Browbeaten, Not Broken


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Browbeaten, Not Broken

A large man on a mission seems an unstoppable force and indeed, Dr. John G. Frederick's trajectory appeared resolute in its foot-stomping, arm-swinging, face grimacing gate. But with four words, spoken not in anger but in abject disappointment, he was halted. 

"Your dad deserves better," she said, her voice echoing down the hallway behind him. She stood straddling the fiery wake his rage-induced march left behind, the very same figurative path every living person ran in terror from since this whole thing began. May didn't care anymore. She didn't have to. He had had her fired just minutes before. 

John turned and stared her down, a champion gun-slinger poised to pull on a naive cowpoke. He had the power to have her fired. He would not let himself be affected by her words. "I could have security remove you from the property as well, Miss Huang."

"You could, and you would because you are a nasty old bastard but that wouldn't change the fact that your father deserves better than a bulldozer of a son. Some day you will see yourself as others do and I'm not sure you'll ever forgive your heart's unbearable ugliness."

With that, she turned and walked away. She left for greener pastures and found her heaven in a bioresearch start-up that paid less in cash but infinitely more in respect.

John Frederick didn't fare quite as well. But that's the end of a story we've hardly just begun.

Cancer research is complicated. For all the memes and media posts asking what's being done with all the donations to research and awareness, few people realize that cancer isn't one simple disease, easy enough to eradicate once the right mixture of chemicals is found. Millions of people--some brilliant scientists, some skilled data entry clerks--are toiling and typing every day in the effort to make some breakthrough possible. One of those people is John Frederick. 

In the process of his research, John Frederick has been less than generous. He is happy to share his results but not credit in finding them. Nor is he interested in sharing his grant money, his expertise to postdocs or research associates, his loyalty to his team or institution, nor his affection to his friends or family. John Frederick is very much concerned with John Frederick and is interested only in things that advance the cause of feeding John Frederick's ego. Anything that instills pride is amplified. Anything that hints at shame is shunned. But we'll talk about his son later.

To say that he had made enemies was as much an understatement as his success was due to his privilege. Colleagues, employees, superiors and cleaning staff all hated him alike. There was no one he hadn't insulted. Human Resources had a file on him larger than the list of employees he had had fired and yet no one had the guts to fire him. They couldn't. He brought in the grants, he provided results, and however he managed to get his work done, whichever spines he scaled on his way up, the powers that be were loath to be rid of him. They all held their breaths and waited for him to retire, hoping he wouldn't incur a lawsuit in the meantime.

If John Frederick's behavior on a daily basis was malicious and unscrupulous, his most recent mood could only have borne from the rotting of that foul fruit for not even the fright of the interns at his bark nor the offense of his colleagues at his bite made him smile. Hushed conversations behind closed doors and unaccounted for absences followed furrowed brows and when he could be found, it was trudging from office to lab, from lab to office. He was uncharacteristically uncommunicative and it made them all nervous.

It was May who had discovered why in the course of her work. She had accepted a specimen, a colon tumor, for biobanking one Thursday morning and scrawled on the cap with the medical record number and surgical number was the name George Frederick. 

"George J Frederick and son," read the framed newspaper clipping on John Frederick's office door. George J Frederick had contributed a large sum of money to the University's Cancer Research Center in the name of his late wife, Theodora B Frederick, who had succumbed to multiple myeloma many years before. 

John Frederick's mother had died of cancer and now his father suffered too. Poor man, thought May as she cut and processed a piece of his father's colon. She said a silent prayer for his family and finished the job.

May handed off the index card with the relevant information to David whose job it was to track down and input each sample's data into the database and de-identify it to protect the patient's privacy. Both May and David were trained and certified in handling sensitive information, well-versed in HIPAA compliance and considered consummate professionals. The Biobank functioned better than an oiled machine, each employee a sentient cog supporting each other in their rotations. 

David recognized the name too. And although he hated the man as much as anyone, he wasn't without empathy. He connected the events as he typed in the date of surgery and the date of diagnosis. He counted back to the day John Frederick snapped at him in the men's room and insulted his intelligence for urinating too loudly. David had no intention of forgiving the man his belligerence but he did have a better understanding and could, therefore, accept the act for what it was: a mean-spirited man venting his grief and fear in less than healthy ways. David allowed a moment of compassion to pass through his heart before filing the card in the lock box and moving on to the next task.

Dr. Camden knew, of course, because John Frederick didn't think very highly of him. Despite his education, despite his abundant research results, and despite his position as Assistant Director of the Biobanking Facility, John Frederick always spoke candidly in his vicinity. Not to him, of course, but near him as one does with one's dog or living room set with about as much concern that he would understand or relay what was heard. 

John Frederick answered a call from his stepmother in Dr. Camden's office one day, where he sat sometimes to relax and hide from his own responsibilities regardless of Dr. Camden's workload. He gave the woman a lengthy and less than layman explanation of the mechanism of cancer development, assuring her that her husband's prognosis only carried a 15-28% chance of death. When the phone call had ended, Dr. Camden expressed his regrets for his father's condition. John Frederick at first pretended ignorance, then indicated an incredulous offense at the intrusion of privacy before throwing a flippant insult about the man's research and storming off petulantly. 


At a staff meeting later that week, Dr. Camden mentioned the obvious, "I don't doubt that any of you misunderstand the grievousness of relaying private patient information nor that you would willingly stray from protocol but should you come across any information in the near future of a sensitive nature relating to any person known to the university community, I would advise uttermost discretion when handling associated data."

May and David knew exactly about whom he was speaking and nodded inconspicuously along with their colleagues. They hadn't discussed what they had seen, even with each other, even when there was some inconsistency in the data that they needed to converse on to clarify. 

John Frederick, on the other hand, was significantly less subtle when he stopped by May's workbench. "I'm going to need a colon sample, Surgical number 16-201-1874. Frozen, paraffin, whatever you have and all associated data and I want it by end of day."

"Dr. Frederick, you know I can't just give that to you," May said. "You need to fill out a request form, I need to get permission to provide a full sample, and you--"

"End of day," he barked back and stabbed at the air between them. 

May sighed and removed her gloves. She glanced at David who shrugged and rolled his eyes. She picked up the phone and dialed Dr. Camden's office.


"John--" Dr. Camden rubbed his temples, the phone propped up between his ear and shoulder. "It is a conflict of interest, you don't have the proper approval, and you didn't fill out a request. ... No. No, you have to go through the proper channels; everyone does. ... Actually, I would think breaking protocol would make me inept-- You can absolutely speak with the director and he will say the same--  John, there's no need to hurl playground insults at me. ... I beg to differ; I think it's fair to say you are the one being unprofessional here-- Yes, fine, please call the director. I will be speaking with your department head as well."

Dr. Camden hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair. His white-knuckled grip on the arms only let up when a tiny tap sounded at the door. "Come in!"

David and May trod tenuously through the door, closing it behind them. "What do we do?" David asked.

"Nothing," he replied and motioned for them to sit. Dr. Camden took a deep meditative breath, eyed closed, visions of sailboats gliding behind his eyelids. 

"He called twice," May said. "I let it go to voicemail the second time. He insulted my heritage and threatened to have me fired."

"He can't have you fired," Dr. Camden replied, opening his eyes. "And as for the racial insensitivity, it's... reprehensible. I can't even express to you how sorry I am for that nor can I believe how long he's been getting away with it." He reached for the phone and dialed Dr. Semath, the department chair. "I'm going to set up a meeting with Semath right now. I'd like you two to come with me. Has John had any contact with Raghav or Anita? Did they do any work on this sample?"

"No," May shook her head. "Just us." 


John Frederick burst into the boardroom with both flares lit. There was no mistaking his mood. Even Dr. Semath flinched at the tremor his entrance caused. 

Deer in headlights have more time to react than the congregation before him when he announced, "This is ridiculous. How dare any single one of you question me or my work. Ms. Huang, it is 4:47pm which gives you exactly 13 minutes to complete my request or you can pack up your Zen garden and get the hell out."

"Now John," Semath began but was promptly cut off. 

"YOU are going to question me? When did you cut off your pigtails, Semath? Me and your boss go way back. You think he'll choose you over me? 12 minutes, Huang. Let's get it moving."

"Daaad," a voice whined from the hallway. "You said we could go." A boy with a sad wispy mustache poked his head through the doorway with a pubescent frown that was less than endearing. "Can we go now?"

John Frederick held up a five-fingered stop sign in his direction. 

"Oh, hey, See-Man," the boy said, wandering into the room. He flicked the lights on and off twice before exploring the coffee bar, picking up leftover sugar packets and alley-ooping them into the trash. "Dad, your boss is here." 

What tension existed before the boy's entrance congealed into a thick  goopy glob of anger, annoyance, and injustice. Even if May had prepared the sample, John Frederick would have left work before using it. Not that anyone needed more convincing that it had all been a power play to begin with. 

The boy leaned his elbows back against the bar, kicking his right foot and watching his untied shoelaces bounce. "Why isn't anyone talking?" he asked and he might as well have asked how any of them had survived that long without drawing breath. 

"Frrrank!" John Frederick bellowed in what was obviously a well-practiced epithet. "Let's go." 

The room ballooned outward with the collective sigh of relief released as the Fredericks vacated, the elder slamming the door behind him as he went. 

"What am I supposed to do?" asked May dejectedly. Dr. Semath shook his head.

"We can't give him the sample," Dr. Camden maintained. "It's against protocol and it violates patient confidentiality."

"It's his father," David said. "Can't he get a waiver from the patient giving him access to his medical records? Then he can have all the data he wants."

"I still don't think he can have the sample," Dr. Camden said. "This is ridiculous. It shouldn't even be a question. Semath, just tell him no."

"He'll go above me," the department head sighed and rubbed his temples. 

"We can't violate protocol!" Dr. Camden insisted.

"I'll make some calls."


A department-wide email was sent the next morning concerning patient's private information and the guidelines for accessing and using said information. It's possible that John Frederick misinterpreted the memo.

"Which one of you beaker monkeys," he yelled from the doorway of the lab, "went poking your little unevolved noses into private information? I swear to God, if I find out who prompted this email, I will thrash you publicly for your idiocy." He stomped down the aisle, turning to look down each bench to individually intimidate each occupant. Most of the lab workers stared down at their projects, frozen in their fear of the beast and hoping its eyesight was dependent on movement to register prey. 

And perhaps that was true as his target, who absolutely avoided eye contact, nevertheless continued moving even as his cloved hooves clomped to a stop beside her bench. May had too much to do to be harassed into submission for this brute. 

"Where. the hell. is my sample?" He slammed his hand down on the bench. It was a solid slab of a work surface and she hoped it stung the tenderized beef of his hand.

"I can't give you the sample," May responded calmly, continuing her task. "I was told not to give you anything without permission from my superiors."

"Give me the goddamn sample, Joy Luck Club."

May ruffled at the slur but kept her focus on her work.

"I swear, I will have you and anyone who looks like you or talks like you or has a name that sounds almost like yours fired and banned from this facility, do you hear me?" 

The instrument she needed was right next to him. She asked herself how brave she was feeling on a scale of petting a tame snake to tempting a hungry tiger. Reaching for the tool could be perilous. Repeating her directive was slightly less deadly. 

"I am not permitted to give you the sample, Dr. Frederick. Please speak with my superiors."

An animatronic T-rex has more control over its own behavior than John Frederick defied by a tiny Asian woman. He flailed wildly, knocking equipment off the bench as he screamed, "You are ant shit, you insignificant insect. Your parents should have dumped you off the side of the rowboat they sailed in on, you rice-picking peasant girl."

May backed away quickly, holding up her arms to shield her face from flying fixtures. She couldn't see him mauling the embedded sample tray, spraying chunks of wax and processed tissue across the benchtop. She was too scared to look when he screeched, "WHERE IS IT?" having torn apart the storage container. And she was only aware of his approach after he grabbed her by the forearms, tore them away from her face, and spat contempt directly into her eyes. 

It was only seconds before someone tore him away, just long enough for her to yelp in fear and squeeze her eyes shut. When she opened them again it was to watch three other lab workers struggle to hold a flailing John Frederick as Security ran toward him. May's friends Lana and Marjorie from across the hall swarmed and chattered, the words "assault" and "file a report" echoing in her ears. Out of shock and incredulity, she couldn't quite remember what happened after that. 

Dr. Camden helped her fill out the incident report. Lana, Marjorie, David, and the three lab workers who pulled John Frederick away from her each filled out their own. The resulting pile of paperwork should have been the knife that cut the hair that held the sword of Damocles. Every one of John Frederick's victims lined up to buy tickets to watch that sword drop and every one was outraged when it swung savagely to the left and fell on May's head instead. She was fired the next day and no amount of righteous indignation, regardless of its source or media, would sway the decision of no one knew whom. 


With the gatekeeper out of the way, John Frederick reasoned, getting his father's sample and data would be easy. He had steamrolled the department heads, outmaneuvered the dean, and intimidated the university's lawyers into submission. Nothing could stop him now, he thought, and nothing but getting what he wanted occupied his mind. 

"Knock, knock," he said jovially, standing outside Dr. Camden's office door. It was a practice that peeved him so he did it to others as often as possible. 

"John," Dr. Camden said resignedly, "come in." 

John Frederick scoffed as he entered the small office, three of which could easily fit in his. He considered it a validation of his own dominance over Dr. Camden, the Biobank employees, and all this nonsense about protocol that obviously wasn't applicable to him. 

He dropped his bottom in the chair like a bag of dirty laundry, draping his arms casually over the back. He would have put his feet on the desk if he could lift them that high. "You've got something for me, I presume. I'm sure you received a phone call."

"Several," Dr. Camden said. He propped his arms on his desk, resting his chin on his hands thoughtfully. "It's been a very disappointing day, actually, both for my team and the university as a whole." 

"Yes, well," John Frederick laughed maliciously, "lab rats are replaceable. I just sent yours scurrying." 

"Hmm," he responded noncommittally. "Replacing a good employee is my disappointment of the day, but I really think we need to talk about your disappointment. One of the many phone calls I've taken today was from the Cancer Research Documentation and Compliance Office. It seems there is a problem with the consent form for the sample you've requested."

"Bullshit," John Frederick leaned back, laughing. The only way a sample like that could be unconsented was if the patient intentionally and specifically checked the box marked, "I do not give permission to use my tissue sample for research." Most people just skimmed right past that part, unaware of what it even meant. His father knew damn well what it meant. 

"No, I'm afraid it's true." Dr. Camden turned his computer monitor to face John Frederick. "I have a copy of the PDF right here." 

John Frederick leaned forward, gripping the arms of the chair for support. He squinted, he squinched, he adjusted his glasses, but there it was, a black check mark and the initials GF scrawled beside. 

"Pathology shouldn't have even sent us the sample in the first place," Dr. Camden continued. "I guess it was an oversight on their part."

John Frederick stood suddenly, a bear with a sore head, pounding his hands on Dr. Camden's desk. "I want to see the original." 

Dr. Camden leaned back in his chair and sighed. "It's already been destroyed as part of the new protocol. The digital copy is all that's left and it very clearly states that this patient does not consent to having his--"

"HORSESHIT!" John Frederick yelled and swiped a stack of papers off Dr. Camden's desk. "This is utter horseshit. I want the original document on my desk in an hour."

"The original has been destroyed as part of the new de-identification protocol. I can't undestroy a document--"

"Unbelievable! I will have your entire department defunded. I will have every employee fired. I will take every sample you own and SHIT ON YOUR DESK as security escorts you out of the building. Who is in charge of Cancer Research Compliance? Who is the idiot who consented this patient incorrectly? Who do I have to set on fire to get what I want?"

"John," Dr. Camden took a deep breath. "I think you need to concede this one."


Dr. Camden stood, sliding his hands into his pants pockets casually. He leaned back against his desk and crossed his feet at the ankle. When he spoke, it was calm as a cow, with an edge of subtle reproach like when he needed to reprimand his children without inciting them to tantrums.

"Beyond the fact that you don't have an approved protocol to add the sample to nor do you have permission from any of the department heads to receive it, the sample has been destroyed, the data has been deleted, and the patient has officially been registered as non-consenting. There is literally nothing you can do to get what you want because it no longer exists. You can call your cronies and have them fire my entire department, you can have a crucial service to this university defunded thereby cutting off your own supply of tissue sample, hell, you could actually set some poor Compliance employee on fire--although I'm not sure anyone has the power to get you off the hook for that attempted murder--but you won't get the sample. Now please leave my office. I have a long queue of Principal Investigators who are actually interested in furthering their cancer research waiting for me to provide the de-identified and appropriate-for-use tissue samples to help them do so."


Directionless rage sent John Frederick from the meager office that couldn't contain the sheer volume of his indignity. With no place to go, he charged down the hallway in the direction he came, imagining May where she stood chiding him not five minutes before. He would find her, he would crush her, and he would feel justified. But May was long gone and as a former employee, he held no sway over her anyway. He had no hammer with which to smash.

Propelled by impotence and indecision, he stomped back to his own office to regroup and concoct the cruelest possible revenge. Instead, he arrived to a voice mail from his father. 

"Son," he said in a voice almost too weak to recognize. "I wanted to let you know that I checked the box on that form because I knew what you would do if I didn't. I don't know the details but I can gather from the barrage of administrators who have visited my hospital bed today that you have steamrolled the scientific process to get ahold of a shard of my colon and I am truly disappointed. I have denied a real researcher a tiny piece of the cancer cure puzzle because I couldn't trust my son to maintain my privacy. And rather than take responsibility for your missteps, you had someone fired? I wish I could say I expected more but I honestly didn't." 

John Frederick prickled, bristled, boiled and burned, a tarantula in a teapot with no immediate target for his venom. A frenzy of fury whirled through his office, sweeping objects from furniture and furniture from floor. It opened his office door and dispatched a cyclone of indignation in the direction of the Cancer Research Documentation and Compliance Office. They never knew what hit them.

The devastation was immense. The losses were lamentable. But the rainbow after the storm rose to greet a new dawn, a new day, and the permanent suspension without pay pending further investigation of possible hate crimes and malicious destruction of property for Dr. John G. Frederick. 


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Copyright © 2016 by Eda J. Vor
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