How we treat sexual assault matters more than we will ever know

My psych final was this morning, which I am 90% confident I did well enough on to pass the class (which is all I need to be satisfied).  Considering I counted watching “Girl, Interrupted” as studying, I say that’s not too bad.

I felt like there were many necessary topics left out of our behavioral medicine and psychiatry course.  One of the many: sexual assault.

For the past eight years I have wanted to give a presentation on sexual assault, to share my story and hopefully offer some insight into the world of a rape victim.  This was my chance, and I took it.  One of my awesome classmates helped me out, and we began planning our workshop.  Our professor gave us access to two standardized patients and we got to work. That was 3 months ago.

After months of preparation, today was the day. Time to stand in front of a lecture hall full of classmates, peers, faculty and staff to share some of the darkest moments of my life.  It began like a play, my classmate interviewing the standardized patient pretending to be the sixteen year old me.  Make up outlined our actress’ face and body in a pattern of bruises as she laid in the fetal position retelling my story.

After reading the findings of the case’s physical exam, I dove into my disclosure.  Shocked faces scattered through the audience as I began to admiringly describe my physician that night.  This is why I chose to share my story- her.

The one hour visit at 4am with this physician, my physician, shaped my recovery.  She was easily the most positive element in my trauma, the foundation I rebuilt myself upon.  As a future physician I wanted to capture her essence and wisdom for all other healers, so they too could be a rock for victims of assault.

What made her so special?

The middle aged Scottish woman who appeared at my bedside in the American Hospital of Paris at four o’clock in the morning is my superhero, my idol, and this is why.  When her face fell on my injuries, she didn’t look at me with pity.  When she spoke, she didn’t offer the fake, scripted empathy we are taught in medical school.  When she provided my care, she provided — not forced.  Every decision was mine, not hers.  She made it apparent that she was there for me, a partner in my care.  At sixteen years old this woman treated me as an adult, giving me absolute and complete control over my medical care and decisions. This would evolve to me regaining control over my body, and eventually my life.  The respect this extraordinary woman showed me in my time of vulnerability changed me forever and inspired me to live my life unaffected by the prick who hurt me.

All this in just one hour, eight years ago.  I wish she knew how deeply she helped me.

Every health care provider will see a sexual assault victim. More than once.  How we treat them matters more than we will ever know.  We don’t need to be superheroes, we simply need to allow our patients to be.

Today felt like the final step in my recovery. Standing up and sharing my story was the final motion to whoever assaulted me eight years ago.  To him I say: I am stronger than you.   I will never allow you the power to negatively affect my life.  I’m strong enough to use your violence to teach others.

I am free, and it feels so good.

“Natalie” is a medical student who blogs at doctormodel.

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  • PMD1234

      Thank you so much for sharing your story- and I will think about this the next time I am suspicious. 
    This is one of the most difficult parts of medicine- a sense of a secret- but that should not be untangled in a 15 minute squeeze- in appointment.  We discover a rape victims as we do a pap smear-I was traumatized also, frankly, and have no idea how I did as a provider other than  ask “the question”-  and get the victim to help, 5 years after the fact.
       We hear stories 50 years later-and try not to re-traumatize, but have no idea how much therapy will help.
    I have a 66 year old, whose political refugee related  trauma is just emerging as her mother is dying- she is an anxious mess; I finally realized that her mother helped her through this, and they had a shared language. But if treated earlier, maybe she would have  had children of her own.
      It is sad- and I would not do this any differently- is that “Natale” can’t  share her name- but I so admire her courage, Putting faces to this helps humanize it-and take it from a text book to reality. When done  badly, these lessons  can go so very very wrong-I remember with horror a workshop our state required MD’s  on domestic violence. It was given in a large lecture hall with 200 attendees. I was on the floor the next day with a bruise on my arm, ( I had banged it gardening) and  a socially impaired  surgeon insisted in front of 4 nurses- in a very public space – that I had been abused. I denied it, ans he insisted that the fact that I was denying it proved that I had been abused. If I had been this would have been the last place I would want to discuss or reveal it- and certainly not to him.These thing have to be taught- but that vignette should have been filmed as how not to do this!

  • Chrysalis Angel

    I love the way you worded this, ” the foundation I rebuilt myself upon.” So aptly said. How they respond is critical.  Giving the patient their voice, their power back is in letting them decide and make their own choices related to their care. They need to feel they have control.  It’s a first step -right there.

    I’m so sorry you’ve had to suffer through what you have. I’m proud of you for using it to help others going forward.  You will be an asset to so many.

  • MSB2012

    Thank you for this post! So many rape victims are afraid to get help because of how they will be treated when they come forward (myself included, and sadly, many of my female friends). I am proud of you for speaking up – so many of us carry false shame because of our culture of victim-blaming.

  • Molly Ciliberti

    Great post! You took the power over your own body back and she helped you do that. 

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