I Think I Might Have Been Given A Nonconsensual Pelvic Exam While Unconscious For Surgery, And I'll Probably Never Know For Sure

The more time that passed, the more terrified I felt that this had, in fact, happened to me, that my body had been violated while under the care of a medical professional to whom I had entrusted my health and my overall well-being.
Publish date:
May 6, 2013
It Happened To Me, pelvic exams, medical trauma

So this one time, I had surgery on my ladybits. Ladybits surgery is no fun (unless your idea of fun is radically different from mine), mostly because one cannot have sex for a least two weeks ex post facto and it becomes necessary to take twice daily sitz baths in Epsom-salted water.

Also, it is likely that the vulva in question will become swollen and sore post-surgery, and that makes things like sitting and walking and wearing underwear quite difficult. It did, however, give me an excuse to finally watch "Gossip Girl" whilst ensconced in a microfleece electric blanket and feeling woozy and a little nauseated off of painkillers (perhaps the root of my Very Confusing Feelings regarding Chuck Bass?), so there’s that, I suppose.

About a week after my surgical experience, I stumbled upon this article that was making the rounds on Facebook at the time (trigger warning). After I read that article, my horrified curiosity compelled me to also read many of the other articles to which it links including this one.

The TL:DR version is basically this: if one is receiving care in a teaching hospital, it is still generally commonplace to have random medical students give pelvic exams to patients with vaginas and uteri - even if the patient has not explicitly consented to the pelvic exams, even if the pelvic exam is not strictly necessary, and even is the patient is NOT CONSCIOUS.

When I was finally done reading, I felt so enraged that I literally could not think about it anymore. My brain became mottled with red and black and horribleness, so I decided to let my thoughts percolate and process before moving forward with researching any related legislation or activist movements designed to challenge and combat this practice. I needed something to distract me, and what better brain candy than the next episode of "Gossip Girl"?

Halfway through the episode, a commercial break came on extolling the virtues of some random blue-liquid absorbing pad which reminded me that I needed to go change out my own (another great thing about ladybits surgery: it becomes essential to wear a pad to sop up any leaking). As I took care of business in the bathroom, my thoughts shifted back to the articles I’d read about the non-consensual pelvic exams.

I was washing my hands when it slowly dawned on me that a) I am a person with a vagina and a uterus and b) I recently had gynecological surgery at a teaching hospital that required me to be anesthetized. I felt my stomach knot up, roiling like a cobra preparing to strike and my mouth got all water y and coppery and I vomited violently in general direction of the toilet bowl. So much for my freshly washed hands.

I staggered back to my room, my mind racing and all thoughts of resuming "Gossip Girl" were erased as I fell into a frenzy of research and more research. The more time that passed, the more terrified I felt that this had, in fact, happened to me, that my body had been violated while under the care of a medical professional to whom I had entrusted my health and my overall well-being. I called my gynecologist’s office, and I tried to calm my rising panic as I explained my concerns that I had been given pelvic exams by random medical students while I was unconscious in the operating room.

The receptionist seemed as alarmed as I did, and she reassured me that my doctor would never have allowed such a thing and that he would contact me as soon as possible.

In the ensuing hours, I tried to calm myself. I scoured the papers I’d received from the hospital to see if anything hidden in the fine print gave them permission to do such things without express informed consent, which they did not. Why wouldn’t they just ask me if they could try it out while I was conscious, I wondered? I am a sexual health activist, and I’d love to help people get better at giving pelvic exams! I tried to not blame myself for allowing a male-identified gynecologist to operate on me even though I was not thrilled with his care in general. (Note to self: if someone gives you the uh-oh feeling, do not allow them to anesthetize you and then wield a scalpel near your nether regions.)

At the time of the surgery, my medical insurance required that I go see a surgical doctor via referral and I trusted my regular gynecologist’s recommendation. And, as much as I inherently feel uncomfortable with male-identified doctors, there was nothing about this particular doctor that screamed “I ENCOURAGE MY MEDICAL STUDENTS TO PRACTICE PELVIC EXAMS ON UNCONSCIOUS NON-CONSENTING FOLK!”

A few hours later, he called me back. He asked me what my concerns were, so I explained that I was concerned that a med student or two or three had performed non-consensual pelvic exams on my unconscious body. As I recounted, I tried to stay as calm as possible, fighting back the tide of hysteria that threatened to drown my sanity.

As soon as I finished speaking, he responded brusquely that he does so many surgeries that he could not say for sure whether or not it had happened.

Surely there must be records somewhere, I posited.

He scoffed and said there would be no records of any medical students present. My mind reeled.

Okay, I said, then I have one final question: have you done this in the past? Have you had medical students perform pelvic exams on unconscious patients?

Yes, he replied gruffly, and it’s a commonly accepted practice.

I was so stunned by his relative nonchalance that my usual sassiness was lost to me. I vaguely remember choking out my sentiments that I would no longer be needing his care and that I would have my follow up with another doctor.

I didn’t hang up the phone so much as it fell from my hand and onto the couch as I melted into the cushions and cocooned myself into a throw blanket. I spent the rest of the evening numb except for the ramen in my belly. I needed entertainment more mindless than "Gossip Girl." That was the night I began watching "Jersey Shore."

As the days passed, my numbness wore off bit by bit. I finally mustered up the energy to make a new post-operative follow up appointment, and a week later, I contacted the hospital’s patient advocacy unit to file an investigation.

I never heard back from the hospital. I tried to follow up a month later, but to no avail. And honestly? At that point, I let it go. I didn’t want to, but I was too tired to keep fighting back. My unstable and abusive ex-fiancé was trying to reinsert himself in my life, and I was knee-deep in wading through PTSD-ish and finally coming to terms with the full impact of the abuse he had rained upon me during our time together.

This was on top of balancing work and grad school classes and social justice activism and dealing with the loss of a beloved friend who had been murdered in cold blood by an unbalanced man who had been stalking her.

So I let it go. It’s what I had to do to survive.

I will never know for sure whether or not this happened to me. Every now and then, I re-read that set of articles about non-consensual pelvic exams, and I feel the anger flare up. I try to cling to that anger and let it fuel my drive for activism around this issue, but I then I feel the energy draining out of me.

Though much time has passed, and I am much much stronger than I’ve ever been, I’m not yet strong enough to challenge the medical-political machine that is one of the largest medical institutions in New York City, Even writing this article was really difficult for me.

I hope that I’m strong enough to fight this fight someday.