Driving along busy Custer Avenue in Helena, Montana, residents and visitors may notice a large billboard that simply reads: “We Support Dr Tom Weiner.”
The sign costs $750 per month to rent and is funded entirely by cancer patients and locals.
They got together to raise $5000 through a huge yard sale this summer. Some of the volunteers were cancer patients with active disease, challenged by a record-breaking heatwave, but determined to show up for the man they call “our doc.”
Weiner was their medical oncologist, and they want him back.
A billboard in Helena, Montana supporting Dr Tom Weiner.
After working for 24 years at the only medical center in Helena, including the last five as its sole medical oncologist, Weiner was suddenly fired in November 2020.
Since then, Weiner launched a lawsuit against the medical center, St. Peter’s Health, and seeks damages in a jury trial, now scheduled for the fall of 2022.
Patients and families quickly rallied to support him. Within days, they formed the Facebook group We stand with Dr. Tom Weiner (4000+ members) and, later, the more activist-oriented Patients and Friends of Dr. Tom Weiner (600+ members). Unlike some cause-oriented social media sites, the groups are busy, with fresh posts nearly every day.
In the past year, these supporters, who sometimes call themselves “Team Weiner,” have become a presence in Helena (population 32,000), undertaking a steady stream of activism, including performing weekly “stand-in” protests outside St. Peter’s.
In addition to funding billboards, the collection of patients, family members, and friends have installed lawn signs and worn face masks and T-shirts with pro-Weiner messages. All promotions are paid for by supporters.
Weiner does not participate in these activities, nor does he receive any of the money raised, his supporters emphasize.
A number of patients have also filed their own lawsuit against St. Peter’s for allegedly removing its only oncologist “without adequate notice or planning,” which “caused the hundreds of cancer patients to be left in a lurch without adequate care,” according to Keif Storrar, a lawyer involved in the suit.
Nearly a year after firing Weiner, St. Peter’s still does not have a replacement.
“We currently have three locum tenens medical oncologists and hematologists,” said Kathryn Gallagher, a spokesperson for St Peter’s.
The medical center is “working closely with Huntsman Cancer Institute [in Utah] to operationalize our affiliation and recruit permanent medical oncologists to St. Peter’s,” she added.
Doc Not Working for Nearly A Year
Weiner, who is married with two adult children, has not worked over the past 11 months.
During that time, many of his former patients and their loved ones have been unwavering in their support for him. Some lit up their homes at Christmas with unifying purple lights to keep their tie with the oncologist symbolically alive.
“This is something of a phenomenon — this doctor is so beloved in this community. We will not give up,” commented Laura Fix, a local wine and spirits store owner who is married to one of Weiner’s former patients.
“Funny story,” said Fix, “when all this happened and we got the Facebook page going, and everyone was telling their personal story [about Weiner], I said to my husband, ‘God, I thought he just liked us.’ I realized he was wonderful with everybody and then I liked him even more.”
Weiner’s case has created a movement among otherwise strangers.
“None of us knew each other before,” said Dayna Hartley, a former patient treated for ovarian cancer and under Weiner’s care at the time of his firing.
“We all came together in our love for Dr Weiner. Now we’re tight. Super tight,” she commented.
A silent prayer vigil for Weiner is planned for October 15, the 1-year anniversary of his being suspended by St Peter’s (which was followed by his firing in November). The candlelight event will take place on sidewalks outside of the medical center’s campus.
Gallagher said the medical center has not attempted to stop the near-yearlong protests: “We respect peaceful protest on public property,” she noted.
Vigil participants can sign a card for Weiner or deposit one with the organizers, which will be sent to the oncologist. He does not work with the activists and will not attend the vigil.
His lawyer, J. Devlan Geddes, said that Weiner “is very humbled and appreciative of the support he has received from the community” and hopes to return to work in Helena.
Another $6000 Raised This Month
The pro-Weiner billboard scheme is the brainchild of Hartley, a resident of nearby Montana City, which is part of the larger Helena “micropolitan” area (population 81,000).
Hartley says that she first tried to place the ad with local billboard companies. “No one would touch them,” she said.
She speculates that this is because Weiner was fired by St Peter’s Health, the largest employer in town after the state government (Helena is the state capital). “They [St Peter’s] spend a lot of money and a lot of local businesses don’t want to upset them,” she said.
The activists eventually turned to Lamar Advertising, one of the largest billboard companies in the world. But the cost of billboards tested the supporters’ resources. So Hartley hatched a second idea — a big yard sale, which needed a big space.
That’s when Fix and her husband Bud Clinch stepped up. Clinch was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) by Weiner 14 years ago (after a set of misdiagnoses from other physicians) and was under his care until the firing.
The couple have a 48-acre ranch about a mile outside of town and offered to host the event. A team of organizers set a date for the yard sale — July 23 and 24 — and moved toward it.
The sale was advertised in the town’s newspaper and online in social media groups, and generated buzz.
First, donations poured in.
“I was in tears,” said Fix. “People arrived with pickup trucks and U-Hauls full of goods to drop off — and not just a bunch of junk. The generosity of people was unbelievable.”
There was a core group of about 20 volunteers, she said. “I can’t tell you how much those people worked in the hot sun.”
Folks in Helena are known for “pitch-in” events to help out neighbors, Fix said. But this was unlike anything the native Montanan had ever seen. “Hundreds” of bargain hunters attended the sale, she says, which included some high-end items such as designer purses donated by a woman in California who is a Weiner supporter.
The ranch’s guesthouse, a former creamery on the onetime farm, was stocked with water, vitamin water, sandwiches, trail mix and home-baked goods for volunteers to get out of the sun and the near-100°F temperatures.
The couple’s twin grandchildren ran a lemonade stand. Both of their grandfathers were treated by Weiner — Poppa Bud for CML and Poppa Tom for colon cancer, said Fix.
A second yard sale, also at the Clinch and Fix ranch, was held just 2 weeks ago and raised another $6000.
Billboards in different locations in Helena are now planned until the year’s end, said Hartley. Receipts from the yard sales cover the costs. Hartley’s not worried about raising more money after that nor about the length of time needed to keep their fight going.
Weiner’s supporters, she said, “will plan to do more [billboards] in the future, for as long as it takes to vindicate our Doc.”