My MD’s wandering hands

Ximena Escobar de Nogales Photo: Aline Bovard Rudaz

It happened over ten years ago. I had a sinus infection and went to the Permanence Medical de C, an UFO-style 70’s derelict health clinic close to the train station in a Swiss city, let’s leave it unnamed. The only advantage of the place is they always take you in, and it’s never crowded. That should have been enough warning.

After a few questions, the doctor pointed me to the examination table.

“It’s my recurrent sinus infection, I’ll need antibiotics,” I told him.

“Remove your blouse.” He instructed.

He placed his stethoscope on my chest and listened to my heart and lungs. He checked my ears and throat and rested his stethoscope around his neck. In slow motion, he then placed his hands on my breasts, cupping a breast in each hand. His gesture lasted only a few seconds. I froze. Or rather, I became a fly settling on my left shoulder, petrified, void, and breathless. The doctor searched for my eyes and sustained his gaze. Was that the look of defiance? Nerve? Before sinking my sight to the floor, I registered the triumphant smile across his face.

“This is happening,” the fly mumbled to my ear. I remained unreachable.

He removed his hands from my body and told me I could dress. Back at his desk, he prescribed antibiotics. I don’t recall any details. Did I thank him? Probably. Did I shake his wandering hand? Was there any tremor in my voice as I bid him goodbye?

I dashed back home, reassembling myself with every turn of my bike’s wheel. “Freedom,” I read somewhere, “is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” When I entered through the door, Camille, my eldest daughter, then 17 years old, was in the kitchen. I told her what had happened.

“Mom! Sitting on an examination bed, you are at the right height to kick the asshole in his balls!”

Unlike me, Camille is not fooled by the authority of a title, “MD,” or the emblem of a white medical lab coat. She will always see the wolf under the lambskin.

“Wait, this ‘doctor’ you saw,” said my daughter, “was that at the Permanence de C? Because the same thing happened to my friend Angela there.”

And then, only then, did I allow myself to feel rage. When it pertains to me alone, I may opt out, becoming a witness to my assault, rather than the victim, but I would not allow a doctor to harass minors sexually.

The following day, I mustered the courage to call the clinic and ask to see the director.

“What is the reason for the appointment?” asked the operator.

“Private,” I said, willing her not to ask further. How difficult it is to denunciate. All other options: deny, blame yourself, let it go, or dismiss as banal, appear more comfortable. I’m not surprised that less than 25% of sexual harassment victims press charges.

A couple of days later, I was received by the clinic’s director, a surgeon in his sixties. With an uncertain voice, I recounted what happened.

Madame, could it not have been that you misinterpreted his act? You see, this doctor is a man from the south. In those cultures…” the director said.

“I am a woman from the south,” I interrupted him, my voice trembling. “I can distinguish a warm, affectionate gesture from an inappropriate one.”

“This is annoying,” he went on, “you see, I am soon retiring. The doctor you are accusing of inappropriate behaviour is likely to be my successor.”

The director promised to “take measures.” “I assure you, Madame, that the doctor will, from now on, be accompanied by a woman nurse in the consultation room. Is this all right for you?” he asked. “Or do you wish to have a face-to-face meeting with him? Press charges?”

I accepted the promise of vigilance and left. I had already gone against the mantra I had been raised to follow: “Woman, don’t be conflictive.” I dismissed the incident. It was minor, after all. Wasn’t it?

****

It’s September 2019, ten years since this incident. I am in the kitchen with Lucie, a friend of my youngest daughter, Chloé, both aged 21. Lucie has had a bad cold for a while. I ask her how she’s doing.

“Well, I ended up getting antibiotics for a cold,” she says. She falls silent, looking self-conscious. “Something uncomfortable happened to me… I went to the Permanence de C…”

The mention of that clinic next to the word uncomfortable stops me on my tracks. I turn away from the kitchen sink, my heart pounding. My daughter, who knows about my incident, looks at me.

“What happened?” I ask Lucie, and it sounds like a command.

“The doctor I saw was… strange,” she says. How we lack the words.

“I was wearing a light summer dress,” Lucie begins, her voice sounds subdued, embarrassed. “He said he couldn’t hear my heart through the cloth properly, but it really was thin,” Lucie insists. She looks at my daughter, at me, she is asking for confirmation, reassurance, “Did I misinterpret?” She appears to be asking.

“He asked me to take my dress off. I pulled it over my head, holding it over my upper body. He was auscultating my back, and then he undid my bra. I wasn’t expecting this. He didn’t even say he was going to do so. Was it necessary?” she asks.

***

Two days later, I am at the reception of this clinic I haven’t visited in years. I am determined to find out if it was the same doctor. I want to know the name of my physician. I have the name of Lucie’s doctor. I make up a story about having been there in 2009, or 2008 and seeing a doctor who successfully treated me for an allergy and wanting now to refer my daughter to him…blah, blah, blah. As I speak, I wonder if the receptionist senses the falseness in my story. She’s a soft, amiable lady in her late fifties.

“We systematized all records after the flood,” she says. If I don’t find you on our electronic database, I’ll go to the basement to get the paper records.”

She finds my records on the PC, but the only entry in my medical history dates from 2013, there’s nothing older. She reminds me I was there for an X-ray of my ankle the last time. I had completely forgotten I had returned to that clinic after my incident. She fetches the paper files; they don’t go back any farther.

The visiting cards of all current physicians are on display at the front desk. I take the card from Lucie’s doctor and ask the receptionist how long he has been around.

“Dr. X., he has been with us only for two or three years,” she says.

Now I know it was not the same doctor. Is this good news? No, I tell myself. It merely indicates Dr. X. is not the only vicious doctor to frequent/have frequented this place.

I leave the clinic with a sense of failure. I don’t know the name of the doctor who touched my breasts. Could the receptionist know about the inappropriate practices? I wonder. If so, I speculate, she could want to provide information, even if she is close to retirement and presumably wants to avoid a scandal. We need more testimonies. I get hold of Angela’s number and WhatsApp her. I haven’t been in touch with her for years.

“Hi Angela, I’m Camille’s mother. I hope you are well. I’d like to speak about an incident that I believe happened to you over a decade ago at the Permanence de C. I too experienced something there. Would you agree to speak to me?”

Later, when we talk, she confides she hesitated to respond.

“It’s been so long. I’ve long-shelved the matter… or so I thought,” she says.

I tell her about Lucie’s recent incident. Angela starts evoking:

“I wasn’t doing well at the time. I was in and out of that clinic. On one occasion, I was received by a urologist. I’m sure about his specialty because I recall thinking it was a good thing since I was often suffering from cystitis. The doctor asked me to take my T-shirt off and remove my bra. I remember being surprised by his request and stoically executing it, posing no objection. He touched my breasts. All along, I knew that what he was doing had nothing to do with a medical examination.”

There’s a change in Angela’s voice; she sounds animated. She tells me she is now involved with women’s rights. She helped organize the recent women strike in Switzerland. We evoke the #MeToo movement, the momentum it has created for gender equality.

“Let’s not miss this wave,” Angela finally declares, “If it happened to us, there must be so many more women out there.”

I sit down and write our story. Every word in this text is true.

January 17, 2020

Have you been a victim of sexual harassment by your doctor? Do you wish to share your testimony? Write to us at sexuallyharassedbymydoctor@gmail.com

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