A Gander radiologist who says she was told in the late stages of her pregnancy that she no longer had a job has filed a human rights complaint against administrators at the health authority in central Newfoundland. 

"What happened to me was bullying and harassment," Dr. Michelle Ong, whose termination was overturned, told CBC News in an interview.

Ong and two other radiologists who work for Central Health said they are speaking publicly because of ongoing problems at the health authority.

"Who's going to be the next person that comes behind Michelle?" said Dr. Paula Kennedy, who worked as chief of radiology for Central Health until restructuring in April.

"There's a basic lack of respect," said Dr. Jane Rendell, who specializes in diagnostic radiology. "You can't allow this kind of behaviour to go unquestioned."  

Ong, who trained in breast and body imaging, was recruited to the James Paton Memorial Regional Health Centre about 18 months ago.

She was working to set up an MRI breast screening program when she was told by management that there was no position available for her.

"This was a position she had been guaranteed, and was already working in," Dr. Kennedy said.

Labelled as 'troublemakers'

Ong said the decision came after she questioned the restructured management about issues that were affecting patient care.

"They don't like being challenged," she said. "When I raised my concerns about substandard quality and impacts on patient safety, from that time I was told that my position was terminated, that I was not going to have a job anymore." 

At that time, Ong was 35 weeks pregnant. An Australian, she had been employed in Canada on a work visa, and said she was shocked by the authority's announcement. 

"Because I'm from overseas, I have a working visa that was expiring, my MCP [medical care plan] coverage was also expiring, and I was already getting late into pregnancy when this happened," she said.

"It was too late to fly, to go away. I was on the verge of becoming an illegal person, which is not really my intention, and I was about to have a baby without any health coverage," she said. 

"It is just absolutely bizarre."

Paula Kennedy, Michelle Ong and Jane Rendell

From left, Paula Kennedy, Michelle Ong and Jane Rendell, all doctors in Gander, N.L., say the atmosphere at the Central Health Authority is 'hostile and uncomfortable.' (CBC)

Dr. Kennedy said the decision to terminate Ong made no sense and would have jeopardized a screening program demanded by both the public and the minister of health.

"I've never seen anybody treated so poorly in my whole entire life," she said.

'I was on the verge of becoming an illegal person ... and I was about to have a baby without any health coverage.' - Dr. Michelle Ong

"I was embarrassed that a group of physicians was treating another physician like this, let alone Newfoundlanders. We think of ourselves as being so warm and welcoming and friendly."

Ong said she was so stressed, she went into premature labour.

She also hired high-profile St. John's lawyer Jerome Kennedy, a former provincial health minister, who contacted Steve Kent, who had been health minister in the former PC government before it lost power in the Nov. 30 provincial election. 

"Luckily for me, the minister attended to this immediately, and forced Central Health to change that decision, so I was given my job and the process of hiring was started again," said Ong.

"When all this happened to me the only thing that could go through my head was like, wow, they're trying to promote recruitment and retention of doctors, but this thing that's happened to me, any doctor from overseas is going to think twice about even wanting to come here," she said.

"To think that a pregnant woman could be treated this way, anything can happen to anyone else," said Ong.

No human rights complaint yet received: authority

In a statement to CBC News late Monday, Central Health said it prefers not to discuss matters regarding employees in public, but instead wants to "work amicably to resolve such matters internally."

Regarding Ong's complaint, the authority said she "continues to be employed by Central Health as a radiologist and there has not been any break in her employment with the exception of her self-scheduled maternity leave."

Central Health said it has not yet received a human rights complaint regarding Ong.

"Should Central Health receive a complaint from the Human Rights Commission regarding this matter, it would be reviewed and addressed as per the appropriate channels," the authority said.

"Central Health has no further comment on this issue at this time."

Hostile work environment

The three radiologists described low morale and confusion at Central Health, and feel they have been labelled for speaking out.

"If you go too far, they start to say you're a troublemaker," said Rendell, adding the atmosphere changed wth the April decision to manage radiology from Grand Falls-Windsor, about 100 kilometres away. 

"Now it's very hostile. It's uncomfortable. We no longer have any control over the department at all," she said.

"If we say anything they don't like, they just get angry with us."

The doctors said they are frustrated nothing has changed despite two reviews of the radiology department.

The latest report, by Dr. Rick Bhartia, clinical chief of radiology at Eastern Health, was submitted in September.  

"We don't want administration downgrading the standards. It's just not safe, it's not morally right, and the public needs to know," said Rendell.

The human rights complaint is against the CEO of Central Health, the regional chief and the vice-president of medicine.

"With all of these things that have happened to me, the person who was in charge remains in charge to this day and has not been given any disciplinary actions," said Ong.

'Very derogatory comments'

The doctors allege that what Rendell called 'inappropriate behaviour" continues, despite the complaint.

"There's still very derogatory comments being made at medical meetings amongst doctors," said Paula Kennedy.

"The chief of radiology was quoted as saying 'we might be able to get our wait list under control if people would stop getting pregnant,' those kinds of attitudes, so things like this are still being said despite what happened to Michelle."

After working to beef up the radiology services in the central region, Dr. Kennedy said the quality of care is going down.

"We just want a process put in place to stop that," he said.

The doctors are hoping the new minister of health, John Haggie — who worked as a surgeon in Gander until his election in November — will help sort out the problems.

But in a statement to CBC, the Department of Health and Community Services indicated it does not intend to get involved.

"Any allegations of this nature in the workplace are taken very seriously," the statement said.

"However, this is a human resources issue within Central Health and it is the responsibility of their senior administration to resolve such issues."

With files from Carolyn Stokes and Chris Ensing