Beneath blinding fluorescent lights, a woman from a New York neighborhood is laying on an examination table at the gynecologist's office. After she told her doctor about the problem she was having, involving excruciating pain in her abdomen, he told her to lay down and put her feet on the stirrups. He then proceeded to run a single finger from her ankle to her genitals, and then touch her inappropriately.
This story belongs to a woman named Maria Mercedes Lara, and it is not the only of its kind. In fact, this type of sexual abuse that occurs between physicians and patients is happening at an alarming rate, and most of the time it goes unreported. Therefore, these incidents continue to occur, since doctors are able to keep their license to practice time and time again.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution conducted a year-long investigation on the thousands of cases of sexual abuse occurring between doctors and patients and delved deep into the emotional and physical effects of the incidents on the victims.
One doctor named Dr. Allan Nachlis was an obstetrician-gynecologist at Springfield Hospital in Delaware County, where he examined a fellow employee, cardiology-department manager Gail Greeby. During her examination, Nachlis had inserted an instrument for the examination inside her with his left hand and began rubbing her with his right.
This incident of sexual misconduct would end up being one of 12 other cases reported against Dr. Nachlis. According to the article Intimate Intimidation, published in Philadelphia Magazine in April 1996, “even after Nachlis was convicted of indecent assault and aggravated indecent assault, and pled guilty to unlawful sexual conduct, his victims still do not feel vindicated.”
These experiences raise the question of the point at which an exam that forces a woman to be put in a very vulnerable situation, laying naked on an examination table with no choice but to have instruments and fingers put inside her for the sake of her own health, crosses the line? At what point is in inappropriate and illegal?
During Dr. Nachlis’ trial, the husband of one of the victims who had come forth said, “The guy is a nut, and there’s no way he should have made it this far, that’s what makes me sick. Nobody knew he’s been doing this? And he’s been doing it for how long?”
Greeby’s emotional trauma from her encounter with Dr. Nachlis began to become more evident in her daily life. She would tense up when she saw him at the hospital they both worked at. She would have nightmares about the experience. She had a loss of interest in having sex, and when her husband asked about it, she finally opened up and told him.
Greeby eventually went to the Delaware County district attorney's office to file a report, in which she had to describe the details of the incident while keeping a strong hold on her emotions. Greeby’s case was assigned to Detective Kathryn Smith, who had questioned Nachlis about the incident in front of his lawyer. Nachlis had said he “couldn’t even recall who Gail Greeby was,” and would never touch a patient the way he did. He calmly refuted the details of Greeby’s sexual assault.
Smith had found that Nachlis had a criminal record, and for sexual assault. However, because the details of that specific case did not match that of Greeby's experience, it would be hard to prove his intent, and that it was malicious. According to Philadelphia Magazine, “The testimony of one woman would not suffice, and the investigation was closed. Meanwhile, Greeby’s letter to the medical board had gone unanswered.”
Nachlis would eventually be found guilty, and barred from medical practice in 1995. However, according to Philadelphia Magazine, “The ultimate irony is that had the matter gone to trial in Delaware, Nachlis may have gotten off entirely.”
Why? Since gynecologists are already touching genitalia, and are performing invasive procedures on women in vulnerable positions, any victim would have to prove intent, which can be incredibly difficult. Not only is it difficult for sexual assault victims to come forth as is, in general, to police, the court, jury, and other authorities, but when it comes to the medical field, it can be even harder. It is often not enough for one patient to have a case against a doctor, and the case falls into a game of “he said, she said,” which unfortunately is rarely ever enough to prosecute someone.
These sexual assault cases don’t just occur inside the walls of an OB/GYN office, either. In fact, the The Atlanta Journal Constitution found that it was bound to happen in several different areas of practice.
“Rapes by OB/GYNs, seductions by psychiatrists, fondling by anesthesiologists and ophthalmologists, and molestations by pediatricians and radiologists. Victims were babies. Adolescents. Women in their 80s. Drug addicts and jail inmates. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”
The year-long investigation brought light to several cases and the reasoning behind why it’s been allowed to continue happening for so long. Greeby’s case occurred back in the 90s, and here we are years later, still dealing with the terror of the same issue.
“Some victims say nothing,” reports The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Intimidated, confused or embarrassed, they fear that no one will take their word over a doctor’s. Colleagues and nurses stay silent.”
To make matters worse, hospitals and healthcare organizations tend to turn a blind eye to the slew of sexual misconduct cases that occur. They calmly fight off accusations and “push doctors out” without getting the police or licensing agencies involved if there is a case at hand.
The investigation found that medical boards gave doctors who committed inappropriate sexual acts second chances, and prosecutors reduced charges or dismissed them altogether so the physicians could keep practicing. Colleagues and nurses keep their mouths shut, even if they are aware of the problem.
So the question ultimately becomes, what can be done? Are victims silenced in the wake of the medical field’s commitment to brushing sexual assault cases aside? Not necessarily.
In several cases, once an investigation is opened up, it is often found that the doctor who carried out the inappropriate act has a background involving acts of sexual assault already. This was true in the case of Dr. Allan Nachlis, and remains true for several other physicians who are found guilty.
A woman named Vance was one of 12 women sexually assaulted by anesthesiologist Dr. Fredric Field. She reported that Field kissed her lips and pressed her hand against his penis when she was in the process of gaining consciousness post-op.
Vance’s advice for these kinds of cases is relatively simple: if someone feels that something happening feels wrong, it most likely is. Even if they’re in a state of hazy consciousness, say after surgery or while on drugs, but still feel as though something isn’t right, then it most likely is not. She urges people to listen to their intuition and believe that incidents like this can happen, even inside a place like a hospital.
“Don’t be afraid to say something,” says Vance. “It can happen. It does happen.”
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