Cohen Seeks Inquiry into Firing of VA Psychologist

Memphis Commercial Appeal

February 15, 2009 – Congressman Steve Cohen has requested an investigation of a popular psychologist’s termination from  Memphis Veterans Medical Center for her handling of a phone call from a distraught Iraq war veteran.

The Memphis democrat last week confirmed he sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, asking for an inquiry.

Cohen compared the popularity of clinical psychologist Sidney Ornduff to that of Florence Nightingale, the 19th-century nurse known for advising and comforting wounded soldiers.

“I want him to investigate and see what happened, to look into that case and, if possible, encourage her to come back because I think she’s a star,” he said, adding that it’s wrong for the administration and veterans to lose Ornduff as a resource.

Cohen’s letter marks the latest development in a nearly two-year ordeal that began in the early-morning hours of April 2, 2007, when veteran Jared Rhine called the Memphis VA and demanded to speak to Ornduff. The clinical psychologist was coordinator of a six-week residential program for veterans suffering combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rhine, who lives in West Plains, Mo., had completed the program just two days before the call. He told the medical administrative assistant he had a gun and a phone and chose to contact Ornduff instead of hurting himself.

The assistant patched Rhine through to Ornduff’s home phone. After more than two hours, the psychologist convinced Rhine not to hurt himself and go to bed.

Soon after Rhine hung up, local police officers entered his bedroom, used a Taser on him and took him to the hospital. An emergency room doctor allowed Rhine to go home after determining he wasn’t a danger to himself or anyone else.

Ornduff said when her phone rang again that night, the administrative assistant told her a West Plains police officer wanted to speak to her.

The administrative assistant had listened to the entire phone call, she said, and relayed information to police.

In September 2007, after an internal investigation into Ornduff’s handling of the phone call, she was fired. The hospital claimed Ornduff exhibited questionable clinical judgment.

A federal arbitrator’s decision last September called her termination “totally unreasonable,” restored her to the coordinator position and awarded her back pay. Ornduff returned to the VA in October but was given administrative responsibilities and no patient contact. Within weeks, she resigned.

Ornduff said Friday she’s heartened by Cohen’s intervention, adding that his support underscores the impact the case has had on her and the veteran community.

“It feels like there is validation,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that it took someone outside of the VA system to finally acknowledge that what happened to me was wrong,” she said.

Some veterans were surprised to hear about the congressman’s request.

“What I’d like to see happen is Dr. O vindicated in full and have a full apology,” said Ken Fields, a Vietnam veteran from Jonesboro, Ark. “Every one of us would love to have her back.”

Rhine, the veteran who made the early-morning call, said he’s glad someone is seeking an investigation.

“I already know she done the right thing,” he said. “But I still want (an investigation) to happen. That way everybody else will know what I already know.”

Memphis VA spokeswoman Willie Logan released a statement Friday saying the agency wasn’t aware of Cohen’s letter but would respond to any request made by Shinseki.

— Kristina Goetz: 529-2380

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