By Cynthia Toussaint.
The #MeToo movement, where women are speaking out about being sexually assaulted and harassed, first reminded me of nearly being raped when I was in college. When I dug deeper though, I realized most of the harassment I’ve encountered was at the hands of healthcare professionals. Really sad, but true.
My first pain care harassment episode happened shortly after CRPS spread into my “good” leg forcing me to abandon my professional dance career and move back into my mother’s home. Desperate for answers and relief and getting nowhere with my HMO, I went to their urgent care facility.
When I met the young, good looking doctor, I was uncomfortable as his attitude and manner were immediately flirtatious. When he spoke to me about my hamstring injury, he drew a diagram of it. The doctor explained the reason for my excruciating pain was that my hamstring was tight – and that was the way many men liked their women. I was stunned and horrified, and quickly got up and left the examining room.
But he wasn’t done. As I limped down the hall to escape, he called out in front of the nurse’s station no less, “My prescription for you is to take care of those gorgeous legs.” When I got home, I sobbed in front of my mom. It was bad enough that I wasn’t getting any care, but now I was a sexual object to be demeaned and played with.
As the months piled up with no diagnosis or care, I threatened to sue my HMO. They begrudgingly put me into their hospice so I could get daily physical therapy. Led by my attending physician and ringmaster, Dr. Sprague, this “healthcare setting” was a nonstop circus of sexual degradation and harassment.
I was being asked out on a date everyday by one of the nurses assistants. When I finally stopped laughing him off and turned him down saying that I had a boyfriend, he shot back seemingly hurt, “I see all kinds of guys coming in and out of your room.” He was right. Besides John, I had plenty of male visitors including my brothers and theater friends, most who were gay. But why was I defending myself to this creep? Because I was desperate for care and didn’t want to rock this sinking boat.
This was nothing compared to the technician who was in charge of my constant passive motion machine. My right leg was in a contracture and the machine was used in an attempt to straighten it. I feared this man as my daily encounter with him included a stream of sexual innuendos, suggestive gestures and comments about my full lips. I felt violated over and over again.
The worst of the worst was when he inquired about painful body positions. After answering him like a good soldier, he asked “Can you still get on your hands and knees?” Momentarily trying to trust that he cared, I said yes. He responded with a smile, “Good, that’s all that’s important”, smacking his lips to punctuate his sexual pleasure.
That did it. I’d been concerned about getting this guy into trouble, but I finally made a complaint to Dr. Sprague. He put the cherry on top with his response. “You get what you deserve here.” This was the same guy who told me I had to give up my foolish notion of dancing and be what I was supposed to be – a housewife and a mother.
I’ve spoken to hundreds of women in pain over the years and most all share similar stories. Just like Hollywood and other industries where men hold positions of power, healthcare is filthy with this abusive, demeaning behavior. What makes it worse for us is that our lives are being turned upside down by pain and fatigue and we’re desperate to get better. We’ll take almost anything to get out of this rabbit hole of suffering.
But the #MeToo movement is changing this paradigm. We don’t need to submit to sexual predators to advance our careers, attain positions of leadership or get decent, humane pain care.
If this ever happens to me again, I’ll confront the healthcare professional – and go straight to the clinic or hospital administrator. With pain care, trust and feeling safe is all important as part of our healing process. Anything less is completely unacceptable.
I’m grateful to the #MeToo movement for me and all women in pain. Let it be our beacon of strength, courage and self-respect.
Cynthia Toussaint is founder of For Grace, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that works on issues facing women in pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.