No matter how hard it is to stomach some stories, that doesn’t make them less real. Just like the anonymous essay published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which did more than make our hearts sink. It turned the spotlight on an issue we usually prefer to leave in the dark: doctors behaving in inappropriate ways when patients are under anesthesia.
Two experiences were included under the title “Our Family Secret,” as the author describes situations when physicians were misogynistic toward their patients, with grave undertones of sexual assault.
According to the editors of the journal, the article was not published because of how common this practice is, but because doctors need to know that 1. this is not acceptable, and 2. they don’t have to keep silent if they should witness such misconduct.
When the author, a doctor himself, asked his students of medical humanities about any situations when they had to forgive something that happened during a clinical experience, the following events were revealed.
One of the students recalled a scenario when he should have stood up to a surgeon’s inappropriate behavior – even though he admitted he played along – but he didn’t.
Prior to a vaginal hysterectomy, while the patient was under general anesthesia, the surgeon made a stomach-churning comment about how the patient enjoyed having their vaginal area prepped for the procedure, laughing and winking at his own joke.
In response to the student’s story, the author also shared a similar situation from his time as a medical student, when a baby delivery went wrong. Due to the heavy hemorrhaging, the patient was put under anesthesia, and in spite of the resident doctor’s crucial role in saving her life, his behavior was unforgivable.
The author clearly remembers comments like “Atta girl. That’s what I like. A nice, tight uterus.” made during the necessary internal bimanual uterine massage. Even more horrifying was the fact that the doctor started singing “La Cucaracha,” but was eventually stopped by the anesthesiologist.
Even though this type of inappropriate behavior is clearly at the far end of the spectrum, it shouldn’t happen at all. The essay had a powerful message to deliver, and Dr. Christine Laine, chief editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, recognized its potential in igniting a much-needed discussion on the topic of doctors acting inappropriately.
Because other members of the editorial team felt an explanation was needed to go along with the article, Dr. Laine said that she was aware that such stories could damage the profession’s reputation, but that was in fact one of the reasons why she chose to publish it. She added that it was time to stop “dusting [the doctors’] bad behavior under the rug.”
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