- Ready, Aim, Fire:Ending Sexual Harassment of Women in Surgery
I was sexually assaulted by a senior anesthesiologist in the preoperative holding area at the start of a long OR day in the presence of staff, learners, my patient and her family. I had no intention of reporting the assault. I know how the world works: nobody would ever believe me. However, a close friend—who had also been sexually assaulted at work by a colleague—encouraged me. With his assault successfully managed through the termination of the offender, he asked if he could come forward on my behalf. I agreed, feeling supported yet hesitant. [End Page 189]
A meeting was called, comprising Medical Staff Office members, Human Resources and my department chair. "We have learned about a situation in which you were involved. We need you to tell us what happened." Everyone stared at me, eagerly awaiting my response. I described my experience in painful detail, layering information to validate my story: location, people, times, situation, dialogue. Once I finished, the questions flew through the air like a spray of bullets.
"Did anyone say anything to you?" No.
"Do you think anyone witnessed this event?" I don't know.
"Did you talk to anyone right after it happened?" No.
"He was supposed to be in your OR all day. Did you request another anesthesiologist?" No.
I was challenged by my chair, a man highly respected for his razor-sharp focus on surgical quality and safety. His position was that my ability to perform surgically was potentially impaired and I created an unsafe environment for my patient. I was asked repeatedly why I didn't say something in that moment to the anesthesiologist. Why did I allow the case to move toward the OR, knowing I would be trapped in my room with him all day? Why didn't I request another anesthesia provider? This was a near-miss, a disaster waiting to happen, under my watch and for which I had full responsibility. I responded calmly and confidently to his concerns: while the assault had the potential to impact my surgical performance, it didn't. As a surgeon, I have faced various types of disruption in the operating room, including confrontation, marginalization, disrespect and sexism. Despite this, I uphold a high professional standard and consistently elevate my abilities to overcome. I spoke deliberately, defensively, recognizing criticism for my actions and decisions in the midst of reporting an illegal action against me. It all seemed incredulous.
Another round of ammunition was loaded as they discussed the next steps in the investigation and my options. This group would meet with him and explain that I made a formal complaint against him for sexual harassment. They would interview him and the other staff that was present in the pre-operative holding area that morning to "fill in the gaps" of my allegations. Since the anesthesia group was independently contracted by the hospital, the overseeing party had no jurisdiction over where he could work or with whom. Recommendations would be made, but the decision of how to handle my perpetrator was ultimately at the discretion of the head of anesthesia. It was immediately evident that there was a level-setting process to protect him, the accused. He is a physician, and as such, he is dependent on work for his livelihood. He should be expected to continue to work in order to earn an income. He shouldn't suffer financial punishment just because I am making an allegation against him. I would want the process to be "fair" if it were me in that situation, right? In the midst of reporting this assault, I was expected to have empathy for this criminal, to align with his need for support and protection. My armor pierced, I was painfully aware of the depth of my vulnerability.
In light of the support for him to continue working, I was given the option of leave with pay during the investigation. In that moment, I was enraged. I did nothing wrong. Yet, in order to shield me from interactions with this anesthesiologist, I was being asked to abandon my patients, my learners, my practice. While the...