Get To Work

Inside a small shed at Kansas City Power & Light’s Merriam, Kansas, electrical substation, John Felix’s body flopped in spasms of pain as a 1,200-pound metal box the size of a refrigerator pinned his head to the floor.

“My right eye was against the floor,” recalls Felix. “I could see a puddle of blood flowing onto the floor in front of me.”

Forty-five minutes earlier, at around 5 p.m. on May 5, 1998, Felix and his shift partner had arrived at the substation to repair a circuit breaker, a chore that both men had performed dozens of times. They maneuvered the faulty breaker box toward them, hooked it to chains and tipped it forward, away from the other five breakers. The heavy chunk of metal slipped, knocked Felix down and crashed on his head.

His partner, Rick Hill, found a pole nearby and strained to jack up the breaker. Finally, Hill raised the breaker just enough for Felix to push out from beneath it.

Crouched beside his bleeding coworker, Hill waited for an ambulance. Twenty feet above the building, high-voltage cables hummed from a tangle of transformers.

The Med-Act ambulance arrived in less than five minutes. As it bumped and weaved along I-35, Felix lay in back, struggling to remain conscious. His head felt as if it had split open. His vision was blurred, and his left ear dangled, partially severed.

“You’re going to need a good trauma unit,” a paramedic told Felix as they sped toward KU Medical Center.

That decision, at least, was based on the patient’s best interests. But soon, KCPL would have control over Felix’s medical care, and within a month, the company medical department’s doctor would declare Felix fit to return to work. At the moment, though, working was the last thing on Felix’s mind.

“I felt like giving up and dying from the pain,” Felix says. He thought of his wife and two young daughters. He had spent seventeen years building a secure life for himself and his family, buying a farm south of the metro area and stocking it with horses and cattle. Now his life threatened to slip away in the back of an ambulance.

“I thought about my daughters, and I wondered if I’d ever see them again,” Felix says. “I didn’t want to die.”

Felix had always been careful in the years that he worked for KCPL, one of the area’s primary producers of electrical power. A friend of Felix’s dad had gotten Felix a maintenance job at one of KCPL’s plants in 1981, when he was 21. His first day on the job, Felix sat with other recruits while a manager extolled the virtues of KCPL.

Felix could join the union after six months and be guaranteed at least a forty-hour work week. KCPL paid double-time wages on Sundays and holidays and offered a 401(k) retirement savings plan, tuition reimbursement and personal days off.

“Consider yourself lucky,” the manager told the group. “You’re working for a good company.”

“I’m really getting somewhere,” Felix thought that morning. “This is it. I’m going to retire from KCPL.”

Felix worked in power-plant maintenance for eight years before a three-year stint at the KCPL garage in Paola, Kansas. In 1996, after a four-year apprenticeship, he became a journeyman system-operations electrician, earning $24 an hour.

“I liked driving the equipment: the boom trucks and Bobcats,” says Felix, who also enjoyed being outdoors — even during lousy weather, when his skills and expertise were in greatest demand. Felix maintained transformers, repaired circuit breakers and erected 85-foot lightning mast towers.

“If there was a 20-degrees-below windchill and something blew up, we’d be out there 30 feet high in the air working on it,” Felix recalls. “When it was 100 degrees, I was out there in the sun. The system depends on you to keep going.”

Just as the system depended on Felix, he depended on his KCPL training to support him and his family for the rest of his life. “Once I got my journeyman ticket, I thought, ‘I can go anywhere now,'” he says. “Once you have utility-company skills, you can go anywhere and work for almost any utility company.” But as Felix lay in a hospital bed at KU Med on the night of his accident, he wondered if he would ever use those skills again.

By the time Felix’s wife, Chris, arrived at the hospital from their home in Mound City, Kansas, an hour and a half away, Felix had been moved from the emergency room to intensive care. Chris noticed Felix’s family members clustered outside his room, but she also noticed many unfamiliar faces.

“There were suits and ties and briefcases all down the hallway of intensive care,” says Chris, who suddenly feared the worst. “It scared me to death.”

“There were KCPL vice presidents, all the superintendents, lots of company officials there at the hospital,” recalls Robert Madrigal, who was the business manager for Felix’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1496, at the time. “A lot of them were very concerned.”

Chris stepped into Felix’s room. “He was a bloody mess,” she recalls. “He had blood around his neck, and they had stitched and stapled his ear back on.” Felix had suffered injuries to three cranial nerves and had a potentially life-threatening skull fracture. Felix’s dad, Bob Felix, took Felix’s supervisor, Chris Kurtz, aside. Would his son lose any pay? How would Felix support his family while he recovered?

“Chris Kurtz told me, ‘Don’t worry about anything,'” recalls Bob. “‘We take care of our employees.'”

Over the next few days, Felix lay immobile,
his head wrapped in bandages soaked with brownish brain fluid. Felix spent a week in intensive care, then moved to a regular room before the hospital discharged him after a ten-day stay.

Felix returned to his small farm in Mound City, but he was far from recovery. He was deaf in his left ear, and his left eye was crossed, causing him to see double. His balance was off, but he could move across the floor with a walker.

During the next two weeks, Felix’s strength and balance improved. Because he could walk only short distances without falling, Chris set up chairs as rest stations around the yard. Three times a day, Felix would walk with a cane to a chair, sit for a while, then move on to the next.

Felix had previously spent his leisure time tending his 240-acre farm, which he had purchased at about the same time he’d begun his apprenticeship. Now he couldn’t leave the yard with his dozen Catahoula leopard dogs to work his 86 head of cattle. His eleven quarter horses went ungroomed except when his parents and siblings lent a hand.

His excruciating headaches weren’t abating. If he laid his head on a pillow, it ached. When he rode in a car longer than five minutes, the blinding headaches intensified. Felix spent most days on the couch, an ice pack pressed to his forehead, gulping a steady stream of pain pills.

One month after the accident, Felix received a telephone call from a KCPL medical department staff member.

“They told me that they had good news, that my doctors had released me to light duty,” recalls Felix, who initially thought the call was a practical joke from a friend. “I told them I was on pain medicine. I could barely walk from one end of the house to the other. I said, ‘I can’t drive.’ They told me they’d send a bus to pick me up.”

No doctor from the KCPL medical department had examined Felix, and KU Med neurologist Steven Wilkinson had just four days earlier ruled out Felix’s return to work. But a KCPL physician concluded otherwise. “Patient may return to a primarily seated-work-only designation with limited standing and walking,” wrote Dr. Walter D. Branch on June 5, 1998. “Patient should be afforded frequent breaks as indicated.” According to Branch’s notes, Felix was capable of driving a vehicle and no longer needed his walker.

Felix’s wife was incredulous. “I called Donna Quillin at KCPL and told her there was no way that John could come back to work,” Chris says. “I thought, ‘These people must be crazy.’ At that point, I was still wiping his ass.”

“These findings were reviewed with Dr. Wilkinson,” say Branch’s notes. Yet on June 9, Wilkinson faxed a report to the KCPL medical department declaring again that Felix wouldn’t be ready to return to work until at least September. The medical department also heard from the KU Med eye surgeon who had treated Felix after his accident: “I would only have Mr. Felix attempt driving if he feels comfortable that he can safely drive. I would as well obtain an opinion from his neurosurgeons to see if they feel they know any other reason why Mr. Felix would not be able to drive.”

Based on the KU doctors’ recommendations, KCPL dropped the plan to bring Felix back to work. On July 6, Branch finally examined Felix. Branch recorded that it was Felix’s first visit to the KCPL medical department since the accident, and Branch admitted, “The patient continues to be not fit for duty at this time.”

Ultimately, Donna Quillin, manager of
safety and medical programs at KCPL, approves all care given to the utility’s injured workers. Because KCPL is self-insured, the company is financially liable for all of its workers’ compensation benefits. KCPL pays no premiums to outside companies for workers’ compensation insurance. It directly oversees injured workers’ medical care — “all of it,” says Wayman Bonham, business manager of IBEW Local 1464 — so Felix’s care directly affects KCPL’s bottom line, as did the $531 a week the company paid Felix while he was unable to work.

KCPL’s medical department is staffed by Occupational Health Services, a company that contracts with employers to provide healthcare services. KCPL is not required to pay specialists to care for injured workers unless a company-approved doctor refers a patient to the specialists.

Injured workers don’t always feel that KCPL and OHS have their best interests in mind, however. “They probably will not have many good things to say about the medical department,” says union business manager Bonham. “For the most part, our employees’ experience on work comp issues has not been positive. At least that’s what’s been related to me by the employees who have worked through that process.

“I don’t know whether it’s workers’ compensation laws or Occupational Health Services, but the majority [of injured workers] have the opinion they have to go back to work too soon,” Bonham says.

The day after Felix’s accident, Chris says, Quillin came to KU Med. “She told me that Felix would get his full salary, and KCPL would take care of everything I needed,” Chris recalls. “I felt like if I needed something, I’d call Power & Light, and they’d take care of it. But things just kind of got worse from there.”

KCPL’s medical department is housed at Front Street and Manchester in Kansas City, Missouri, an industrial area dotted with fast food restaurants, a Waffle House and the Isle of Capri Casino. Factories, pharmaceutical companies and clinical research labs occupy the boxlike buildings on the north side of the street.

Patients enter the department through a loading dock door. The department consists of a waiting room, a couple of nurses, a doctor, a scale and a few blood-pressure sleeves. OHS doctors see patients in small examination rooms.

OHS has six clinical facilities in the Kansas City metropolitan area, one in St. Joseph and another in El Paso, Texas. The company advertises itself as one that provides “value to employers by keeping employees healthy and productive in the workplace through quality, prompt care at a reasonable total cost” and “workers’ compensation injury and illness care directed at quickly resolving work-related medical issues while keeping employees productive in the workplace.”

But the advertisements don’t mention employing a doctor who was on probation for alcohol abuse during the five months he oversaw Felix’s medical care. Branch was employed by OHS from September 1997 until October 1998, though the Missouri State Board of Registration for the Healing Arts had placed his medical license on probation in March 1997. The board acted after four Kansas City area hospitals had suspended Branch for alleged drunken doctoring. Research Medical Center suspended Branch’s clinical privileges “as a result of Licensee’s clinical incompetence and substance abuse,” according to records from the Missouri State Board of Registration for the Healing Arts. Baptist Medical Center, Menorah Medical Center and Trinity Lutheran Hospital reported a “reasonable belief that [Branch] was providing patient care while under the influence of alcohol.”

But the doctor’s troubles were not limited to disciplinary actions by the state medical board. In 1993, Branch had settled a malpractice lawsuit in favor of the plaintiff for an undisclosed amount. The plaintiff alleged that while performing surgery, Branch had improperly removed nerve tissue from the patient, “causing great harm, paralysis, injury and pain,” court records say.

Just three months before Branch was hired at OHS, he had settled another malpractice lawsuit, in which the plaintiff alleged that Branch had left a sponge in her body when he stitched her up after surgery to remove polyps. According to the lawsuit, the patient experienced symptoms of a bowel perforation and two weeks later was returned to surgery, where the sponge was removed and the patient received a colostomy — a surgical opening in her abdomen for waste elimination.

The patient developed peritonitis and sepsis and was near death for many months, requiring intensive care. The lawsuit also alleged that at the time of the surgery, Branch was “a practicing alcoholic whose surgical performance on plaintiff was impaired by drugs including alcohol.” That lawsuit was also settled in favor of the plaintiff for an undisclosed amount.

After Branch was placed on probation, the board ordered him to go through substance-abuse rehabilitation and submit to scheduled and random drug tests. OHS hired him at an annual salary of $115,000 and put him to work taking care of KCPL’s employees at the company’s medical department.

Chip Paul, a spokesperson for Occupational Health Services, would not comment on the relationship between Kansas City Power & Light and OHS or respond to questions faxed by the Pitch. Paul forwarded questions to attorney Henry V. Griffin, whose reply to the Pitch did not directly answer any of the questions other than confirming Branch’s employment dates and incorrectly stating that Branch’s Missouri medical license had been “in good standing” when he had worked for OHS.

Donna Quillin, manager of KCPL’s safety and medical department, asked the Pitch to fax her questions concerning KCPL’s medical department, but she did not respond to them. Tom Robinson, KCPL’s communications manager, received the same questions but did not respond to the letter or to numerous phone messages. Branch did not return a telephone message left at his current employer, Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, where he works in the emergency room. However, his wife, Lillian Branch, told the Pitch that Missouri’s disciplinary action against her husband was caused by “a misunderstanding.” Though she admitted that Branch had entered alcohol rehabilitation as part of his probation, she insisted that he had never drunk on the job. “[He] would never do that,” says Lillian Branch. “He’s an excellent doctor.”

During the year following Felix’s accident,
specialists sometimes disagreed with the aggressive therapies prescribed by the KCPL medical department. “I asked Dr. Wilkinson if there was any kind of physical therapy that could help me. He said, ‘No, it will just take time to heal,” Felix says . “Then two or three days later, I got a list of appointments from the medical department at KCPL.”

Though he had been advised not to drive, Felix had to find a way to make regular trips from Mound City to Kansas City. Chris drove him to the appointments.

“I couldn’t ride in a car five miles without getting a headache,” says Felix. “They were having me drive 85 miles each way to Front Street to see a doctor. If I didn’t go, it was like I wasn’t trying to get better. They didn’t care about my headaches, but it wasn’t their heads hurting.”

There was the psychiatrist in July. There were appointments with a KU Med ear specialist, who confirmed Felix’s permanent hearing loss in one ear. An ophthalmologist suggested delaying surgery to correct Felix’s double vision (his right eye still pointed sharply toward his nose) to determine whether his condition would improve over time.

In September, Branch referred Felix to Dr. Jennifer Finley, who specialized in rehabilitation management. “We are interested in a proactive approach to the resolution to the extent that is possible of Mr. Felix’s post-injury problems,” Branch wrote.

“[Felix] is not currently capable of returning to work in his current position due to his visual disturbance and balance disorder,” Finley replied after examining Felix. She recommended that he participate in a formal balance and training program at Mid-America Rehabilitation Hospital in Kansas City.

According to Felix, the many lengthy trips back and forth to Kansas City doctors and the frequent phone calls from KCPL’s medical department inquiring about his progress were more hindrance than help as he tried to recuperate. “I just felt like I needed time to heal,” Felix says. His behavior grew increasingly bizarre, an effect attributable in part to his head injury. Once extroverted and easygoing, he now exploded in rage at the slightest provocation.

“He’d scream and cuss at me,” recalls Chris. “He would be so stressed out about the appointments that it was to the extreme. After a while, I wouldn’t even go in with him [for the examinations]. I’d sit in the lobby. I was so tired of listening to him rage.

“The dogs barking outside hurt his head,” Chris says. “Everything hurt his head. If a pot of water on the stove boiled wrong, he blew up.” Meanwhile, Felix grew more frustrated with KCPL’s pressure to get him back on the job.

“I was so stressed out. I just wanted to make everything stop,” Felix says. “My brain needed rest. I needed to be left alone.”

One day, Felix beat one of the barking dogs. Inside the house, Chris cringed at the dog’s pained yelps. Her once-gentle husband had become a frightening stranger. “We used to go to friends’ houses and play cards,” Chris says. “We went to concerts, had people over and would sit outside around a bonfire, talking and laughing all night. John had a great sense of humor and was usually the life of the party.”

Years earlier, Felix had changed the diapers of the couple’s infant daughters, then taught them to ride horses when they were toddlers. He had patiently guided them down the driveway on their first bicycles. Now his children were taking care of him.

“Mom! Dad’s outside,” his nine-year-old daughter yelled whenever she saw Felix leave the house. “Dad fell down today,” she tattled in her nightly reports to Chris. “Dad tried to lift something. Dad hollered at the dog.”

Nearly all signs of tenderness had vanished from Felix and from the couple’s marriage. Chris slept on the sofa most nights, something she had never done in seventeen years of marriage. One day, Felix chased their eldest daughter around the yard, cursing and screaming as he whipped a leather strap through the air. The terrified girl, whose only transgression had been “smarting off,” escaped into the house.

“I was on the phone trying to call the police,” says Chris. “After that, I told him he could no longer discipline the children.”

While Felix was outside one afternoon, Chris gathered Felix’s rifle and two pistols. She emptied the bullets and hid them beneath a pile of rags on the back porch.

“He was mad and had been so mad for so long,” Chris says. “He got to where he’d get mad and threaten to kill something.”

According to union spokesman Bonham, KCPL tries to minimize injured workers’ emotional distress by getting them busy again so they can’t dwell on their lost capabilities. “Any time someone is injured, the first thing they wonder is, ‘Will I ever be able to provide for my family again?’ Bonham says. “If they dwell on that for long, they get depressed.”

But Felix says the push to return him to work depressed him, particularly as the KCPL medical department stepped up Felix’s rehabilitation schedule. He had been off work for almost a year. In April 1999, the medical department scheduled him for driving rehabilitation.

“I told the rehab people, “Do you want to be out there on the highway while I’m practicing, doing 65 miles an hour?’ You put a patch on one of your eyes and then try to go out and drive,” says Felix.

During the first five minutes of his behind-the-wheel training, Felix ran a red light at 31st and Troost. When he pulled into parking spaces, his faulty depth perception caused him to stop two feet back from where the car should have been. He had to close his left eye while driving to eliminate double vision.

After two days of training, Felix was cleared to drive in daylight hours only and advised to avoid rush-hour traffic. The report said Felix could wear an eye patch to correct his double vision. The driving evaluator said that Felix’s physician should make the final determination whether he could drive.

In June 1999, thirteen months after Felix’s accident, his physician at KCPL’s medical department (Branch had left OHS in October 1998) cleared Felix to work half days at KCPL’s Paola office, thirty miles from his home. Felix’s new job would be computer data entry.

“When I went back, I still had the headaches, I still had the anger problem. I cried a lot,” Felix says. “I said, ‘You can put me back to work, but I’m going to kick somebody’s ass.”

The company was then able to stop paying Felix’s $531 weekly compensation, which had totaled almost $30,000.

Though Felix resumed full-time work in his
new position a week later, he would never be able to return to the work he had done before. Kurtz could offer no written guarantee that KCPL would keep him on after his workers’ compensation claim was settled, and he had little hope of obtaining a job with a similar salary outside KCPL.

“The people in the KCPL medical department told my union representative, ‘Well, we don’t have that [guarantee] ourselves.’ But they didn’t have 1,200 pounds fall on their heads,” Felix says.

“When I got hurt, Chris Kurtz told me he was going to make sure I retire as part of the substation group,” Felix says. “Six months later, he said he spoke out of turn. Basically, I felt like they just didn’t care.”

Later that year, KCPL paid for surgery to correct Felix’s double vision, but the results were limited because of the damage to his optical nerves. Even after surgery, Felix still had double vision whenever he looked left or right.

KCPL sent Felix to another OHS physician, Dr. Michael Poppa, in January 2000 to evaluate the extent of his disability.

“I told [Poppa] that I’d been treated for all this stuff that’s never been fixed. I still had headaches, my shoulder still bothered me, my balance and vision were still jacked up,” Felix says.

Poppa had also been disciplined by the Missouri Board of Healing Arts, in 1985, before he entered occupational medicine. At that time, Poppa co-owned Alfred Gilgore Medical Associates, a family practice clinic. A complaint from one of the clinic’s patients to the Drug Enforcement Agency in Kansas City had spurred an investigation by the Missouri Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

The patient had complained that her husband visited the clinic every three weeks and paid $180 for four packets of unmarked pills. Investigators observed a nurse (who had received her certification in Cuba and had no Missouri nursing license) dispensing controlled substances without a physician present.

According to the investigator’s report, the woman who reported the suspicious clinic and her husband “had seen this doctor only once for ‘diet pills,’ which was over a year ago. At that time the doctor took their blood pressure only. No other physical examination was performed.”

“The investigator also reported that the the nurse “stated that she works under no written protocol. In fact, she did not know what a written protocol was.”

The patients sued and were awarded $20,000 by a jury. Poppa and his partner, Dr. Alfred Gilgore, voluntarily surrendered their Missouri medical licenses after the medical board ruled that they had violated amphetamine regulations, labeling laws and pharmacy laws. Four months later, Poppa’s Missouri license was reinstated on three years’ probation.

“When we bought that clinic, the procedures were already in place,” says Poppa today, insisting that the patients buying the pills were seen regularly by another doctor who worked at the clinic. He and Gilgore were not familiar with the state statutes that they violated, he says.

“What happened, happened,” Poppa says. “It was not done maliciously. Had we known it, we would not have done it. The important thing is that my Missouri license is [now] free and clear and unencumbered. I’ve been practicing with a normal license for the past twenty years.”

In April 2001, Poppa reached a settlement agreement on a malpractice lawsuit brought against him and Harrah’s Casino by Barbara Carver, the mother of Randie Carver, a boxer who died in 1999 following a boxing match held at the casino. Poppa had been the ringside physician.

Though Poppa admits no fault, the settlement allows Carver to collect any future judgement from Poppa’s medical liability insurer, which will pay up to $1 million.

In another ongoing lawsuit, which Poppa calls “frivolous,” the plaintiff, whom Poppa examined at OHS, alleges that he released her back to work with undetected injuries that resulted in her becoming permanently disabled.

“In my entire practice of medicine over all those years, I’ve only had one [lawsuit] in 1985 and then, just recently, these two cases,” says Poppa, who left OHS two months ago to open a private occupational medicine practice.

Last November, KCPL offered Felix a workers’ compensation settlement of $34,500. Felix refused to sign it, and a hearing must now be scheduled before an administrative law judge. Felix still receives the same salary he had earned before the accident, about $50,000 a year.

On a recent afternoon, a cartoon given to Felix by a coworker was pinned to a cubicle wall at his “desk job” at KCPL’s office building in Paola, Kansas. In the drawing, a man wrapped in bandages with broken legs and arms lies in a hospital bed. A man with a suit and tie, wielding a briefcase on which a coworker has scrawled “KCPL,” stands beside him.

“Good news!” the cartoon executive congratulates the injured worker. “Our doctors say you’re ready to go back to work!”

In the garage of the building that houses Felix’s cubicle, KCPL has set up a workstation where Felix can repair cooling fans. The fans sat outside, untouched. Inside, a silent computer with a blank monitor gathered dust on Felix’s desk. An unmarked planning calendar hung beside it.

“As you can see, I don’t have any plans,” Felix quips. His joke betrays the extent to which his work injury has affected his life. Felix recently took his first walk in the woods in four years, finally able to do so without losing his balance. But the emotional balance that Felix once had in his life and marriage must be rebuilt slowly. Last December, still plagued by rages and headaches, Felix made an appointment at a mental health clinic near his home.

A psychiatrist adjusted Felix’s antidepressant dosage to a level Felix hopes will better treat the depression he can’t seem to shake. He waits now for his workers’ compensation hearing, which will determine his settlement amount. Felix’s parents have witnessed the unsettling transformation of their son since his accident. “It changed him. He got depressed,” says his mother, Kay Felix. “Imagine taking half of your hearing away. This is how he’s going to be the rest of his life.”

“I felt like walking into KCPL, asking, ‘Who’s your head man here?’ and just start whoopin’ on him,” says Felix’s father, Bob.

“[KCPL] forced him back to work,” Bob continues. “They put him in front of a computer with his eye problems. If he isn’t able to drive safely, he isn’t able to do a day’s work. All they wanted to do was get him off of workers’ compensation.”

Bob Felix, who had been told at the hospital by his son’s supervisor that KCPL took care of its employees, intends to hold the company to that promise. On a blustery afternoon last December, he stood outside KCPL’s corporate headquarters at 12th and Walnut Streets in downtown Kansas City.

Draped over his shoulders was a white sign with red letters: “What price would you pay for the loss of half your hearing, half your eyesight, permanent damage to your brain & your wages? It took KC Power & Light 3 ½ years to say it was only worth $34,500.”

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