Herstory

Speaking Out about Doctors Assaulting Patients #MeToo

“Dear Ms. Gilman, 

I taped this note to my door so that every time I walk out, I’m reminded of my strength.

Thank you for submitting your complaint [to the Florida Dept. of Health Bureau of Enforcement].

We have determined from our review that although the behavior you described is unacceptable, it is not a violation of the laws or rules that regulate the healthcare practitioner’s profession.  Therefore, we can take no further action. 

Florida law requires that all information in this complaint remain confidential…”

 

This is the response to a letter I wrote in a complaint against a doctor whose behavior toward me in a physical exam, I believe, would have risen to the level of sexual assault if I hadn’t stood up for myself.  You can read my complaint below, at the end of this post.  You’ll understand why the doctor’s actions were so disturbing.

In the state’s response to my complaint,  I was particularly bothered by the intimidating statement that the information in my complaint is required by law to be confidential.  In no part of the complaint form or instructions was that included.  To inform a complainant after the fact that they forfeited the right to talk about the abuse they suffered is unconscionable.

No one has the right to silence me because I spoke out. 

I researched my rights.  Florida’s “Sunshine Law” prohibits disclosure of such information in certain situations, but not in a case where the complaint is determined to be legally insufficient, which mine was.  So much for the threat made to me.  

I hadn’t thought to write about being assaulted by doctors until I watched a news segment about three-time Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman, who spoke forcefully and eloquently about her U.S. team coach sexually abusing her from the time she was 15.  She is now 23.

Her story reminded me that I had been sexually mistreated– was it all abuse? it’s hard to know sometimes– by three doctors.  At the times I was subjected to the inappropriate sexual behavior, I was 15 years old, 30 years old, and 48 years old.  The first time, my mother was there and prevented it from happening.  The second time, I was frozen while it happened.  The last time, I kept it from happening.

I have a voice, and I’m speaking out. 

When I was 15, my mother took me to a doctor because I had a sinus infection.  He asked whether I was a virgin.  I wasn’t; I’d been date raped earlier that year.  My mother didn’t know I’d been date raped and neither did I; I only knew I didn’t want it to happen and he forced himself on me.  I hadn’t told my mother that, and I still haven’t.

Because I wasn’t a virgin, the doctor wanted to give me a pelvic exam.  I was there for a sinus infection.  On what basis would he ask if I were a virgin in the first place?  And on what basis would a doctor do a pelvic exam on a patient, virgin or not, when she’s there for a sinus infection? My mother didn’t allow the exam.  If I could remember the doctor’s name, I would certainly tell it here.

When I was 30, I went to see a doctor because I had swollen lymph nodes on my neck.  Dr. Regan Burke examined me in a room with no one in it but us.  Before the exam, he had me take my clothes off and put on a robe.  He extensively and slowly probed my lymph nodes, including those under my arms and into my breasts.  He examined the lymph nodes in my groin– again with extensive, slow probing– where my legs met the very private part of my body.  The exam seemed to last forever. The room was dead quiet except for his deep, heavy breathing.  I was chilled to the bone.  But I couldn’t find the courage to tell him, an authority figure, to stop touching me.

When I went back to work that day, I told a male co-worker about it, thinking he’d reassure me that it was wrong.  Instead, he said “Give me a break! You think your doctor was trying to feel you up?”  I told my then-husband that night.  He understood I’d felt uncomfortable but said nothing more.

Since then, a dozen women women have accused Dr. Burke of touching them inappropriately.  He was arrested twice and had a 10-year legal battle because of it.  What I felt about my exam by him was true; he’d been touching me inappropriately.  And he kept doing it to other women.  If I’d spoken up to the Florida Department of Health back in 1997, would they have listened to me, or would their response have been similar to the one regarding my most recent experience? If I spoke up, would it have kept other women from being this doctor’s victims?  These kinds of questions are partly why women don’t tell that they have been abused or assaulted– they don’t know what the answers to questions like these will be.

In the current wave of women publicly revealing the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, many of them have been doubted and insulted for waiting so long to tell their stories.  I can’t and won’t question women who find it too difficult and have to take years, even decades, to be able to tell what happened to them.  I believe women when they speak out, and I have empathy for them.  I have have even greater empathy for the women who carry a secret burden because they can’t speak out.

Aly Raisman hasn’t been questioned, because she’s been able to speak out early.  She’s an exceptional young woman and inspiring to other young women.  Not many young women have the strength Raisman has. Not many women, young or old, are as gutsy as she is.  Her life as an Olympic athlete who has been a gymnast when she was four and who trained vigorously for most of her life has physical strength, and her Olympic medals show that she has the mettle to overcome human limitations.  It could have been either of these things, or both, or both and an innate sense of justice that caused her to tell her story.  Whatever it was, it’s helping others to tell what they’ve been through– and not only gymnasts.  It helped me tell what happened to me.

As to the question of why women “let” sexual assaults happen, Raisman is obviously strong, yet she couldn’t rock the boat while the sexual assaults were happening.  Some women can, but maybe it takes experience and courage from without for a woman to stop someone from sexually abusing her.

I’m an aggressive, confrontational person by nature, but it took until I was almost 50 to have the absolute conviction that I was being victimized and the courage to speak out to the supposedly-decent person who was going to victimize me to keep him from doing it. I did it three years ago when Dr. Tolliver Higgins would have touched me inappropriately, I believe, unless I questioned his behavior before he could complete the act.

I had the strength and grit right away to tell my friends and fiancé what happened to me.  I posted about it on Facebook.  Then I filed the complaint with the Florida Department of Health.  They agreed that his actions were “unacceptable.”  As I’ve said, they nevertheless determined that his conduct did not rise to the level required to take action against him.

I have a voice, and I’m speaking out.  

May all you doctors, coaches, directors, politicians, actors, editors, and every other man from every walk of life who have abused women you’ve had power or authority over be warned and afraid.  Be very, very afraid.  If one woman tells what you did to her, so will another.  Then another.  And another.  Your future is in jeopardy.  We are women.  Hear us roar.

 


 

The complaint I filed with the Florida Dept. of Health Bureau of Enforcement:

 

September 5, 2014

RE: Complaint against Dr. Tolliver Higgins

On Tuesday, August 12, 2014, I had an appointment with Dr. Higgins for a routine checkup to establish a primary care doctor for myself after I’d gotten health insurance. I wanted to see his associate, Dr. — but Dr. — wasn’t taking new patients.

The nurse came in, asked me a few questions, then left and said Dr. Higgins would be in soon. Dr. Higgins came in, sat, asked me many health questions, including whether I’d had a gynecological exam recently (yes), and a lot of questions about my life—where I grew up, where I went to high school, and things like that which led to a really intimate look at my life, things that have absolutely nothing to do with my health today.

He said he would order a lot of tests to be done that day, and then he handed me a pink paper top, the kind that is worn during a yearly GYN appointment so a breast exam could be done. He said, “Take everything off from the waist up, and put this on. The opening goes in front. I’ll be back,” and he left the exam room.

I am a large-breasted woman, even after my breast reduction surgery in 2001, which I noted in my health history. I have had experience enough to know when something is not right. Still, I did as he said. Doctors have authority over patients. But when he came back in alone and shut the door, I said, “A nurse is going to be in here, right?” He said, “A nurse? No. Why? Do you want a nurse in here?” I said, “Well, yeah.” He challenged me by saying no and then asking the way he did, as though I were being unreasonable. I am very glad for myself that I didn’t back down.

He came back in with his nurse, Leslie (he wrote her name on a piece of paper for me earlier, so I would know who to talk to if I had questions later). I was sitting on the exam table with the little pink paper top on, and Leslie stood at my feet, smiling at me to make me feel comfortable. Dr. Higgins was going to take my blood pressure and listen to my lungs, he said. His hands were shaking as he took my blood pressure and he fumbled with the cuff. He told Leslie she might as well sit down, so she complied and sat in the chair I’d been sitting in during the talking part of my visit. I put my left hand to the opening of the paper top while he was trying to get the cuff on me, and I had to hold the top closed. He listened to my chest and to my back, as I continued to hold the top closed in front.

I have never, ever, ever been asked to disrobe from the waist up so that my BP could be taken and someone could listen to my lungs.

It is, in my mind, improper to ask a woman to bare her body for that, and improper to plan to then examine her with no one else in the room.

I have attached my records from Dr. Higgins’ office’s online portal, detailing my visit that day. You will note the extensive health information, tests, and test results reported for that day. Missing: my blood pressure, pulse, or any vital signs. No mention of my lungs, either. That says something to me as well. It was important enough to have me strip to do those things, but those things were not worth writing down?

Dr. Higgins made me feel very uncomfortable by telling me to take my blouse and bra off. Still, I did it. Where is the line? Did he really do something wrong? This is the dilemma women are put in when someone in authority acts improperly. I am speaking out, though. He was going to get a look at my breasts.   He was going to have my top open in front and hold his stethoscope on my sternum, his hands ever so close to my bare breasts. I have no doubt of that. And that is wrong, wrong, wrong, even if I didn’t let that happen.

I believe his hands were shaking because he was “caught” because I wanted his nurse in the room, and she saw that he’d had me strip when he shouldn’t have. He was right to be nervous. I was the wrong woman to do that to just now. I’m bold enough to speak out.

Suzannah Gilman

 

 

 

 

 

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