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Confronting Scandalous Physician Behavior: The Annals Of Internal Medicine Takes The First Step

If you have not read the latest essay and editorial about scandalous physician behavior published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM), you must do so now. They describe horrific racist and sexist remarks made about patients by senior male physicians in front of their young peers. The physicians-in-training are scarred by the experience, partially because the behavior itself was so disgusting, but also because they felt powerless to stop it.

It is important for the medical community to come together over the sad reality that there are still some physicians and surgeons out there who are wildly inappropriate in their patient care. In my lifetime I have seen a noticeable decrease in misogyny and behaviors of the sort described in the Annals essay. I have written about racism in the Ob/Gyn arena on my blog previously (note that the perpetrators of those scandalous acts were women – so both genders are guilty). But there is one story that I always believed was too vile to tell. Not on this blog, and probably not anywhere. I will speak out now because the editors at AIM have opened the conversation.

When I was a third-year medical student I was assigned to tag along with an ophthalmology resident serving his first year of residency as an intern in general surgery. We were to cover the ER consult service one night, and our first patient was a young Hispanic girl with abdominal pain. It was suspected that she may have had appendicitis. Part of the physical exam required that we rule out a gynecologic cause of the pain. And so a pelvic exam was planned for this young girl of about 12 or 13. She was frightened and clinging to her grandmother. She had never seen a gynecologist before and had explained through her grandmother that she was a virgin – making a gynecologic cause of her abdominal pain less likely. I offered her some reassurance with my broken Spanish and held her hand as we wheeled her on a stretcher to a private examining room. The resident whispered in my ear, “This is going to be fun.”

The resident was creepy at every stage of the exam. He was clearly relishing the process, slowly instructing the poor girl to position herself correctly on the table. He held her knees apart as she whimpered and cried. He pretended to have difficulty positioning the speculum, inserting and reinserting it an unconscionable number of times. All-in-all it probably took ten minutes for him to get a cervical sample (this usually takes under 60 seconds). He performed the bi-manual portion of the exam in a bizarre, sexualized manner. I was furious and nauseated.

The patient was finally returned to her grandmother and the resident took me aside to ask how I thought he did. The perverted expression on his face was not lost on me. I looked at him with daggers in my eyes, but I knew that if I confronted him head-on it could trigger an investigation and in the end I had no hard evidence to prove that he had done anything wrong. It would wind up being a “he said, she said” scenario. I mustered the courage to say, “I think you were slow.”

For a fleeting moment he was taken aback by my insubordinate criticism and then he said the sentence that still haunts me today, “Well it was her first time.”

Each time I think of this interaction I feel sick to my stomach. I wonder what more I could have done.*  I wonder if he is still out there violating his patients, and if anyone has ever confronted him. My only consolation, I suppose, is that he did not go on to become an Ob/Gyn. As an ophthalmologist one would hope that he had fewer opportunities for sexual abuse of patients.

I guess you could say that in my medical training, I witnessed a child rape. I don’t think it gets much worse than that… and I don’t know what to do with this horrific memory. I am forever changed.

It is my hope that these sorts of situations become true “never events” and that we create a protective environment where there are no career consequences for medical students thrust into the unfortunate position of whistle blower. Maybe the courageous AIM editorial is the first step towards redemption and healing.

*Note that I never saw this resident again. Our paths did not cross after the incident, and it was only at the end of the exam that I fully recognized the evil of his intent.

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