My colleague wouldn’t stop asking me vulgar questions during an operation

What happened?

In the late 1980’s I was working as a nurse anesthetist at various plastic surgery centers and was asked to fill in for a fellow nurse at a surgery clinic.  I had never met the doctor before, but the nurse I was filling in for, a heavyset woman, said he was “horrible” and she couldn’t work with him anymore. At the time, I didn’t press her to elaborate. I had seen my fair share of surgeons with outsized personalities, to put it nicely. As a seasoned professional, I didn’t feel intimidated by her review. I later found out that he had called her a “fat pig” during a surgery.

When I met Dr. X to introduce myself, he was very polite, a young man in his 30’s. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking his colleague had exaggerated. As the patient entered the operating room, he started flirting with her. Although unprofessional, I brushed it off mentally thinking that perhaps they had had a previous relationship. I then proceeded with administering the anesthesia to put her to sleep.

A few minutes into the surgery, Dr. X came on to me, jokingly asking “What sex positions do you like?” I brushed him off with a wave of my hand and in an annoyed tone said “Oh Dr. X” and then staring intently at the patient vital sign readings to signal that I was concentrating on the job at hand. He knew I was married and older than him, and I hoped that my blasé response would send the message that I was not interested in indulging his crude conversation. He pressed on with even more vulgar questions.  Several times I told him to stop in what I felt were increasingly strong tones, but he just laughed off my protests and continued pestering me with nasty questions.

How did you respond?

I felt trapped. The supervisor of the clinic, another nurse, was in the operating room and yet said nothing about his remarks. I felt I couldn’t escalate my response, which might have involved a shouting match, without potentially distracting him and compromising the patient, who was under general anesthesia and required focused medical attention. I obviously couldn’t leave the room as I was administering the intravenous medications and responsible for making sure she didn’t stop breathing or go into cardiac arrest. I made it through by ignoring his comments. When we finished the procedure, I couldn’t get out of the room fast enough, and I never took a job with him again.  

Reflections in Hindsight?

If I could have done it again, I would have been more assertive during the surgery and issued a final warning. I then would have confronted him after the surgery and told him that I was reporting him to the American Medical Association for being lewd and out of line. I would have gone to the clinic management, but he and another surgeon owned the clinic so that was not an option. In those days, the AMA was not as sensitive to these issues and probably would have dismissed the case, but at least it would have sent a strong message.

At the time I dealt with it by avoiding him, declining any further jobs at the clinic. Even if he had finally responded to my requests for him to stop, I still would never have worked with him again because it felt so uncomfortable and more importantly, so that I wouldn’t have to work with a physician who was potentially distracted and endangering the patient. I later found out that other women had dealt with similar behavior. Sadly, he died unexpectedly in an accident a few months later (it wasn’t me, I promise!) It’s unfortunate that in the minds of many of the people he worked with, he left behind a poor professional legacy. Though he never did anything intentionally to endanger a patient, the fact that he created such an unprofessional and distracting atmosphere in the operating room was a liability.

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