$85 a Head

By

Leonard Zwelling

            On the road
to retirement, one learns about many gifts the institution grants you on the
way out the door.

            First, I
got an email asking me which tangible gift I would like: a captain’s chair, a
rocking chair, a certificate or some crystal statuary or something. I took the
captain’s chair.

            Second, I
got a sitting with the MD Anderson photography department. They did a great job
of taking all sorts of photos and I got to select the official one as if
someone else might actually look at it. In the past these photos used to be
prominently displayed on the eleventh floor near the President’s office, but no
more. The president’s office is far loftier now (21 floors up) and the rest of
us are nowhere to be seen. I have no idea why they took this picture other than
to remind me that I look a lot older than I did when I got here 29 years ago.

            Then, our
administrator asked me what I wanted to do for my retirement party as the PRS
allots $5000 to the department to send me off into senility. I was appalled. My
initial reaction was to give the money to some lab-based post-doc for his or
her research, but that’s not an option. This money derives from history.

            When I
arrived at MD Anderson, there was a huge party every spring. It was a black tie
affair for all the faculty using PRS funds (that would be money the faculty
earned). There was a cocktail hour, dinner, dancing and a great send off for
those retiring where their portraits were shown for the first time in public
and a great deal of ribbing accompanied the sweet sadness of some truly great
physicians and scientists moving on in their lives. Frankly, Genie and I hadn’t
seen anything like it before. 

When the now defunct Houston Post
criticized our expending our own money on the party, the leadership of Anderson
in its characteristic jelly-like exhibition of spine cancelled all subsequent
parties. The annual PRS Retirement party was no more.

            However,
the PRS gives each department $5000 per retiree to have some sort of retirement
party as long as it costs less than $85 per person.

            So, I was
asked, what did I want to do for my retirement party?

            Given that
I am not quitting, just leaving Anderson, and $5000 right now seemed like a lot
of money for cake, I thought the best idea was to donate it somehow, but that
is not one of the choices available to a retiree. It’s not their money. It has
to be used on frivolity.

            Then I had
an idea. On October 24, the Chaplaincy Fund, a group that supports the work of
the MD Anderson chaplains and whose board I am on, is holding its annual fund
raising dinner. At the dinner, I am actually getting a tip of the hat because I
successfully fought the powers that be at Anderson (that would be our lawyers) who
wanted to purge the Lutheran Pavilion Chapel of all Christian symbolism so that
the leadership might take a new donation of $1 million to refurbish the place
free of any symbols of faith. As the resident Jew on the board I was incensed
that the leaders of Anderson would acquiesce to such blackmail over the wishes
of the founders of the Lutheran Pavilion. I said that if they want to purge the
Christian symbols they would have to give all the money back to the Lutherans
and cut the cross off the top of the chapel, something I doubted they could
conceal from the Houston Chronicle and would then have to explain. As I have
already pointed out, the leaders of Anderson have no spine and they backed
down. So I became the Jew who saved the Lutheran Chapel. Personally, I found
this very funny, but nonetheless important for I could not see how we could
take all the money from the Lutherans all these years and then purge the
religion from the Chapel for an extra million. The old church-state argument
was thrown around by the lawyers, but if that were true now it was true when
they took the money from the Lutherans many years ago. That dog was not going
to hunt.

            Since I was
getting this nod at the dinner I suggested to the PRS that they use the $5000
to buy tables to the dinner and that I will invite some faculty for a
celebration the proceeds from which would benefit our patients. It seemed like
a win-win to me.

            Yesterday,
Wayne Wilson called me and said they really had to scratch their heads on this
one as it was such an unusual request but as long as I spend no more than $85
per head, that would be OK. Unfortunately, the tables are $1200 for ten seats
or $120 per head, so I am splitting a table with the PRS. They are paying $850
and I am paying $350 for my own retirement party. You gotta love MD Anderson.
$7000 for a couch but only $850 for a table.

            In truth, I
am grateful to Wayne who went out of his way to make this happen for me. I
thank him for this was hard for a bureaucracy that is so locked up in formality
it cannot see straight enough to benefit the patients while it has no trouble
outfitting the President’s wife’s lair with high end furniture.

            MD Anderson
has devolved into a nightmare of illogic and callous bureaucratic chaos. Good
people, like Wayne, are doing everything in their power to make things come out
well, but cannot beat the rules that handcuff them to nonsense like this.

            In the not
so distant past, there was a great pink palace with happy citizens and a
purpose. That purpose was fighting cancer and though success was not
guaranteed, the battle was met with enthusiasm and we knew why we got up every
morning. Now, not so much. There is a lot that has been lost, but the memory
lives on and the once and future MD Anderson need not fade like Camelot.

            But that
dear faculty, is up to you!

Leonard Zwelling