National WHAT day?
Here is a little known story about me--one only my husband knows all the particulars about. When I was a third year medical student, I was a victim of sexual harassment. Using those words make it sound worse than it was in my head, but if you hear the whole story, maybe those words aren't strong enough.
I had a patient--I can no longer remember his name so I suppose there's no problem with HIPAA, we'll call him Mr. X. Mr. X was in his eighties and I had to do a rectal exam on him. I had been on the team taking care of Mr. X for a while and I was fine doing the rectal exam and checking for blood in the stool. These type of things often fall on the medical student as the low man/woman on the totem pole. Mr. X repeatedly asked me where I was from and even though I answered California, he was not happy with my answer. (I trained on the east coast.) He had served in the war. Korean? Vietnam? I no longer remember. He thought I was from Japan. I'm not. And, he called me 'sweetheart', and did not address me appropriately as a member of his medical team.
Granted, most patients are confused about the medical system. Most patients don't understand the hierarchy at a teaching hospital. And some patients assume that if you're female that you're the nurse or nursing student. Mr. X would treat me appropriately when there were other members in the room. When I went to check on him on my own, he was a bit sexist in his answers and made me uncomfortable. I didn't report him. I was overheard by my (all male) team talking about what happened. My attending asked if I would attend a hospital meeting about sexual harassment. Again I felt uncomfortable, but I thought that I should attend because it was supposed to be a teaching session for other people. I'm sure that other female medical students, doctors and nurses have been through similar things and I thought it was a good thing that the hospital wanted to make sure that we were being treated fairly.
It was a trap. I'd never been interrogated so much in my life. I flushed red at all the insinuations that were being made--as if I was at fault for Mr. X treating me in this fashion. I'll confess that I blanked out a lot of these details as I was so appalled that I was being blamed for Mr. X's misogyny. I'm sure my husband remembers them clearly.
Did I stand up for myself? No. I was the low person on the totem pole. I had NEVER been treated this way when I was growing up. My dad is a traditional Chinese father--and he has NEVER made any of his three girls feel like they wouldn't be able to achieve whatever we want to achieve. He has never made us feel as if he wished he had sons instead. He has never made us feel "less than" simply for being female. I went to an all-girls high school--I saw girls in all sorts of leadership positions and achieving all types of success in academia, in sports, in everything.
But I didn't feel strong enough to face the interrogation that followed. Instead, I answered the questions. I let the people in that room criticize me. And when I went home, my husband listened to the horror, humiliation, and weakness I felt that day.
Even now, I can imagine some of you have questions because I have not gone into details about what happened. (Especially my mom because she reads every post.) At the forefront of your minds: did I go into my patient's room to do that rectal exam on my own? My answer: yes I did. You know why? Because if I was a male medical student, I would have gone on my own. And as a female medical student, I went on my own. No one would have questioned the male medical student.
It's been some time since I thought about what happened and what remains is my anger. Why didn't my attending stand up for me? Why did he lead me to believe that the meeting was to learn about sexual harassment and how to prevent it in the workplace/hospital, then proceed to be one of the people acting as if it was my fault?
I don't have answers to these questions. I meant to write about National Women Physician's Day, which apparently was Feb 3. But in my head, when I read about National Women Physician's Day--this is what I thought about instead. So more to come on that later.
Have you had a situation like this happen to you? Tell me about it in the comments. And please be polite and respectful. I thought about not posting this, but I think it's important (especially in recent history) to keep an open dialogue and raise awareness. I have heard about much worse happening to some of my patients over my career as a pediatrician, but I cannot write about it. And I keep thinking about empowerment, especially again in light of recent history. Earlier today I read this article about the ways in which we can demystify and raise girls to not live in a world where 'rape culture' is our norm in the United States. And I think it starts with open dialogue.
For all the girls and women (and boys and men) out there, I hope you always are able to stand up for yourself and FIND YOUR VOICE. Here is my voice speaking out today.
(Please note that I wrote all of this in one sitting on Sunday afternoon--it was an unplanned post, an unplanned revelation and I am posting it because I feel that it is important to get the word out there. And, perhaps, there will be someone out there who reads this, and he/she will speak out against it.)
Mr Bookworm's Point of View:
Melanie asked for my reactions to this.
Fifteen years later, I remember details; I remember my feelings.
Regarding Mr. X -- let's put it this way. Apologists for harassment and
assault are fond of excuses like oh, she was asking for it by (blah blah
blah) or oh, he's not a bad guy, he just couldn't help himself or oh,
she was sending mixed messages.
If I broke an eighty-year-old man's neck and threw him out a
fourth-floor window, would it be okay because he was asking for it and I
thought he was trying to provoke a fight and I just couldn't help myself
because he got me so worked up?
However, at the time I was actually more angry at the medical
"committee" than a senile old husk of a man. She trusted them and they
betrayed her. They were too cowardly (afraid of having done wrong?
afraid of being sued?) to admit that they failed. She should have been
taught to recognize the early stages of such behavior and leave
immediately. She should have been taught ways to shut down a frisky
patient -- including pain compliance. They should have backed her up and
put the patient on notice. Instead they played "blame the victim so we
don't have to feel bad about anything".
One of the painful things about the situation is that there wasn't any
clear action. Should we have sued the hospital? Gone public? Gone to a
trusted advisor in the medical program for help? In retrospect, it seems
clear: demand a better response from the normal channels, and if that
doesn't work, blast it to the world on a blog (like she just did!)