5 1/2 Years Later, Still No Benefits


After one week of trying to make sense out of Janet Guy Purdy's workman's compensation case, I am ready to tear my hair out. How, after nearly six years, Mrs. Purdy has any hair left at all is anybody's guess.

Mrs. Purdy is 33, a Harundale native now living in Pasadena with her husband and two kids. Five and a half years ago, she was forced to leave her $210 a week job as a silk screener and embroiderer with Lettering Unlimited, a Glen Burnie firm, after developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel is a painful condition affecting the nerves and tendons in the wrist often caused by repetitive hand movements.

On Oct. 30, 1987, she filed for workman's compensation benefits. Eventually the case made its way to the Court of Appeals, where the state's highest court ruled in her favor. Yet she still has not received permanent disability benefits.

Instead, she continues to grope her way through a legal and bureaucratic maze from which she is increasingly convinced there is no way out. Angry and thoroughly convinced the system is doing her dirty, Mrs. Purdy called The Sun in a last-ditch effort to find somebody who could unscramble the mess.

There's no questioning the genuineness of her distress. Five feet tall and rail-thin, Mrs. Purdy is a walking bundle of nerves. She worries constantly -- about finances, about what she can do for work with a pair of useless hands and a ninth-grade education.

Physically, she is a mess. Despite three operations, both hands are in splints, so badly damaged she has trouble holding a glass without dropping it. She can't garden or play ball with her children. When her daughter was a baby she couldn't hold her for more than a few minutes. Though she hates to take medicine, she depends on heavy-duty painkillers such as Darvocet and Valium to get through the day.

Besides carpal tunnel syndrome, she has been diagnosed with bilateral thoracic outlet syndrome, which affects the fingers and shoulders. She claims to have bursitis, tendonitis and tempomandibular joint disorder, all related to her former job.

It's not difficult to see how the work she did could cause such injuries. As an embroiderer, Mrs. Purdy operated a machine requiring constant hand movement, turning out up to 300 personalized jackets a day. She did this work for six years, experiencing some pain in her left hand but not enough to make her think anything was seriously wrong.

Then, in August 1987, she was assigned to silk screening for two straight weeks. To silk screen a shirt, you lay it flat, then pull a screen over it. Ink is placed at the top of the screen, you pull it across with a squeegee, pressing down and pulling toward you, so it goes through the screen onto the shirt.

The constant pressure ruined her hands. They went numb and swelled, and her fingers locked. She kept working for weeks after her doctor advised her to quit. She finally left the company on Oct. 30, 1987.

Since then, she has claimed compensation for the carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists as well as for thoracic outlet syndrome. She has received 20 weeks of disability pay for months immediately following the carpal tunnel operations, but her doctor bills haven't been paid, she has yet to receive a permanent disability payment and the thoracic outlet claim remains in litigation.

What's going on? No one seems to know for sure.

Mrs. Purdy thinks her ex-lawyers goofed by merging her thoracic outlet claim with the carpal tunnel claim. She figures the Maryland Workman's Compensation Commission won't settle the carpal tunnel claim as long as the attached thoracic outlet claim remains in dispute. Her new lawyer, she says, is working to separate the two claims.

But the Maryland Workman's Compensation Commission says it's a common practic to merge related claims. No matter what happens with the thoracic outlet claim, Mrs. Purdy will not lose her carpal tunnel benefits, they say.

The commission says the Court of Appeals' decision, rendered Dec. 11, 1990, has yet to be returned to them. Until that happens, the commission cannot write an order telling Lettering Unlimited's insurance company how much to pay Mrs. Purdy.

She says she's never been evaluated by the insurance company's doctors; the commission says she was.

And so it goes.

"I have been pushed past my limit," Mrs. Purdy says. "Every single time I've been involved with the court system I've ended up on the short end of the stick."

The Maryland Workman's Compensation Commission says Mrs. Purdy's brand of disillusionment is typical of people awaiting benefits. "They've been injured and they feel like the whole world is against them," one official said. "Sometimes it's the system's fault, and sometimes it's nobody's fault."

And sometimes, she said, people just don't understand how the system works.

Having met Janet Purdy, it's easy to see why people don't, and why they often end up so disillusioned.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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