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Shameful Operating Room Moments: Medical Journal On Calling Out ‘Dirtball’ Doctors

(Just Us 3/Flickr)

An essay published in the Annals of Internal Medicine begs the question: How many of us are being mocked and crudely disrespected while we’re at our most vulnerable? (Just Us 3/Flickr)

Imagine this scene:

A female patient under general anesthesia is being prepped for a vaginal hysterectomy. As the attending doctor washes and scrubs her labia and inner thighs, he turns to a medical student and says: “I bet she’s enjoying this.” Then he winks and laughs.

No, this account doesn’t come from a racy British tabloid. It was published this week in a reputable medical journal, Annals of Internal Medicine.

The account, written by an anonymous doctor and titled “Our Family Secrets,” also describes an incident involving an obstetric patient, Mrs. Lopez, who experienced hemorrhaging and other complications after childbirth. To stop the bleeding and ultimately save the patient, her doctor performs what is called an “internal bimanual uterine massage,” which means he must get his entire hand inside her vagina. From the piece:

“…something happened that I’ll never forget. Dr. Canby raises his right hand into the air. He starts to sing ‘La Cucaracha.’ He sings, ‘La Cucaracha, la cucaracha, dada, dada, dada-daaa.’ It looks like he is dancing with her. He stomps his feet, twists his body, and waves his right arm above his head. All the while, he holds her, his whole hand still inside her vagina. He starts laughing. He keeps dancing. And then he looks at me. I begin to sway to his beat. My feet shuffle. I hum and laugh along with him. Moments later, the anesthesiologist yells, ‘Knock it off, assholes!’ And we stop.”

Stomach Churning

Dr. Christine Laine, editor in chief of Annals of Internal Medicine, said this is the first time in her tenure that such a profanity has been printed in the journal. But, she said in an interview, it seemed appropriate in this case. When she first read the essay she says it made her “stomach churn,” and it made her angry.

“Angry for the patients … angry for the younger physicians who encountered this behavior, angry at myself and others who have witnessed colleagues being disrespectful to patients but were too timid to speak out,” Laine said.

In an accompanying editorial condemning the behavior described in the essay, Laine and her colleagues wrote: “The first incident reeked of misogyny and disrespect — the second reeked of all that plus heavy overtones of sexual assault and racism.”

So how did this series of unfortunate medical events unfold?

Here’s the backstory: The anonymous author of the essay (the journal decided to keep the doctor’s identity a secret) was leading a course on medical humanities for senior medical students. The topic was “the virtue of forgiveness.” At one point the doctor put a question to the class: “Do any of you have someone to forgive from your clinical experiences? Did anything ever happen that you need to forgive or perhaps still can’t forgive?” Continue reading