhine, protested outside the hospital, wrote letters to the governor and requested meetings with top hospital officials.

"We told them how much we needed her," said Vietnam veteran John Brown of Memphis. "We told them they were making a big mistake in taking her away from us."

The office of U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, fielded calls from veterans who wanted to know why Ornduff had been moved and whether the congressman could help. Neither the veterans' questions nor the congressman's inquiries yielded public answers.

The hospital had launched an internal investigation into the handling of the phone call, and Ornduff was put on paid leave, where she stayed for roughly five months.

In September 2007, Ornduff was fired and soon after invoked federal arbitration proceedings to fight for her job, a process that lasted a year.

Details of the arbitrator's opinion, dated Sept. 19, 2008, show conflicting testimony of the events that early April morning about who called whom and how police got involved.

To complicate matters, phone records provided by the hospital were "inadequate, full of gaps and at best piecemeal," the opinion said.

Ultimately, the arbitrator called Ornduff's termination "totally unreasonable," adding that she should be suspended, receive back pay and be restored to her position as program coordinator.

The hospital had claimed Ornduff exhibited questionable clinical judgment, in part, because she failed to ask whether anyone else was at home during the phone call.

Officials also accused her of violating patient confidentiality after she spoke to other psychologists for peer review.

At the time, the hospital had no procedures for such a crisis, the arbitrator wrote. The administrative assistant testified she hadn't been trained. She gave police "a play by play description of what was going on ... according to the records provided by the VA," the opinion stated.

The arbitrator said Ornduff used her clinical judgment, adding there is no single agreed-upon standard of care among psychologists.

The hospital's allegations regarding patient confidentiality, the arbitrator explained, were "partially true" because the hospital's policy is more stringent than the American Psychological Association's code of ethics.

Maureen Holland, Ornduff's attorney, disputed the charge in a written statement, calling it a "minor internal policy infraction." She added that local and national mental-health professionals testified that her client handled the case appropriately.

In October, Ornduff returned to the hospital but was given administrative duties and no contact with patients. Within weeks, Ornduff said, she realized she'd never be fully restored as coordinator, as the arbitrator had awarded. She ultimately resigned.

Ornduff described the VA's actions as "shameful," and "politically motivated."

"I was vindicated," she said. "Do I feel vindicated? No. I was treated unfairly and wrongly by the administration of the VA.

"There has been a lot of criticism, a lot of second-guessing about the way the situation was handled. But I fully believe this man is alive today because I took that call."

A written statement released by Logan, the VA's spokeswoman, said veterans make significant behavioral changes, including reduced violence, after completing the residential program and that surveys show their satisfaction has remained high over the past two years.

The program has undergone several changes, including enhanced security, which has allowed the program to provide treatment for all-female veteran groups.

Staff has also expanded to include nurses, chaplains, pharmacists and recreational therapists.

"Since April 2007, not only did the quality of the program improve, but the number of patients receiving treatment has grown," the statement said. "This reflects the growing recognition of the quality of the program."

Some veterans are still upset about losing Ornduff.

"These young men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan need somebody like Dr. Ornduff," said Jack Anderson, a Vietnam veteran from Munford. "She has a way. You can be really hard core, but it's like she gets through that, and she reaches in and gets through to you to where you want to help yourself."

Ornduff has mixed feelings about leaving but no regrets about taking Rhine's call.

"If confronted with the same situation again, I would do it again -- even though the price I paid was great," she said.

Her decision to fight was about more than getting her job back: "It was something I did for myself and for the men I worked with and with some hope that the program would be restored."

Cohen said he's disappointed with the resignation and how the case was handled.

"I plan to take this issue up to Washington," he said, declining to elaborate. "This is troubling. When there's somebody that dedicated to ... their patients, and has got that much respect from their patients, that's a relationship that needs to be nurtured and used as an example to others."

As for Rhine, now 32, the events emanating from the phone call forced him into near seclusion. He socializes little and is apprehensive about talking on the phone.

Nightmares still make him edgy, and flashbacks thrust him into Iraq one minute and back to small-town Missouri the next. Though he left the wanton destruction of Baghdad in 2004, it's as if Baghdad won't leave him.

Twice married since returning from Iraq, he says his life's only bright spot is seeing his daughters every other weekend.

"The Memphis VA screwed up my world up here," Rhine said. "I'm just a veteran who was looking for help. ... I didn't do nothin' wrong. Dr. O didn't do nothin' wrong.

"She could have been like some of these other doctors and told me, 'hey, call the suicide prevention line' and went back to bed. But she didn't. She talked to me all night."

Reflecting on that call, he said simply: "If I wouldn't have talked to her, yeah, I probably would have shot myself."


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