Huge thanks to “Dr. She” for sharing her story. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about these issues. If you’re experiencing harassment of any kind in your work environment, I’d encourage you to seek help from a peer, a mentor, or a group like SurgeonMasters.
-Jeff Smith, MD
My guest writer “Dr. She” shares her story of ONE example of this all too common problem.
My #MeTooMedicine Story
This is my #metoo story that nearly ended my career in medicine. I still feel that coming forward with it will hurt me further. But how can I help encourage others to speak if I don't speak up myself?
It was the beginning of intern year. I started off on night float and when a few of the upper levels invited me out on my one Saturday night off, I jumped at the chance of celebrating. I brought a friend along with me. We started at a fellow resident's house and I recall the chief (#1) telling me about the "mess" of an intern they had last year who subsequently quit at the end of intern year. I didn't pay much mind to it at the time.
We proceeded to the nightclub and another chief (we will call him #2) who was married was dancing with my friend. My friend came up to me and said he was "more handsy" than she expected. I remember telling her that he is probably a little drunk and not to worry. I went to #1 chief and told him to maybe tell #2 that my friend was getting uncomfortable and joked "he can go home to his wife later." #1 got very serious with me and stated: "Are you jealous? I could make you feel more wanted. You're so hot it doesn't make sense you're going to be a surgeon."
I thought I had really been bonding with #1 so I took it as a joke, but still felt a bit uncomfortable so I stepped back and said "No, that's okay."
I went to walk away and he grabbed my arm, pulled me close and stated how he was "really going to enjoy working with me closely” and that I had an amazing figure he couldn't wait to get his hands on. I jumped back and told him "I think you've had too much to drink." Then he laughed and reminded me (with a wink) that he was the designated driver. He seemed back to normal so I empathized and ended up back on the dance floor with my co-intern and my friend. A bit shaken but also thinking "it's just joking, relax." We all joked and ended the night like nothing happened.
I told my friend that night and she was actually more worried than I was. “How much influence over you does he have?” she asked. I naively stated, “not much.”
A couple weeks later, I found out I was pregnant. It was unplanned. I was truly freaking out. I was debating abortion. Chief #1 made the schedules, so I went to him for advice on how this could possibly work. I told him I was pregnant and that I was worried this would be really bad in our small program. He seemed understanding, though he said he had no idea how it would work and that he thought I was a bright star. He encouraged abortion to save my career.
He said a few things jokingly about me and my partner’s sex life but it seemed more friend-like than anything. I felt I could trust him again. It was going to be okay...or so I thought. A few days later he asked in private what my decision was. I said I still didn't know, and that I was having a hard time choosing abortion. He got noticeably upset and stated "you can not fuck with my schedule." I started apologizing profusely. He stated "I really thought you were going to go far, you're the fucking star of the intern class and now you're going to fuck it up. This program won't let you finish if you stay knocked up. They will turn on you, you will be the new fuck up." I started crying. It was all of my fears, coming out of his mouth.
He then stated: "Well I guess if you fuck me, I can protect you. I like you." I stared at him in silence, trying to figure out if he was joking. He stared back. He then stated an attending (who was known to accidentally graze your breasts in the OR) was "always on his side" - as was chief #2. I stopped crying and got angry. I told him that what he was saying sounded like harassment and that I don't play that game.
He chuckled and said that he liked my fire. Then he smiled and said "don't you trust me? Stop it. Trust me. Are you really saying no? I'm on your side, come on. We're a good team!" I laughed back (a nervous laughter) and said thanks but no thanks." He stopped laughing and said "No one says no to me. I don't like it. The last one who tried is no longer here; she's a liar and anorexic. She needs help." He smiled and said "They always believe the dude. Trust me, I can make you or break you."
I suddenly remembered the intern that quit the year before. In that moment I realized I was in trouble. I walked away slowly and silently. And then the mental torture began. I was already scared my career was going to be over because of my pregnancy. I didn't know who to trust or if I could or should say anything. I didn't want to be any more of a "problem" than I knew I was going to be as the pregnant intern.
It was too much to handle all at once and I didn't know where to start. I couldn't focus at work. I was so scared. I was mentally falling apart and I didn't know where to turn to or who to trust. My career meant everything to me and all of a sudden I had two things that could end it at once. Sadly, I had already been down the road of assault in my youth and this was bringing it back like waves of torture.
Speaking up didn't seem like an option. No, I never spoke up. It didn't matter. He began a campaign of sorts with his sidekick #2 against me that lasted most of my intern year. It was easily under guise that I was a pregnant intern and a majority jumped right in...co interns annoyed at the call schedule, upper levels not exactly female friendly, and of course most of his co chiefs. He was right, this was not the program to be pregnant. When it came time to speak up, it was too late because he had already been vocal about me.
I went to my program director to quit rather suddenly one day, and he asked what was going on. I couldn't even answer. I was given a week to think it over and ultimately I didn't quit. I chose to stay and fight for myself and my career.
I could never speak of what instigated his obvious hatred of me. When I took extra call before my due date "it was to front load." When I had extra call after, it was because I had the baby. When I was sick, I had to pass out and end up admitted because I wasn't going to be one to complain. And he was only annoyed when nurses were calling him, telling him I looked ill to send me home. I had no ally. So I worked longer and harder than anyone. Proving myself every day. I was a damn good intern but I was fighting every day to just be that...not the pregnant girl or whatever other name he called me. It just turned into a hellish year of fighting for myself, my baby, and my career.
I finished my intern year. And I finished strong. But needless to say, I left my intern year program. Thankfully, I had a lot of "good reasons on paper" to leave but I knew I would never feel safe there. Between being a mother and the environment which he helped perpetuate against me...I wasn't sure I would ever be given a real chance. Without knowing the whole story, my chairman confided that he didn't think I should stay there either. He helped me secure a position at another program the following year.
I still suffer in silence. I find it hard to trust males in power, program directors, and even residents. My intern year left me weak, tired and unable to fight. I was broken, putting the pieces of me back together. It was the hardest year of my life.
To say males have power is an understatement and I was so very afraid for so long. But I have not backed down. I still have a lot of fear I'm working through but slowly my voice is coming back. I love medicine and I want to be that difference for young women in our field. I'm fighting so that I can be that loud voice for someone else. To be vocal for all women in medicine. Women need to be there for other women. And in the past year, my strength has returned and I still fight for my career. It's not over. I may have crawled into a cocoon of sorts but I will emerge in a blaze of fire. I am a Phoenix and this cathartic writing is simply the beginning.
- Dr. She
SurgeonMasters educates, supports and empowers surgeons to practice with less frustration and greater control as they evolve a satisfying, sustainable and thriving career. One of the biggest goals of everything we do at SurgeonMasters is to raise issues and explore solutions to complex challenges that many of us have in our practices and lives as surgeons. I have been aware of and learning about the issue of unconscious gender bias for years. Writing on this topic is very difficult for me, as I have little personal experience with the issue. More recently, the extent of my discomfort has increased as I have read even more disturbing accounts of sexual harassment. While I can’t write these stories, I can assist in the discussion that may lead to solutions. In order to find solutions, we have to better understand the problem.