Rarely are we more vulnerable than being unconscious and surrounded by strangers.
Which is why, on top of the risks of anesthesia and the actual medical problem necessitating the operation, undergoing surgery is such a terrifying ordeal.
With little other choice, we blindly choose to trust surgeons and hold them in high regard.
In an anonymous and uncharacteristic essay published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, one doctor describes two degrading and horrifying incidents, one that he witnessed and another described to him by a medical student.
The student described how a “dirtball” attending physician made inappropriate comments while preparing a woman under general anesthesia for a vaginal hysterectomy.
“He picked up a clamp holding sterile cotton balls and dipped them into Betadine,” he said.
“While he was cleansing and scrubbing her labia and inner thighs, he looked at me and said, ‘I bet she’s enjoying this.’ My attending winked at me and laughed.”
In another more disturbing case, the author described how an obstetrician performed a crude dance with racist undertones after saving the life of a woman who had just given birth. And how he went along with the degrading behaviour.
He said while in medical school doing a round in obstetrics and gynaecology, he delivered a baby girl whose mother started to lose huge amounts of blood.
The new mother, Mrs Lopez, is anesthetised and the resident obstetrician – referred to by the pseudonym Dr Canby – steps in and internally massages her uterus until it contracts and the bleeding stops.
“I look down and see only his wrist; his entire hand is inside her,” he says.
“He says something like, ‘Atta girl. That’s what I like. A nice, tight uterus.’ And the bleeding stops. The guy saved her life. I was blown away.
“But then something happened that I’ll never forget. Dr. Canby raises his right hand into the air. He starts to sing ‘La Cucaracha.’ He sings, ‘La Cucaracha, la cucaracha, dada, dada, dada-daaa.’ It looks like he is dancing with her. He stomps his feet, twists his body, and waves his right arm above his head. All the while, he holds her, his whole hand still inside her vagina. He starts laughing. He keeps dancing. And then he looks at me. I begin to sway to his beat. My feet shuffle. I hum and laugh along with him. Moments later, the anesthesiologist yells, ‘Knock it off, assholes!’ And we stop.”
In an editorial, the journal’s editors said they had heated debates and a “time out” over whether they should expose the seedy underbelly of the medical world by publishing the article.
“We all agreed that the piece was disgusting and scandalous and could damage the profession’s reputation,” it said.
“Some believed that this was reason not to publish the story. Others believed that it was precisely why we should publish it.”
As has been widely publicised in Australia, there seems to be a strict hierarchical culture in the medical fraternity. But medical professionals clearly need to be encouraged to report these shocking breaches of ethics and, in some cases, criminal behaviour.