The Nincompoop Letters



noun. A fool or simpleton. 

I inherited my looks from my mother’s side, but got most of my core personality from my dad’s strong French Canadian stock. Dad’s family’s annual pool party with almost a hundred cousins/aunts/uncles (second, third, twice removed, and even an ex-husband whose company was still enjoyed by all were invited…) was always filled with laughter, sing-a-longs, and smatterings of jokes that the kids weren’t supposed to hear. My love of language came from the desire to understand the French that the older family members spoke. It was a gregarious bunch, and while we’ve scattered to the four corners of the earth (and some beyond), it was clear we shared a lot of the same traits - good and bad.

I got my patience - or lack thereof - from my father. He got his lack of patience from his father. I’m sure there is a long line of us dating back to when we sailed across the Atlantic from La Rochelle, France. (We were probably annoying the captain asking when we were going to get there…)

The phrase “We don’t suffer fools” should be our family motto, because it’s true.  Is it that I have high expectations of others? Perhaps. But when disappointed or angered, I’m quick to cut. I’ve gotten better at lengthening my short fuse, but I just don’t take much guff. (This also applies to me; when I fail in my own high expectations of myself, I’m tough to live with. Perfectionists R Us - I own the franchise.)

(At this point, you’re probably grumbling: “What the hell are The Nincompoop Letters? When will she get to that?” Hold your horses, boys. It’s a comin’…)

Advocacy begins at home, much like charity. I got a taste of advocacy in the weirdest way possible through The Nincompoop Letters that my father wrote in my teens.

I love Joslin Clinic and despite my quest to find doctors and staff that I admire and love and trust as much, no one has measured up to the care I was given while I was under their roof. (If I had a bunch of money, I’d fly up there to Boston just to go to Joslin a few times a year for appointments.) But they’re not perfect. No one is. Cue the Nincompoop music…

Enrolling in clinical studies from the get go was important to me. Still is. If I have an opportunity to help someone have it a little easier because of a study, I’m going to do it. After a lengthy discussion, I was enrolled in a multi-year study at Joslin which required some extra time there as well as a bunch of labs that wouldn’t have normally been ordered (and extra vials of blood sucked out). In return, we got free parking (that’s a big deal - hospital/clinic parking is stupid expensive…) and we weren’t supposed to have to pay for the labs.

Except it didn’t work out that way. My dad was (and still is) fastidious at reviewing medical bills when they come in, and he noticed that our insurance company was being billed for those extra labs and additional fees. He called Joslin’s accounting department to get it straightened out, giving the information about the study. They apologized, said that they’d take care of it, and he thought that was the end.

The second time insurance was charged, he called the study coordinator and asked what was going on. Another round of apologies, another call to the accounting department, and…

I think you know where this is going…

It happened again. And one more for good measure. Each time, my father would go up the food chain, asking to speak with the accounting manager, the person above the study coordinator, asking what was so hard about coding the lab tests to the study so that we wouldn’t be charged. Apology, assurances, blah blah blah…

My father knows how to turn a phrase and how to write a letter to get a point across. He wrote the first of the Nincompoop Letters after yet another bill. It went to the President of Joslin Clinic. He was done dealing with managers and coordinators. (I believe he also sent copies to various members of the Board of Directors.) He documented the series of events and gave his take on the state of things in the billing department and the management of the billing morass.

He called someone a nincompoop.

My father didn’t want to pull me out of the study, he told the President. He wanted them to stop billing our insurance company and he wanted the President to get involved because he had exhausted the chain of command (and he was exhausted dealing with, as I believe he said, incompetency.)

The phone call came quickly after the letter was posted. The President of Joslin Clinic and my father had a nice, long chat. And my father got what he wanted. For the remainder of the study, not a single additional bill for those labs came to our house. We learned that my file was flagged to be reviewed before any bill went out - and let’s just say it wasn’t reviewed by Accounting.

It wasn’t about the money. Insurance paid the labs that were supposed to be charged to the study. It was the principle. And he stood on his until I could stand on mine later on in life. I learned to advocate from him. Over the past thirty years, he’s written other Nincompoop letters. All of them were used as last resorts and got action from the responsible parties who had dropped the ball. He often points out that he does it so that others can benefit. He may not have advocated for my medical condition, but without his advocacy, people wouldn’t have been helped by the study.

I wrote my first Nincompoop Letter in 2004, when my insurance company denied a new insulin pump that was out of warranty and failing on occasion, saying that my blood sugars were, in their estimation, “fine”. I went up the chain, got the denial, issued the appeal, provided the documentation, and then wrote my letter (Yes, I used the word nincompoop)… and copied my congressman who happened to be involved with an insurance committee on Capitol Hill. I emailed my Nincompoop Letter to all parties.

My approval came back via fax two hours later.

I will continue to write Nincompoop Letters as long as there is a need for advocacy for myself - or others, no matter how big or small the issue may be, because it’s the principle of it all…

And thanks to my bloodline, I don’t suffer fools nincompoops.

(I love that word. Love. That. Word. It makes me chortle.)


  1. Scott E

    I’m glad to hear these letters really work and make a difference. I always have a mental image of these strongly-worded letters being passed around the executive offices accompanied by choruses of evil, sinister laughter (I used to work for a cell-phone company (which shall remain nameless, but has been since absorbed by a larger one), and some of the customer complaints - and there were many - were truly laughable. I won’t share the here. But I guess when the complaint it’s backed by evidence of a dysfunctional chain-of-command, it gets looked at differently.

  2. StephenS

    Christel, I’ve been trying to learn advocacy over the last year and a half or so. I’ll take this as another chapter in my book of learning. Thanks

    • theperfectd

      Stephen, Advocacy means different things to different people. As long as you are pushing for what’s right, whether it’s for yourself or for others, in the hopes of obtaining a better outcome, then you are advocating. (And you’ve been doing a bang up job, if you haven’t already been told!)

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