If a loving heart, kindness, an endless supply of compassion, and an enormous amount of courage were lifelines, Mary Ellen Pesci would have lived forever. Tragically, for those of us who knew her and loved her and for those who never got the chance to know her and love her, Mary Ellen died this past Tuesday. She was 55, way too young to be leaving this world.
I was only one of many whose eyes flooded with tears at the news that this angel of a human being had died.
Like me and far too many others, Mary Ellen lived with a brain injury. She got her injury as a result of being hit by a car. Much of her life was rooted in a tenacious devotion to others who live with brain injuries. Her message to us was simple, pure, powerful, and true: you still matter. You count. Your value has not been diminished by your brain injury.
Mary Ellen knew that one of the challenges people with brain injuries face is managing a life in which some people tend to perceive us as somehow being less than we were before, as if, because of our injuries, we don’t matter any more. Nothing could be less true and she knew it. Remarkably, and I do mean remarkably, she was able to drive this message home with patience and kindness, even when faced with the task of addressing people who talked about and to people with brain injuries as if they were just barely human beings.
She was on the board of both the Brain Injury Association of NY State and the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Town of Haverstraw. She was a consultant for the Traumatic Brain Injury Survivor Group and a facilitator a brain injury support group at Helen Hayes Hospital. On all fronts her compassion, bravery and devotion made its mark.
Mary Ellen Pesci was a woman that mattered, and for those of us who had the privilege of knowing her, she matters still.
A letter to a DOH official asking her to investigate how several million dollars of state taxpayer money has been paid to a project run by New York State contract employee Timothy J. Feeney who does not have the credentials he says he has has been met with silence.
A July 25 letter to Patricia Greene Gumson of the New York State Department Health has gotten no response. The letter, copied to others in and out of the DOH, asked Ms. Gumson to investigate how it was that Timothy J. Feeney received three five-year contracts with the DOH despite the fact he misrepresented his credentials. Was there a vetting process and, if so, what was it? It is critically important for the readers of this blog to avoid villainizing the DOH as a whole. There are quite a few honorable people working there and straightening things out while dealing with the ineffable web of bureaucracy is no easy task.
However, Mr. Feeney himself indicates that some in the DOH knew about the problems with his credentials. According to unsolicited e-mail this year to readers of my blog, some in the DOH knew Mr. Feeney did not have the college degrees he claims to have. In his e-mail, Mr. Feeney said, “The Department of Health, the state office responsible for the Neurobehavioral Resource Project, is well aware of my educational history, the source of my (college) degrees.”
For nearly 15 years now Mr. Feeney has headed up the Neurobehavioral Resource Project for New York State’s Traumatic Brain Injury Waiver. The Project is arguably the most powerful influence on the waiver across the state. There can be no argument that the TBI Waiver is a blessing to the state and desperately needed as it affords many with brain injuries to live in the community. However, there can also be no argument that survivors of brain injury, their families and other loved ones, along with the hard working companies that provide waiver services across the state have a right to expect people to be who they say they are.
As readers of this blog already know, Mr. Feeney claims to have a PhD and Masters degree when he has neither one. The letter also asked Ms. Gumson to look into how it was that none of the three contracts that some might see as jerry-rigged didn’t require the person heading up the Neurobehavioral Project to even have a master’s degree.
In short, Mr. Feeney’s degrees were received from Greenwich University, a diploma mill located in Hawaii and California in the 1990s before moving its operation to Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia. Degrees from Greenwich have never been recognized as valid in the Australian mainland and have never been recognized as valid anywhere in the United States of America. Greenwich, not to be confused with the prestigious University of Greenwich in England, closed its doors in 2003.
Brain injury survivors, the families and other loved ones as well as waiver providers across the state deserve answers. Here are some but not all the questions that ought to be answered.
How productive has the Neurobehavioral Project been?
Are referrals to the project responded to, completed, and followed up in a timely manner?
How many admission holds were placed on Waiver Providers across the state at the direction of Mr. Feeney?
How many survivors were tossed off the waiver by Mr. Feeney?
What has Mr. Feeney and the Project’s impact been on Medicaid dollars?
How many Medicaid dollars were spent based on the reasonable belief that Mr. Feeney was Dr. Feeney?
Would any Medicaid dollars been saved had Mr. Feeney not represented himself as Dr. Feeney?
Another letter to a DOH official way up the ladder is on its way and has been copied to a wide range of people. I have faith that the DOH will do the right thing. Mr. Feeney’s contract expires the 30th of this month. Were it to be renewed, or were some maneuver like awarding the contract to a company who would then hand leadership over to Mr. Feeney to happen, more folks would need to be taken to task.
It is hard enough living life with a brain injury, it is hard enough adjusting to the reality that a loved one has a brain injury, and it is no easy task providing quality services to those who live with a brain injury for providers who try to keep their companies afloat despite low reimbursement rates. To manage all these challenges only to find out one of the most influential entities in the state is not who they say they are is not only unjust, it’s immoral.
It would be interesting to learn how many people living with brain injuries are in management positions in the companies providing services to people with brain injuries living in the community. Not many. I can think of one provider that has an individual with a brain injury in a management slot.
The last company I was affiliated with was the Belvedere Brain Injury Program in Albany, New York, and, sadly, in Syracuse too. In the end, not a pleasant experience. Once their substance abuse program got underway and a plethora of survivors began to complain they were being denied their right to choice, I began advocating for them. I was soon told to leave. I have no reason to believe conditions have changed and no one running the show has a brain injury. But this affront aside, the larger picture begs the question, how many people with brain injuries are in management positions in companies like Belvedere? Given that the answer is hardly any, the next question is,Why not?
Is one of the reasons why not may be that many still cling to the belief that those who live with brain injuries can’t do the work? Not so. Bob Woodruff, as good and decent a man as God ever created, lives with a brain injury and is back at ABC News dazzling in his work as always. Is another reason that some companies know that someone with a brain injury might not take kindly to the way survivors are treated by the company? It’s kind of like creating a group of companies to provide services for veterans and not having any veterans on staff.
Keep in mind, there is such a thing as warehousing in some community-based programs.
Wouldn’t you think that any company providing services to people living with brain injuries would work hard to get people with brain injuries on staff because, deep breath now, they might be well suited to tell you what it is like living with a brain injury and thus help you design a more effective program?
Perhaps I’m not the one to ask. After all, I have a brain injury.
When you face the challenge of a brain injury in life, there are several things you should be able to count, from those who love you and from those whose job it is to help you manage the injury: respect, equality, dignity, honesty and the best treatment available. What you do not deserve is disrespect, condescension, dehumanization, and dishonesty. Tragically, there is far too much of the latter.
Let me say at the outset that there a lot of things my state, New York, has right. It has a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) waiver, a form of medicaid reimbursement that provides services so some with brain injuries can live in the community and, in some instances, return to living in the community. There is no question that more people with brain injuries are living in the community as a result of the waiver.
However, there are problems, and while the problems might understandably call for finger pointing, finger pointing rarely gets us anywhere. The waiver is overseen by the New York State Department of Health. The TBI Waiver manual is a nice document, it says the person with the brain injury is the person who drives their treatment plan, or service plan as it is called in waiver parlance. Sometimes this happens, sometimes it does not. But the waiver is well thought out on this front.
What appears to be lacking in the waiver manual are regulations. There are guidelines for sure, but they are accompanied by a paucity of regulations, and that is troubling.
One thing I am sure of is this. For any therapeutic environment to be as effective as possible, it needs to be an emotionally, spiritually and physically safe place for the person getting the care. Key to this safety is, among other things, honesty. That the people who treat you or influence your treatment or the rules governing your treatment are who they say they are.
One problematic case that does call for finger pointing is the case of Timothy J. Feeney. Feeney has been a contract employee with the NY DOH for on or about 15 years and continues to refer to himself as Dr. Timothy J. Feeney when he is nothing of the sort. By his own admission, both his PhD and his Master’s Degree were obtained from Greenwich University, a non-accredited school that enriches countless diploma mill lists on and, I would imagine, off the web. On a resume of his provided to this writer by the state, Feeney openly lists Greenwich University. Greenwich U was a diploma mill that operated out of California and Hawaii until 1998 when it moved to Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia. It closed its doors and 2003. There is an Australian Government Alert available on the web that makes it clear Greenwich was not a recognized university in that country.
However, do not be quick to villainize the NY DOH in its entirety. Feeney’s contracts, also provided to this writer by the state, do not require he have any degree to head the neurobehavioral project for the DOH. One has to wonder who wrote the contracts? It is, I think, reasonable to assume that there are those in the DOH who are good and honest people who may inherited this hot potato.
The bottom line is this. Learning how to manage daily life when you live with a brain injury is hard enough. It becomes even harder when people aren’t honest with us. Any value they may actually have is entirely undermined once their dishonesty comes to light.