Dr Saussy's Resignation: Let the Character Assassination Begin

Melissa Walton-Shirley, MD


February 11, 2016

I followed the suggestion of my daughter's future sister-in-law to become a member of the Facebook page, "Physician Moms Group PMG." Mostly it consists of conversations between young mothers trying to balance life and an impossible work schedule. Among interesting tips, tidbits, opinion, and anecdotes recently was the article on Dr Jullette Saussy. By all accounts she is a gutsy individual who started in the emergency services world over 2 decades ago as an EMT. She progressed to paramedic, medical student, ER resident at Tulane, and then after graduation became director of the New Orleans EMS. She took a job just 7 months ago as the Washington DC EMS medical director/assistant fire chief. On January 29, she announced her resignation effective Friday February 12.

In a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser (and the world) she denounced the "highly toxic" culture of the department and its lack of accountability. She accused her counterparts of refusing to measure true performance and cited lack of qualified leadership. She stated that she "had no authority and no ability to make policy change that would ensure the immediate improvement in patient care." She was direct and specific, citing unnecessary preventable deaths and shaming the obstructionists who she insinuated have the blood of innocents on their hands. She exposed their having put their love for the status quo over the love of their fellow human beings. It was a scathing indictment.

Although I'm enormously proud of Dr Saussy as a human and a fellow female physician, I regret that it will probably be far worse for her to take that stand than it would for any of her male colleagues. Make no mistake; I'm in no way discouraging other strong women in medicine from taking similar stands. As a matter of fact, if patient safety and outcomes are at stake, I highly encourage the vocal outing of any system that puts dollars or a thirst for control before patient care. I'm writing this as a guide of sorts to help prepare Dr Saussy and others who act similarly.

Before I start into the litany of insinuations and accusations, let me quote a former paramedic who worked directly with Dr Saussy in New Orleans. Sean H Fitzmorris, EMT-paramedic, RN, wrote this in his blog in October 2010: "The city of New Orleans has lost something today. With the resignation of Dr Jullette Saussy, now former director of the city's emergency medical services, our community has lost one of the few people in city administration who upholds the highest standards of integrity and ethics; a quality that few need to be reminded is often sorely lacking in our leadership."

Contrast those words with what I predict you will hear about Dr Saussy and most women who take this kind of stand, whether it is in the work place of medicine, politics, or any other environment:

  1. She is a liar.

  2. If there were problems, she knew she could come to us and we would have worked together to improve the situation.

  3. She is right, but she went about it the wrong way. She has damaged the reputation of hard-working individuals and her hysterical tactics will cost jobs and money.

  4. She is suffering from psychiatric instability. (This must be whispered instead of said aloud).

  5. She is exaggerating.

  6. Threat tactics: "If she speaks another word about this situation, her ability to practice medicine will be infracted," or "she will face legal action," or "she will be brought before the board of medical licensure" or "accused of a HIPAA violation for mentioning specifics of a case."

  7. She has a reputation of having difficulty getting along with others. She had trouble in her previous work place, so it's no wonder she had trouble here.

  8. She is going through some "personal issues" and has found it difficult to cope.

  9. She is incompetent.

  10. She is intimidating and divisive (the B word).

  11. She was often absent from work so how could she really know what was going on?

  12. She is power hungry.

I've heard none of this yet, not one word. but it won't take long before the spinmeisters start to change the world's perception of Dr Saussy. I imagine Scandal's Olivia Pope walled up in a room somewhere in downtown DC with pictures of all the key players on a backlit wall. She walked in within an hour of the letter of resignation being made public wearing a trench coat cinched at the waist, plopped her crocodile Birkin bag down on the mahogany conference table, and barked rapid-fire orders to her entourage who breathlessly awaited direction.

The problem with Dr Saussy and so many others like her is that she's plagued with the curse of seeing dead people. By that I mean, she really sees dead people and asks, "Did they really have to die?" Because she sees dead people as someone's son, daughter, mother, or father, she takes it personally, empathizing and sympathizing, all the while wondering if anything could have been done differently or better. With her experience, she probably knows the answer well before she asks it and when she directs a different course for prevention or conducts an investigation, she is ignored, obstructed, and then maligned.

So many strong females in medicine have been there. We've taken stands against ignorant, jealous, misdirected, incompetent, greedy, crooked, lying, and uncaring administrative types only to be punished. I hope we'll continue to take that stand in the future against needless patient deaths and poor outcomes. We will continue to be maligned, made fun of. and labeled, but a clear conscience and the ability to sleep well at night trumps any anxiety about petty insinuations.

If patient safety and outcomes are at stake, I highly encourage the vocal outing of any system that puts dollars or a thirst for control before patient care.

Dr Saussy, if everything you are saying is true, and I have no reason to disbelieve you, I'd like to change just a bit the infamous words of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright to a more gender-neutral quote. "There should be a special place in hell" for those who do not support the truth. Furthermore, I'd like to give you some advice stolen from the Good Book: "And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them."

A PMG Facebook poster wrote, "I knew Dr Saussy from when I was a paramedic in New Orleans. Glad to see she's still the kick-ass doc I knew back then. Excellent letter, really unfortunate that she was held back." Yet another wrote, "She was director of New Orleans EMS when I was an EMT under her during Hurricane Katrina. . . . She kept EMS operations running through and after the storm and stayed for the aftermath, living with us in an abandoned nursing home without power or running water. She is the definition of badass."

So, if you hear any of the usual 12 tenets of female character assassination in the coming weeks regarding Dr Saussy, in light of what you've just read, remember that special place in hell we've all been talking about lately. Let's be a legion of Olivia Popes and put a positive spin on the action of someone who is made to suffer for standing up.


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