When critical care doctor Brooks Fallis sat down for a virtual meeting with two of his superiors on Jan. 22, he was still struggling to understand why he had been terminated from his job leading the intensive care division at one of the hardest-hit hospitals in the country.
Dr. Fallis recalled that Frank Martino, the chief of staff at William Osler Health System, the network that serves the coronavirus-battered city of Brampton, Ont., said the move had nothing to do with Dr. Fallis’s work as a physician or as interim medical director of critical care.
The decision was taken, Dr. Fallis said he was told, because of his public criticism of the Ontario government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his failure to warn the hospital’s communications team about all of his media appearances.
According to Dr. Fallis’s notes about the meeting, Rardi Van Heest, the hospital’s vice-president of medical affairs, added that, “some of your remarks have been misconstrued as being harmful to the government so our funding can be put at risk.”
Dr. Fallis recalled the conversation in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, his first since the news broke last week that Osler had withdrawn an offer to extend his leadership contract by a year.
He decided to go public with his story at a moment when other Canadian doctors are taking to social media to describe how they’ve felt pressed – by hospital bosses, by conservative media and by social-media critics – to tone down their advocacy for stricter coronavirus control measures they believe will benefit their patients.
“I really believe that what happened here was wrong,” Dr. Fallis told The Globe. “It sends the message to others, if they speak up, there will be consequences.”
In separate statements, William Osler Health System and the office of Ontario Premier Doug Ford both said government officials had nothing to do with the decision to revoke Dr. Fallis’s contract extension.
“Neither the Premier nor anyone else in the government has ever threatened funding cuts or given direction of any kind to punish staff because of criticism of the government’s pandemic response,” Ivana Yelich, a spokeswoman for the Premier, wrote.
Donna Harris, a spokeswoman for William Osler Health System, said while Osler does not comment on human-resources matters, “in this instance, it is important to clarify that at no time has anyone from the provincial government had a conversation with anyone from Osler regarding HR matters at the organization.”
The decision not to renew Dr. Fallis’s contract was made by the executive physician leadership team alone, Ms. Harris added.
Dr. Fallis took detailed notes from the Jan. 22 meeting and another virtual meeting, on Nov. 16, at which the hospital’s chief executive officer, Naveed Mohammad, warned Dr. Fallis that his remarks to the media could put provincial funding for future Osler projects in jeopardy.
Dr. Fallis, 42, started working 6½ years ago as a critical care doctor at Osler, the network that oversees the Brampton Civic, Etobicoke General and Peel Memorial hospitals. At the beginning of 2020, he was offered a one-year contract as the interim medical director and division head of critical care.
His ICU colleagues said he excelled in the role of pandemic-time leader, drawing up new protocols and a website used by ICU units across Ontario as they battled the new virus.
“Over the past year, Dr. Fallis has been an exemplary leader, not only for the ICU but for Osler as a whole,” reads a Jan. 27 letter signed by 23 of Osler’s ICU doctors, objecting to Dr. Fallis’s termination.
Throughout the spring wave, Dr. Fallis says, he was often asked by Osler’s communications department to speak to the media on the network’s behalf. The requests stopped, he says, after he published a column sharply criticizing the province’s preparations for the second wave in late September.
The situation escalated in early November, when the provincial government unveiled a new colour-coded pandemic framework that would have led to a loosening of restrictions in Peel Region.
Alarmed, Dr. Fallis tweeted on Nov. 4: “COVID is exploding in Peel with rising ICU & Hosp admissions. Hospitals are bursting with admitted patients in ER. @fordnation I would be happy to give you a tour of the ICU so you can see what the front line actually looks like – then maybe you’ll reconsider your garbage plan.”
The next day, Dr. Fallis commented for a CBC story. “There is no question more people will die because of these decisions,” he said.
He followed up on Nov. 5 with a tweet divulging internal Osler data about high test-positivity rates at Osler’s testing centres and emergency departments.
That night, Dr. Fallis was on call. He went to sleep at the hospital around 5 a.m. “I was woken up in the morning by a phone call from an irate Dr. Martino,” Dr. Fallis says, “telling me that Dr. Mohammad, our CEO, had received an angry phone call from Doug Ford about my comments. And I was instructed on our phone call to stop all media activity.”
Ms. Yelich of the Premier’s Office denied such a phone call occurred. Osler did not address questions about the alleged call in its response to The Globe. Dr. Martino, Dr. Mohammad and Dr. Van Heest did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
On Nov. 10, Dr. Mohammad and Dr. Martino sent Dr. Fallis a letter, viewed by The Globe, asking him to cease and desist making public comments about Osler without first seeking authorization. However, the letter said the hospital didn’t wish to restrict his ability to speak out in his personal capacity or as a physician.
According to Dr. Fallis’s recollection and his notes, Dr. Mohammad said at a virtual meeting Nov. 16 – held at Dr. Fallis’s request – that he agreed with Dr. Fallis’s advocacy and had no desire to muzzle him. Instead, he asked Dr. Fallis not to release any more internal information, not to use his Osler title when speaking to the media and not to do any media without first warning the communications team.
The CEO said he worried that sustained public criticism from Osler staff might jeopardize provincial funding for the Etobicoke Tower, the new cancer centre and a Peel Memorial Phase 2 expansion, all proposed projects Dr. Mohammad cited by name.
One month later, on Dec. 16, Dr. Fallis received by e-mail an offer to extend his contract as interim medical director by another year. Hoping to have a conversation with his superiors about hiring a permanent director of critical care, Dr. Fallis held off on signing it.
A few weeks later, on Jan. 11, Dr. Fallis gave an interview to the CBC’s Metro Morning without first warning Osler’s communications team. Before making a controversial comment, Dr. Fallis clarified that he was speaking on his own behalf, not Osler’s.
A few hours later, Dr. Fallis received an e-mail from Dr. Mohammad, pointing out Dr. Fallis had done a number of media appearances without warning communications. Dr. Fallis apologized by e-mail and promised to keep the hospital apprised of his future media activity.
On Jan. 18, Dr. Fallis received an e-mail from Dr. Martino telling him his original one-year contract would automatically terminate on Jan. 31.
Ms. Harris said the hospital later apologized to Dr. Fallis for the way it communicated his removal from the leadership role. Dr. Fallis continues to work as a critical care doctor at Osler.
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