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Field Hospital To Pensacola Doctor: Thanks But No Thanks

Bob Barrett
WUWF Public Media

A Pensacola physician who volunteered to help in a field hospital in Baltimore has been sent home. You may remember meeting Dr. Alexys Hillman earlier this month. We told the story of her volunteering to work in the COVID-19 field hospital set up at the Baltimore Convention Center. Today, Dr. Hillman is back in Pensacola trying to figure out what went wrong. “And the kicker is I told them, even before I left Pensacola just so it wouldn’t be a thing, and it still turned into a thing.”

The “thing” Dr. Hillman is talking about is the fact that she uses medical marijuana. 

“I actually brought it up. I said ‘look, this is something I have, I have a medical marijuana card from Florida, is this going to be an issue before I make this big trek up there’? They said as long as you put it on your occupational health paperwork it shouldn’t be an issue. As long as you disclose it. Which I did, multiple times.”

Medical marijuana was legalized in Maryland in 2014, but the state does not honor other states’ cards. In other words, you cannot buy, possess or use medical marijuana legally in Maryland with a Florida card. And that’s when the trouble began.

Dr. Hillman, who is an Army veteran with experience working in a field hospital environment, notified her supervisor that she was in town and at her hotel. Then she waited. 

“Days were going by where I wouldn’t hear anything, or (I would hear) ‘hey, we don’t have your badge ready’. I was signing up for shifts and I wasn’t hearing anything back. And I was getting texts back and forth from my supervisor saying (things like) ‘things are looking up’ and, what was the one phrase she used, ‘I’m cautiously optimistic about getting you in here’. (And I thought) what on Earth does that mean? I drove 16 hours here. You shouldn’t be cautiously optimistic about anything except me not catching this.”

Finally on Friday morning, April 17, Dr. Hillman got a call from the occupational health people saying her drug screen came back positive for THC, the active chemical in marijuana. “And I said ‘yeah, I know. I have medical marijuana’. And they explained why they couldn’t hire me, and they asked if I wanted to have a verification test. And I said ‘what for? I know it’s positive. What are you going to do that for?’ And they said (I could reapply if I) enrolled in a treatment program. Why am I going to enroll in a treatment program? Medical marijuana is my treatment.”

Before she was sent home, Dr. Hillman did go through orientation and got to interact with other health care providers from around the country and compare experiences dealing with the coronavirus. She remembers one conversation very well. 

“Her name was Lisa, I never got her last name, she was a nurse practitioner and she was really excited about helping. We got to compare our experiences in terms of, you know, she had her hours cut, she had her wages cut, she had doctors friends and their wages were getting cut in the midst of all this. (So I really got) to see why other people were coming out to help.”

Dr. Alexys Hillman is back home now, working her shifts at Pensacola Osteopaths. She hopes that being open about her experience will start a conversation about the stigma still surrounding medical marijuana patients. 

“I try to make it very clear why I was declined.  Not just for appearances. Not just so (people won’t say) oh, something bad must have come back in her history. But so they know that this is a thing. Moving forward they know that this is a thing. So we can start this conversation. Because one of my first thoughts (while) starting to drive back from Baltimore to Pensacola was ‘we need to talk about this!’ This is ridiculous! You’re putting out these frantic calls saying ‘Oh we need people, we need people, we need people!’ But then someone shows up (who uses) medical marijuana and you’re like ‘oh no, no, no, we’re fine, we’re fine. Go home.' It’s wrong not just to me but to patients in general on medical marijuana. It’s saying that we’re less than, we’re not good enough, that in times of crisis, they still don’t want us.”

This little adventure cost Dr. Hillman more than just time and aggravation. She ended up spending close to a thousand dollars of her on money on hotels and travel expenses and supplies for the month she thought she’d be staying in Baltimore.

“It was kind of heartbreaking," she said. "And I had to really kind of come (to terms with it) and decide how I was going to let this affect me. Because (pause) I know I did nothing wrong. I am not doing anything wrong. Doctors are also patients, doctors also get sick, they come down with physical and mental ailments for which medical marijuana has been recognized to help treat. I told them well in advance. I am not broken. I am not a stoner. I’m none of these things. I’m just a patient trying to get relief from symptoms. I’m also a doctor and I don’t feel like those two things should be mutually exclusive.”

The field hospital in Baltimore is being run by Johns Hopkins Medicine. We have reached out to them for comment. 

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.