When a medical student is victim-blamed

After third-year medicine, I was required to withdraw for handing in an assignment late. It was a paragraph of self-reflection; I couldn’t believe I was being kicked out for something so seemingly inconsequential.

My dealings with the faculty became increasingly hostile and negative. I realized that my fellow students had to band together. Otherwise, there will be no change. I have to say that at my medical school, they have been successful at keeping certain matters — matters of harassment and even patient safety — hush, hush.

I know of several students who are afraid to speak out, and I am certain there are many more. My own advocate, from the faculty’s wellness office, who I had seen for years, told me on a regular basis that I had to highlight how well I do when I am well.

I thought to myself, no, I should highlight how well I do when I’m suffering from insomnia, panic attacks, and depression, because that is how I’ve carried out the majority of my clinical years. Yet I managed to maintain average to above-average grades and receive many wonderful evaluations.

I had a course coordinator page me at home after I went homesick. I found it inappropriate. He paged me at a time when I was very vulnerable, you see, my father had died tragically from lung cancer, not six months before, in the very hospital I was assigned to complete my internal medicine rotation.

The nausea was always present along with the stomach knots that, day in and day out, were exacerbated by the memories of him slowly wasting away until there was nothing left.

I called the page back, wondering what it could be. It was a very angry course coordinator demanding to know where I was and why. All appropriate parties were notified of my absence.

I tried to explain that I was having the worst panic attacks I had ever had and asked if he’d like to meet in person to discuss further. He replied, “Not buying it,” and abruptly hung up the phone. I recently disclosed this harassment to several faculty members with no result.

Other students have said he holds a grudge, and another said he can ruin your life if he wants to. One of the faculty who I disclosed the harassment to took it upon himself to confront that course coordinator on my behalf and ask for leniency in my case — they are apparently good friends. Although that faculty member was just trying to help, unfortunately, it had the opposite desired effect. I was later told the coordinator would be at my appeal hearing to present his side to the people who would determine my fate.

I felt like the good-intentioned faculty member had overstepped his boundaries by sharing particulars of our private meeting with the problem coordinator — without my permission. At the appeal hearing, it was my word against his. He flat out misrepresented information and lied to the hearing panel.

My own advocate told me he does not like being challenged and offered that there had been several other cases of similar student misconduct with this coordinator. Although she was there to help me, when it came to confronting this bully, her hands were tied. She also seemed to be indoctrinated into the mentality that you just have to do your best to get by in spite of these bullies. In my head, I’m kinda thinking: “Lady! I’ve got $200,000 on the line here!” Her admission that he’s unfairly railroaded other students could support my case for appeal.

I’ve done a ton of reading over the last month, scanning the literature looking for papers on trauma, workplace harassment, PTSD, and gender differences in the response to harassment. Sadly, I’ve done this because I feel like I need to legitimize my experiences — sometimes asking myself OK, I’m not just making this up as an excuse — am I? Well, all of my reading has been thoroughly enlightening and reflects my own experiences and symptoms.

Bottom line: Medical training is traumatizing and then retraumatizes the student again and again as the student is victim-blamed for what they’ve endured.

The university recently released a report on sexual assault along with recommendations.

It recognizes that harassment is a part of the culture that perpetuates gender-based violence. So, it seems that the university at-large is leaps and bounds ahead of the faculty.

I’ve always sensed that they seem to operate on their own accord with little say from the rest of the university. I’ve always felt like I had no rights in medical school, and now I know why. More students need to come forward to change the status quo. Both the university and the faculty publishes articles of governance, and they should be held to the standards written by them and for them by us, the tuition payers.

The author is an anonymous former medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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