Just My Luck – Chapter 6 – Part 7
There was no playbook for dealing long term with tragedy on an immeasurable scale. The next two months were a strange mix of grief, guilt, responsibility, memories, and business shark attacks. It was as though a tornado had run right over me, indiscriminately picking up whatever was there, mixing barn doors and mailboxes and cows and picnic baskets and truck tires and scarecrows and row boats and me. None of my dizzy world made sense. Where I once belonged somewhere, was secure in my career and family life, either I was changed or the world was, or both. I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land.
My mind and body were nauseous from spinning images among the erratic places I had to go and things I had to accomplish. I joined business conference calls while driving from one memorial service to another in different states. I composed an Executive Summary for a proposal after a long telephone call with the newly widowed wife of a good friend. I collected my new laptop with a lot of speed, a huge memory, and a hard drive with absolutely no data on it. It was the absolute opposite of me: slow, declining memory, and a brain on data overload.
There were five year’s worth of proposals, speeches, presentations, white papers, e-mails, and assorted other business documents on the laptop I decided not to take home with me on September 10. I’d backed up some of that data on CDs and taken them home, so I was luckier than many of my colleagues. But I hadn’t yet backed up the most recent and therefor most valuable documents. They were pulverized along with the computer in which they’d been created.
A rumor, which may or may not have been accurate, circulated that some of our company’s New York Office off-site back-up tapes had been summoned to the World Trade Center by an executive so he could restore some files he’d inadvertently lost on his computer. The restoration wasn’t finished yet, so he stored the tapes with his computer in his office when he left for the night on September 10. If true, that would be a cardinal sin for a company in the business of risk management.
Before the end of that terrible day, I had already begun feeling guilty about being alive. By evening we had a nearly complete accounting of who died and who didn’t. Our horror at the devastation became agonizingly personal.
Inconceivable as it was, we faced a world without Tony, Tom, Mary, Chris, Angela, Herman, Doug, Rich, Sal, Nick, Jim, Frank, Lars, Harry, Marc, Margaret, and on, and on, and on, and on. They died. I didn’t. Why?
Accompanying the incessant ringing in my ears, I lived in a cacophony of haunting stimulants:
- Faces, times & places, voices, plans, and memories of those lost keeping me company on sleepless nights.
- Images of burning towers everywhere, virtually inescapable on television news, in documentaries, newspapers, magazine covers, coffee table books, and even on souvenir post cards of various sizes.
- Tales of victims trying to get down and heroes climbing up.
- Leaders stepping up. Self-serving politicians wrapping themselves in the flag and making nefarious plans to use our tragedy as an excuse.
- Killing for God…again.
Declaration of Priorities
Some of my esteemed colleagues, seeing the situation as a colossal once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity, rallied to the flag of the company and jockeyed for position in the massive job of restoring our New York office. Others (a surprising number actually) simply stood up from their desks, put on their coats, walked out the door, and were never seen or heard from again. The rest of us tried to find the personal balance between the company flag waver and the deserter that best suited each of us individually. Including those at the extremes, all workers at Aon in New York had no choice but to declare their priorities in the months immediately following 9/11.
The polar opposite extremes operating within the company were painfully evident when some of the career boosters decided to launch and lead a daily conference call of company managers in NYC to take the temperature of various projects, solve problems, set goals, etc. Before long, someone on the call would ask if anyone listening knew when and where Harry’s memorial service was to take place. Though one simple question wanted only one simple reply, indulging it could (and did) open the floodgates to more of the same.
The solution adopted was that the morning call would be strictly business and a new afternoon call would be reserved for the rest. The two conference calls each day left precious little time to accomplish much else.
Bureaucracy – solving one problem by creating another.
Eventually, I worked on what I could in the morning and only called into the afternoon conferences. My priorities were thereby defined.
Throwing in the Towel
By early November, what little energy I had ran out; I couldn’t last in my current state. My work output, already low since occupying temporary office space, dwindled as concentration was steadily failing.
Finally, I stared at my reflection on an empty computer screen and decided it was time for me to heal.
I was officially carried on the books as being on Short Term Disability – still employed and paid by Aon.
Because my maladies were caused by an event at work, my medical bills were covered by Aon’s workers’ comp insurance and, if or when I suffered a loss of income due to those maladies, I would receive workers’ compensation claim payments up to $1,700/month to make up part of that loss.
For purposes of our company’s insurance claim, I had to make a list of the personal items that were in my office and lost when the building became rubble. A small portion of my kaleidoscope collection, a model of a 1958 Route 66 Corvette, a brass telescope on a wooden tripod, various pieces of art, a large poster of Mark Twain, a clock, a spare dress shirt, tie and overcoat, desk trinkets, and a baseball bat presented to me by Gary, the Head of the company’s Global Property Insurance practice, signifying that I was an unofficial part of his highly successful team.
If I could have just one thing back, it would be that bat.
Finding a Life Preserver
I knew I needed some major league counseling to lay out a healing plan and help me make the most of that plan. The Workers’ Compensation insurer sent me a list of psychologists they recommended in the vicinity of my home. I was skeptical about seeing a psychologist instead of a psychiatrist but the insurance rep told me to give it a try and if necessary we could revisit that decision. Nothing but the spellings of their names and to a lesser extent the gender suggested by the name, delineated one candidate from the others. The sole exception to this was one Ph.D. among the cluster of Masters Degrees on the list. So I made an appointment to meet her.
Her office was in her home, a 15-minute drive from mine. I had no trouble finding it. When I’d called for the appointment we covered some of the background before we met face-to-face. She was about 10 years older than me and had a friendly but business-like demeanor.
About 10 minutes into the first session she started quoting Scripture to me. Dumbfounded, I didn’t know what to do. I never anticipated anything like this. I might have laughed if I wasn’t so flummoxed by this unexpected development. I knew this would be the only time I’d see her, so I just listened and nodded politely to Biblical passages she thought might be helpful.
Before leaving, I explained, “I‘m not having a crisis of faith, my crisis is distraction. When I try to read something I literally can’t get what it says until I’ve read it slowly three or four times. I can’t sleep through the night and when I do sleep I have nightmares. That’s what needs to be fixed, not my faith. I appreciate your time, but I need to work with someone else.”
I contacted the workers’ compensation claims rep to describe my first (and last) session with the Ph.D., and reiterate that I wanted to see a psychiatrist. I had done my homework and located someone nearby who had been recommended by a trusted friend and had extensive training and experience in dealing with emotional trauma.
The claim rep told me to go ahead and do whatever I had to do and send the bills to her. Immediately I scheduled an appointment with Dr. K., the recommended psychiatrist whose specialty practice, as described, could have had my name on it.
This choice proved to be the single most important decision I made in my efforts to heal. Dr. K. was a widely respected expert in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her method combined therapeutic treatments and prescriptive medicines in a treatment plan that was continually re-aligned as needed. Offering no guarantees that I would recover from this ailment, she was optimistic. I was confident that her work would give me my best chance to recover or to at least function better despite my PTSD.
I was ready to begin.
In our first meeting Dr. K. explained that she didn’t work with patients whose insurers discounted her rates. She was especially leery of workers’ compensation cases. She would take me as a patient only if full payment of her fee was made at the time of service. She would provide the signed forms I might need to submit a claim to the insurer. That fit nicely with what my workers’ comp insurer told me to do.
So all was well on that front (but not for long).
After I sent in the appropriate claims forms to be reimbursed for the payments I made in my first few appointments, my worker’s compensation rep. called me. She apologized that she made a mistake in telling me to pay Dr. K. and I would be reimbursed. The medical claims rates that workers’ compensation insurers pay are defined and published by law in each state. Consequently, by New York State law my workers comp insurer could only pay Dr. K. the published rate, which was only about 60% of Dr. K’s normal rate.
If I had been thinking straight I would have realized this because I knew how workers’ comp insurance worked for years. Because the claim rep. had given me misinformation (and it didn’t dawn on me that this had to be misinformation), the insurer would reimburse me in full for the treatments to date, but thereafter Dr. K. could only be paid the legal rate.
At my next appointment I told Dr. K. about my conversation with the insurer.
“I thought this would happen,” she said.
Living Up to My Commitment
Before she could comment further I said, “Frankly, I don’t care what the insurance company might pay, I am a man of my word, and I promised you would be paid for my treatment at your rate. I need your help very much and your work with me is very valuable to me, so I will make up the difference. The only concern I want you to have is with my recovery, not payment.”
For the duration of my treatment I paid her fee in full at the end of each session and she gave me a completed and signed claim form. I mailed the claim to the insurer and eventually the insurer sent Dr. K. a check for her services. Dr. K. signed over those checks to me. It wasn’t the ideal situation, but it worked.
I was her patient for roughly four years during which every penny I paid out of pocket was money very well spent. She was the architect, director, and implementer of my successful recovery. She painstakingly addressed my nightmares, flashbacks, memory problems, anxieties, distractions, and short temperedness. The frequency of my appointments decreased as the health of my demeanor and psyche increased. Without her work with me, I doubt I would ever have been able to return to work or any semblance of a normal life. In that sense, she saved my life.
I also knew that what I was doing in paying her over and above the workers’ compensation published rates was unethical (of me, not her) if not technically illegal. The theory is that the additional payments I made to her might be an incentive for her to be less than objective in her assessments of my progress and be an incentive to delay my return to work.
As a practical matter, she has far too much integrity to do that. But the law applies to all in order to control those with less integrity. I get it, but without her professional care I don’t think my recovery would have gone half as well. I was paying to recover my quality of life and restore my psyche, nothing less.
(to be continued)
©2016 James Ash