Even in a post-surgical haze, Erin Vance could tell what was happening in her hospital room was very wrong.
As Vance awoke, her anesthesiologist was leaning over, kissing her lips. Then he took her hand, and pressed it against his penis.
“It’s OK,” she says the doctor told her. “This is just how we wake you up.”
Vance’s experience illustrates the broad phenomenon of sexual abuse by physicians documented in a nationwide investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The newspaper discovered a stunning array of misconduct in every state: Doctors raped, fondled and molested patients of all ages, including some with life-threatening illnesses. They made lewd comments during intimate medical examinations and seduced psychiatric patients. They groped and violated patients during contrived procedures that served no clinical purpose.
Again and again, doctors received little or no punishment for their unethical, sometimes illegal behavior, the Journal-Constitution found by reviewing disciplinary records from state medical boards. Many of these doctors continued to practice medicine; some continued to violate their patients.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained and analyzed more than 100,000 medical board orders relating to disciplinary action against doctors since Jan. 1, 1999. Among those, the newspaper identified more than 3,100 doctors disciplined after being accused of sexual misconduct; more than 2,400 of those cases involved patients.
Neither number is close to all-encompassing. Medical boards settled an unknown number of cases through confidential orders, and experts say patients report only a tiny fraction of doctors’ sexual transgressions.
Reported or not, sexual misconduct by trusted practitioners causes lasting trauma for patients.
“There is no more deeply personal betrayal than this,” said David Clohessy, the executive director of SNAP, a support and advocacy organization for people sexually abused by priests, doctors and other authority figures. “It’s a betrayal on a physical and emotional and psychological level, all at the same time.”
Shame, Clohessy said, inhibits many victims from reporting abuse.
“They feel like, ‘I did something wrong; I should have jumped up and screamed and I didn’t. Somehow I sent the wrong signal, gave him the wrong idea, or maybe I shouldn’t have worn that particular dress or that particular outfit.’”
Last winter, the host of a Spanish-language radio show in Atlanta, Brenda Bueno, began hearing privately from listeners who said they had been groped by Dr. Jose Rios, a pediatrician in Chamblee, Georgia. But many of the women resisted filing charges, Bueno said, because they were undocumented immigrants and feared deportation. Others, she said, worried their husbands or boyfriends would think they had “provoked” the doctor’s advances.
“Some of them were more afraid of their husbands … than of law enforcement authorities,” Bueno said.
At Bueno’s urging, several women finally went to the police. They said Rios had inappropriately touched their breasts or buttocks, offered to pay them for sex, or made other sexual advances during their children’s appointments.
“One time he told me to sit my child on my lap so he could examine him, and he brushed against my breasts,” one woman told MundoHispanico, a Spanish-language newspaper that, like the Journal-Constitution, is part of Atlanta-based Cox Media Group. “I thought it was an accident,” she said, “but he did it again another time that I went back, and he even gave me his private phone number so I could call him whenever I wanted.”
Authorities charged Rios with sexual battery and pandering, or soliciting sex for money. The charges are pending.
In Oregon, Erin Vance kept quiet about her abuse, wrestling with questions of whether it happened in a dream.
“How disgusting,” she recalled thinking. “Why would my mind be giving me that information when I was unconscious?”
She was watching the local news on television when she learned about the arrest of Dr. Frederick Field, her anesthesiologist at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, Oregon. Vance went to the police, one of the 12 women who told authorities Field had abused them. After pleading guilty to 11 counts of first-degree sex abuse and one count of first-degree rape, Field received a 23-year prison sentence.
Two years before Field assaulted Vance, another patient had told a hospital administrator that the doctor fondled her nipples and placed her hands on his penis.
Field’s prosecution and a separate lawsuit against the hospital further traumatized Vance. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and took a year-long medical leave from her job as a speech-language pathologist for the local school district. She wanted to write about her experience – and to distance herself from the hospital, just half a mile down the street from her school.
“People don’t seem to understand,” Vance, 41, said. “They don’t want to believe that they, too, are still vulnerable.”
This story was compiled by Alan Judd and reported by the project team. For the full series, visit ajc.com/doctors