When the Tucson Weekly first reported Caroline Gilbert's plight four years ago ("Northern Exposure," July 30, 1998), it was hoped--naively--that the U.S. Postal Service and Department of Labor might be shamed into doing the right thing.
Instead, line-toeing bureaucrats have continued treating this unfortunate Tucson grandmother like an unwanted stepchild, or worse. Never mind that she was once an upwardly mobile postal apparatchik vying for a postmaster slot, before fate intervened in a most noxious way.
The irony gets better: A painting by Gilbert's late father, the noted artist Dale Nichols, now adorns one of the Postal Service's top-selling postcards. A 1996 readers' poll by the influential Lynn's Stamp News voted his creation the best postcard design "by a wide margin."
Not that this prestige has done jack for Nichol's beleaguered daughter.
Still, it wasn't always so. In 1987, Caroline Gilbert was working at the post office in Sitka, Alaska, when disaster struck. Sitka's office was on the bottom floors of an historic building housing a number of federal agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service. During the summer, up to 25,000 tourists a day would stream through for luggage and paperwork checks--and to use the toilet.
One day in July the old plumbing burst, sending torrents of sewage onto the building's lower floors. It was dripping off the ceilings, streaking down the walls, streaming into the parking lot--and infiltrating the freshwater lines.
Gilbert didn't know the water was contaminated when she and a co-worker quenched themselves at the only fountain still operating. What they drank was a potent mix of drain cleaner, formaldehyde and sewage. Within six months, Gilbert's co-worker was dead of general lymphatic failure. A few months after that, Gilbert collapsed on the job. Today, the Sitka sewage has left her with severe hepatitis, and her legs are twisted and misshapen.
"Caroline Gilbert has such deformities that the leg below her right knee angles inward," says Dr. Christopher Puca, a Tucson internist who has handled her case for several years. "The leg below her left knee angles outward. She has swelling in the knees because of lymphatic disorders."
Tests have revealed "elevated liver enzyme levels," he says. "On sonograms, she has fatty infiltration of the liver, and she constantly runs low grade fevers."
Despite this clear-cut evidence, she has been subjected to a endless battery of mandated medical evaluations--more than 70 in all, including 11 doctors in a single 18 month period--as the DOL gropes for ways to stop her workers' compensation payments. It's mostly been an exercise in futility: Gilbert says all but one of those examiners have agreed with Dr. Puca.
Federal officials have sent her threatening letters. Over the phone, she says they've called her a fat lazy slob. One official "told me it would be better for everyone concerned if I just committed suicide," Gilbert says.
Now in her early 50s, she remains bed-bound, her body a disaster. But the harassment continues.
Most recently, the DOL informed Gilbert that she would need yet another evaluation, and the only doctor capable of reviewing her case practiced in Burbank, Calif. She was told to prepare for an 10-hour drive, departing in the wee hours of May 23. "I told them there was no way in hell I was going to leave my home at 2 o'clock in the morning--to have them come in, put me on a stretcher, and haul me out of here with people I don't know, and cross that desert."
The feds refused to relent. As promised, five people arrived at her house at 2 a.m. on that May morning. She refused to budge. "They were pounding on the door, ringing the doorbell," she says. "They started going to all the windows, banging and looking in with flashlights. Then one of them tried to get in the front door by turning the knob and pushing at the door, like with his shoulder. That's when I called the sheriff's department and told them I wanted these people removed from our property."
Gilbert says the DOL simply wanted to drag her to a doctor who would say she was able to work.
But Frank Faragasso, DOL claims supervisor for Arizona, says the department couldn't find an Arizona doctor willing to review Gilbert's case. Besides, she prompted the latest evaluation herself, he says, after appealing the findings of the doctor who discounted her liver problems.
"The current situation is that we made a decision on her case," Faragasso says. "She appealed that decision, and the appeals board came back and required us to do this current evaluation."
Either way, "When someone is receiving compensation, our requirement is that we review the case at least once a year because we are not a retirement system," Faragasso says. "We are a workers' compensation system."
Gilbert says the DOL based its decision on the word of a single doctor "who gave me a 15-minute exam, and said I was alright to go back to work. I'm not alright. I didn't want that decision to remain on my records, so I appealed."
Dr. Puca has repeatedly argued her case, and rendered reams of correspondence to the Postal Service and DOL on her behalf. "The treatment that Caroline Gilbert has received from the federal government is nothing less than outrageous," he says.
"The fact that they wanted a woman with extreme urinary incontinence, with terrible chronic pain, to get into a van and be driven out by complete strangers is reminiscent of the type of kidnapping that occurs in South America. No sane person would agree to something like that."
Puca says he'd contacted DOL earlier, "and told them that she would not be coming, that it would be dangerous for her health, and that I would not agree to let her go. If they say otherwise, then they are lying. And then for these people to show up early in the morning ... is criminal. I was sickened by their behavior."
Nor is Gilbert's case unique, he says. "I do a lot of pain work. You would be amazed at what happens to my patients when they go before disability judges ... or when they deal with government agencies."
He says the DOL's position that only a doctor in California could see Gilbert "was a hollow argument, and meant to cover up what their real intentions were--to take away her benefits. These people have been acting as if they were on a Mafia hit team."
A final note: While quite anxious to whisk Caroline Gilbert off to California, the feds weren't similarly eager to invite her to the unveiling ceremony for her late father's postcard. "But they did send me a box of cards and used programs," she says.