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When I Realized I Had Been Sexually Harassed by My Doctor

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

In the mid 90’s I was in graduate school in the Northeast. I became sick early on, and dizziness was getting worse as time went on. I found a faculty member who was willing to see that I got to specialist so we could get to the bottom of what was going on. All the doctors treated me as if I was malingering and how I was feeling could not be that bad. They were convinced it was my inner ear and that I was going to need surgery.

I was already walking with a cane and was desperate enough to go to acupuncture treatment. I was 22 years old and deteriorating rapidly.

Finally, some one recommended I see a neurotologist. I had never heard of such a doctor, but I would do anything at this point.

I went to his office waited three hours to be seen. He had me complete a survey about my symptoms. I went into his office and he immediately said, “you have a major malfunction of the central nervous system.” This obviously scared me. He then said, “you have migraines and they are treatable.” (These later turned out to be autonomic disfunction.) He diagnosed me with migraine-associated dizziness.

I was so relieved. He gave me some medication and sent me on my way. I was to come back in a month to see if it was working. I was so grateful to him for listening and using his experience to help me. I could not have been more impressed and indebted to him.

I soon got better. I no longer needed my cane. My migraines went away.

I went to my follow up appointment and he was just as nice as always.

But then something happened. He asked me to lie down on the table, which I thought was odd for the type of exam you would do for migraines. He had me turn away from him and then said, “look at how broad your shoulders are, you have great body and good genetics, you would birth some incredible babies.”

I was not sure what to make of his comment, so I took it as a compliment. He then went onto manually examine me. Still, I thought, odd.

Later he told me he was relocating to Texas, and he thought I should go with him. Once again, I was perplexed and not sure what to make of his comments. The session ended and I never saw him again.

For decades I thought about what he said to me and could not figure out what made me feel “off” about it. Recently I read an article about a doctor that was abusing his patients and I was overwhelmed with fear and a knowing. I could relate to his patients. I realized that day that I was sexually harassed by my doctor. I realized that I was so grateful for his help and diagnosing me that I was not able to admit to myself that he made me feel uncomfortable and threatened.

That day of realization made me feel violated and silenced by a man who had power over me and that I could not possibly have reported him (even to this day).

It is not uncommon for a woman to discount her experience and to not trust her own intuition. I did not pick up on the cues, mainly because it was someone in authority and I thought he could possibly do no wrong. What I find interesting is he proceeded with no fear. I do not know if it was because
I was Black that he felt no one would believe me over him or what, but I was powerless. Somehow, he knew I would not question his actions or turn to others to verify that something was wrong.

This has been the story of my life. I feel like I have a sign around my neck saying, “abuse me, I won’t tell, I will even blame myself.”

I wish had known about RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which provides information on sexual abuse from medical professionals.

They describe what I should expect in a medical setting:

  • The ability to stop an appointment at any point if I do not feel comfortable. To acknowledge the feeling you get when your intuition tells you something is wrong.
  • It is good to have someone accompany you, so you are not alone and feeling vulnerable. If you are not allowed to have someone else in the room, question this doctors/physical therapist intentions.
  • You should expect privacy. You should not feel exposed or reviled in any way. When I am asked to take my clothes off, I ask the purpose, is it avoidable and if not, what is the least I can take off. Also, I am fat and many of the robes do not fit me, so I ask for another gown to cover my front.
  • You should be able to request a practitioner with a different gender if that makes you feel more comfortable. If they refuse or one is not available, you can make another appointment. You do not have to settle to meet their needs.

I know now why I do not trust male doctors. He violated my trust and put me in a very vulnerable position. I encourage you to research your potential doctors and get referral from friends. Check their credentials and see if they are in good standing with the AMA or licensing boards.

Trust your instincts and if something feels off, leave. It is OK to walk out on an appointment. I recently had a doppler scan of my legs all the way up into my crotch area. I was uncomfortable with the male tech, and I said nothing. He dimmed the lights and insisted I lay still. He was just doing his job, but I was questioning why he was doing this alone. The shorts he gave me to wear did not fit, the sheet he put on me did not stay on, and I was totally exposed. I say this because if I had known ahead of time, I could have asked for a different tech. I could have asked for a woman to come in and I did not, which was my mistake. I would not want someone else to have to go through that. Now that I think about it, I am going to bring it up to my doctor next time I see her.

We deserve to feel comfortable in our appointments and to not be sexually harassed. Speak up and ask for what you need or leave. You deserve the best the profession has to offer. I recognize not all of us have the luxury to change doctors or request accommodations for a variety of reasons. This does not mean you cannot advocate yourself and get the best treatment possible.

Do not be afraid to report your doctor to the medical board or the authorities or both. This is your right. Trust yourself.

You can be your own Mighty advocate!

Getty image by Atlas Studio

Originally published: September 9, 2022
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