FWPD Office Kellie Whitehead has finally been approved for the surgery she needs to recover from an on-duty injury. But treatment denials and delays have left her with no chance for income as she recovers
Tammye Nash. |. Managing Editor
“I’m out of time.”
Fort Worth police Officer Kellie Whitehead shrugs, then grimaces as she shifts in her seat, trying to find a position that isn’t painful. After injuring her back in a car accident while on duty in 2016, she found out less than a week ago that the back surgery that will hopefully give her back her life has finally been approved.
But she is out of time.
Whitehead has no workers’ comp leave left; that ran out while she battled it out with the company that provides the city’s workers’ comp insurance to get approval for the treatments her doctors prescribed. When the city council refused her request for an extension on that time, she had to start using her “PTO” — vacation and sick leave. Now that has run out, too.
So, Whitehead is finally getting the surgery she needs. But whatever time it takes her to recover is time that she will be off work without pay, and that means no paycheck coming in to keep the lights on, the water on, the house note paid. And recovery, Whitehead said, could take as long as six months.
“From hero to zero”
In July 2015, Whitehead — who was FWPD’s second LGBT liaison officer, from October 2010 to fall 2011 — was on patrol on the west side of Fort Worth when she saw what she at first thought was a child floundering in the water at Lake Como. After locking her gun belt in her patrol car, Whitehead rushed to the water’s edge where she took off her shoes, bulletproof vest and uniform shirt before diving into the water in her undershirt and uniform pants.
Once she reached the person in the water, Whitehead realized that it was a young man, not a child, and it took all her strength to keep her own and the young man’s heads above water as she struggled to get them both to shore.
“It started as, ‘You’re going to be OK. … Don’t panic. Relax. Take a deep breath.’ It got to the point … ‘We’re going to be OK. We’re going to be fine,’” Whitehead said at the time.
“Just trying to keep both of us from panicking because it wasn’t that long that I was in the water, but it seemed like forever.”
In recounting the incident last week, she elaborated: “For a minute or two, I didn’t think we were going to make it. And then it was like something just lifted us up, kept our heads above water” until firemen arrived on the scene with equipment to pull Whitehead and the young man safely to shore.
Eight months later, on March 28, 2016, the Fort Worth Police Department gave Whitehead the Medal of Valor in recognition for her bravery.
Two days later — March 30, 2016 — Whitehead was on duty in her patrol car when she was rear-ended during a rain storm. And the battle with the insurance company began.
“We joked around about how I went from ‘hero to zero,’ just like that” Whitehead said. “But it isn’t funny.”
Fighting for treatment
The accident left Whitehead with a lower back injury, and her doctor first prescribed steroid injections and physical therapy. But York Risk Services, the insurance company that handles workers’ comp claims for the city of Fort Worth, denied approval for the shots.
“I was just kind of stunned. I mean, it was steroid injections! Why would they deny steroid injections for a back injury?” Whitehead said.
So, the doctor suggested “facet injections,” a procedure in which a small amount of local anesthetic is injected into an injured spinal joint.
York approved the injections, but they did nothing to relieve the pain.
York finally approved the steroid injections prescribed by Whitehead’s doctor in November 2017, about a year-and-a-half after the accident.
“The steroid shots gave me about six or seven weeks of relief,” Whitehead said. “But then the pain came back, as bad as ever.”
Whitehead’s doctor sent her to a surgeon, who ordered a set of MRIs. The MRIs showed herniated discs in her L4, L5 and S1 vertebrae, prompting the doctors to recommend surgery to fuse those damaged joints. York said no.
“They were saying the injury wasn’t from the accident, that it was caused by age or whatever,” Whitehead recalled. “But I had never had back problems before the accident. Just a couple of weeks before, I was helping carry an officer who had been shot, and I had no back problems.”
Doctors then suggested a discectomy, a surgical procedure to remove herniated disc material pressing on a nerve root or the spinal cord in the lumbar area of the spine. York approved the procedure, and Whitehead got the surgery in May 2018. But again, she got no lasting relief.
After the discectomy, Whitehead continued in physical therapy, and she continued to tell her therapists and doctors that something was wrong. Not only was she not getting better, she was getting worse.
“I have spent the last six or seven months telling them that something was wrong, and they just kept telling me no, it was all in my head. I was beginning to believe them. I was beginning to think maybe I was crazy,” Whitehead said. “Then finally, about a month ago [early May], they agreed to do another MRI. And I was right.”
At that point, she said, doctors told her that fusion surgery was her only option if she ever wanted to live without constant pain, if she ever hoped to return to some semblance of the life she had before the accident.
By the time Whitehead and her wife received word that York had finally approved the fusion surgery, it had been more than a month since the MRIs had confirmed its necessity. Now the surgery has been scheduled, but Whitehead will have to go without pay.
Whitehead was initially given two years’ worth of workers’ comp leave. At the end of those two years, when she was still struggling to get treatments approved, she requested and was given a 90-day extension. At the end of those three months, still waiting for necessary treatment,
Whitehead asked for another extension. This time, with a representative from York insisting that she had reached “the maximum medical improvement” that could be expected, the council denied the extension.
At that point, the city “took back” all her PTO — the time having been expended already as she waited for treatments to be approved and a decision to be made regarding her request for an extension.
In a recent email exchange with Chris Lam, the city’s workers’ compensation manager, Cupp asked for clarification, asking specifically, “will she go unpaid between surgery date and being medically retired?”
Lam replied: “Officer Whitehead’s WC indemnity payments have ended. As pointed out, City Council denied her request for an extension of occupational leave in March of this year. All impairment income benefits have been paid by York Risk Services for her impairment rating.”
Cupp wrote in an email to Dallas Voice, “Kellie was delayed treatment due to reasons beyond her control — doctors no longer working with the city of Fort Worth, denied treatments that were later approved on appeal, surgeon frustrated with WC and dropped her as a patient. She asked to be returned to light duty in October 2018, but the treating doctor denied it.
“She had to follow ‘the process,’ which required a psychologist review and then a ‘work hardening program.’ The city of Fort Worth did not realize the psychologist responsible for this step had retired. Kellie used her own PTO to get through ‘the process,’ waiting for the city to hire a new psychologist.”
Lam also told Cupp and Whitehead that Whitehead had “reached maximum medical improvement on March 31, 2017, with a 5 percent impairment rating. The rating was assigned by the state-appointed designated doctor Patrick Downey. The administrative law judge’s decision was not appealed, so the decision is now final. The time to appeal has run out.”
Cupp said she and Whitehead have “never been in a situation like this,” and that they “don’t really understand how she can reach her ‘maximum medical improvement’ when she is still being treated with hopes to continue improvement.”
Cupp noted that in March 2017, Whitehead’s doctor told her and a case manager that “Kellie would only get worse,” and that the case manager told her and Whitehead that “she was at a loss, that she had never worked a case where treatment was continuously denied.”
(Dallas Voice requested comments, by email, from Chris Lam and from the office of Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. As of deadline on Thursday, June 20, we have received no response.)
The only other option
During a recent interview with Dallas Voice, Whitehead said that she intended to go through with the fusion surgery even if York refused to cover the procedure. “It’s my only chance to get better, to have a normal life,” she said. “I’ll find a way to pay for it.”
Now, with the surgery approved, that worry is lifted. But Whitehead still faces the possibility of months without pay until she would be able to go back to work or until she could be approved for medical retirement, and the prospect is daunting.
“I’ve worked for the Fort Worth Police Department for more than 20 years. I had never once been injured until this happened,” Whitehead said. “There’s been nobody we could talk to, no one who would help us figure this all out. It feels like they’re working against you instead of trying to help. There’s been nobody on our side this whole time.
“I feel like they want me to resign and just be out of their hair, so they don’t have to deal with it anymore,” she added. “But if I do that, that’s 20 years down the drain. I just want to get better. I want to be able to work again. I want to have my life back.”