Monday, June 5, 2017
Teacher with ALS copes with disease and job loss
UPTON – The family of a biology teacher stricken last year with ALS says the school district has now sent him a letter stating his employment is being terminated at the end of the school year.
The teacher, Phillip LeMarbre of Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, is affectionately referred to as Dr. Phil by his students.
His wife, Jessica LeMarbre, and daughters Joelle LeMarbre and Allie Lavallee say they want people to know about what Mr. LeMarbre, 67, has had to go through since he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease of the nervous system that affects voluntary muscle movements.
Mr. LeMarbre received a preliminary diagnosis of ALS in August, and he went on sick leave. Doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital said he could have been stricken with another deficiency. But after testing, the ALS condition was confirmed in October, his family said.
His goal was to return to teaching, but in December the district notified him that his sick leave was running out Dec. 7, and he would be “cut off” from his health insurance, wages, and he would not be eligible for retirement, Ms. Lavallee said. He was 103 days shy of reaching eligibility for retirement benefits, including post-employment health insurance. According to state law, teachers can receive full pension benefits after 10 years of service.
The family received a letter from the district stating that the school had spent too much money on the science department, and could not give him the sick days.
His wife said he was feeling good in December and could have returned. He was walking at that time and figured he could bring his wheelchair when he got tired. His voice was good at that time, too, she said.
Then the district ordered that he see a neurologist and an occupational therapist, who wrote that he could have returned to school, Mrs. LeMarbre said. But in order for him to return, the district wanted the therapist to attest that Mr. LeMarbre could physically perform certain tasks.
“She couldn’t do that,” Mrs. LeMarbre, said. “She could only evaluate him.”
Mrs. LeMarbre said she called a lawyer from the American Disabilities Act hotline and was told that the district, in noting its concern about the safety of school children, followed the letter of the law. However, she said the agency suggested the family hadn’t been shown compassion.
Told that the family had reached out to media about Mr. LeMarbre’s pending termination, Michael F. Fitzpatrick, superintendent-director of the Blackstone Valley Vocational Regional School District, said, it was “unfortunate that they would communicate that to you in that fashion. It’s a delicate medical issue, and it’s certainly not appropriate for me to air that publicly.”
The superintendent also suggested that the LeMarbres’ portrayal of the events “doesn’t present all that the district has done, I can assure you of that.”
Asked if he could elaborate on the district’s efforts, Mr. Fitzpatrick said, “Given the medical confidentiality factor, I’m not comfortable.”
The family also alleged that Mr. Fitzpatrick refused to meet with or respond to Mr. LeMarbre.
The family also said the district offered Mr. LeMarbre a $20,000 settlement, but they didn’t accept it. They considered it low because it wouldn’t cover the increased cost of his health insurance.
“Basically the administration is waiting for my father to die,” his daughter, Joelle, said.
Mr. LeMarbre’s health has since declined. He is experiencing shortness of breath and can only walk short distances with a walker, his family said. For any distance, he needs a wheelchair.
Also, he has lost his taste for food, a common symptom of ALS. He lives on high-calorie smoothies his wife makes for him.
Mrs. LeMarbre said her husband’s students visit him, send e-mails and donate to a Go Fund Me page the family created for his expenses.
“The kids have been amazing,” Mrs. LeMarbre said. “The kids love him. He was a really a good teacher, and it’s sad that they (the school administration) just turned their back on him.”
Mr. LeMarbre’s GoFundMe page eclipsed $17,000 as of Thursday. It can be accessed at https://www.gofundme.com/philiplemarbre