LAST_UPDATEMon, 18 Jun 2018 9am

“He Fondled My Breasts Whenever He Placed His Stethoscope On My Chest”

How would you react if your child told you that your family doctor whom you trust with every fibre of your being was inappropriately fondling them?

The world was in an uproar recently when it was discovered that disgraced USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, sexually abused more than 260 girls, including national athletes such as Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and McKaylay Maroney, for more than two decades.

Nassar digitally penetrated and fondled them, and approximately 200 victims shared their statements on how he had groomed and manipulated them under the guise of medical treatment.

Larissa Boyce who told her coach about Nassar’s wrong actions in 1997 was warned to keep silent. “It took so long to get here because people don’t want to believe little girls,” she said.

This made us wonder what if a similar abuse of power by medical practitioners occurred here and patients have kept mum about it.

Stories Of Patients Who Were Victimised

Under the pseudonym, Aliaa, the woman in her 30s recalled that she always felt uncomfortable each time she visited an elderly male General Practitioner (GP) at a private clinic in Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) alone.

“Usually I’d go with my parents as a child, but as I grew older (in my 20s) I started going to the clinic on my own.

“He’d greet me in an extra friendly manner and stared at me in a suggestive manner, also the smirk on his face made me question if he’s genuinely being nice as a doctor,” she shared, wondering if she was overthinking things or being overly conscious.

But her scepticism proved to be appropriate when she lamented that the “he fondled my breasts in an unprofessional manner or held it longer than he should, whenever he placed his stethoscope on my chest,” and on multiple occasions.

“I told my mum that I felt uncomfortable whenever I see him because I felt molested,” the Petaling Jaya-native relayed, in which her mother could only advise her to avoid going to the clinic.

“I find it a bit tricky to lodge a complaint for private clinics because there’s no proper channel aside from conveying it to the owners, which are the doctors that attend to us.

“So aside from wondering if the Ministry of Health (MOH) provides a proper channel for patients like to lodge a report, I’m asking how do patients like myself tell when we’re being sexually abused and how do we speak up?”

Still traumatised by her experience, Aliaa now ensures she goes to the clinic with her husband, and remains mindful of any medical practitioners of the opposite gender attending to her.

Camilla (pseudonym) meanwhile relayed that her rose-tinted glasses were shattered the moment she realised that her physical therapist abused her trust.

“My herniated disks demanded me to seek physical therapy between 2009 and 2012. Although I was initially iffy of being assigned to a male physical therapist, I put my doubts aside as I trusted my employer’s recommendation, since they’re paying for my treatment after all.

“The first few sessions put my doubts to rest, but a year into the treatments, the doctors started asking me really personal questions and would look at me in a suggestive manner,” the 34-year-old sullenly said.

Unfortunately, her discomfort amplified when Camilla noted that the physical therapist often placed his hands on her lower back; under her armpit for support rather than the outside of her arm; and on her thighs and stomach.

And although she tried to convince herself that he was just doing his job, Camilla said that her alarms went off the moment the doctor ‘apologised’ for touching her bum on numerous occasions.

“Once was a mistake; but beyond thrice is intentional in my books. So, I directed my woe to the HR department, and they told me that I was being ‘too conservative’ as the physical therapist came highly recommended by the medical board.

“I felt insulted that they didn’t believe me, and at my then-boyfriend and parent’s advice, I stopped seeing the physical therapist,” the financial analyst stated.

Camilla pointed out the controversial misconduct projected by Nassar is grossly similar in a sense that the higher authorities would much rather dismiss a potential crisis rather than address it promptly.

“The victims are always made to believe that they are in the wrong, as if you’re overthinking, you’re paranoid, you’re being dramatic,” she listed, while stressing that the problem is real.

“The higher authorities should take all complaints seriously, and not let it fall on deaf ears by simply trusting the doctors blindly,” she urged.

Cases Of Sexual Abuse As Recounted By Medical Practitioners

To understand how serious the medical industry takes sexual abuse here, Malaysian Digest spoke with some medical practitioners, who however wish to remain anonymous for this piece.

"Throughout my six years of servitude working as a nurse, I’ve had several female patients sharing that they feel uncomfortable with an elderly GP as he is very promiscuous,” a nurse who works at a private hospital in Damansara professed.

“Initially my colleagues and I would comfort them. But when it got to a point where some patients would deliberately avoid seeing the risqué doctor, we encouraged the patients to write a letter of complaint and submit it to the hospital’s Board of Directors (BOD).”

With over 10 patients forwarding their letters to the BOD, the nurse relayed that the directors called for the GP to be interrogated. The GP was subsequently issued a warning letter which reemphasised the importance of professional conduct that is in-line with the medical guidelines.

“Thankfully the GP heeded the warning and no complaint has been heard since (2015),” she conveyed, applauding the BOD for taking the complaints seriously otherwise it could have jeopardised the hospital’s reputation.

A doctor based in the East Coast, similarly professed that sexual abuse between doctors and patients is prevalent.

“During my housemanship in Kuala Lumpur, my medical supervisor actually warned us to be on our best behaviour as the hospital previously received reports on doctors speaking to patients in a sexually suggestive manner,” he recalled.

“The Medical Officer also mentioned that one of the attending GPs there was put under probation after it was revealed that he had conducted a neck/spine/nerve exam with his hands as opposed to using the proper equipment.”

However, the doctor with nine years of experience communicated that the issue does not only lie with the GP’s failure to use the standardised equipment, but for not asking a female nurse’s assistance to conduct the exam on a female patient.

And although a former Dean of Medicine at a teaching hospital in Kuala Lumpur communicated that sexual abuse between doctors and patients in Malaysia is not as prevalent in the west, he does not deny that it has happened – “Especially when physical examinations and treatments are required, such as physical therapy and general practice.” 

The cardiologist explained, “In Malaysia, the standard operating procedure (SOP) for government clinics and hospitals stipulate that patients below 18 years old should not be left alone with the doctor.

“However, if need to, then a nurse must be present in the same room.”

The Subang-based specialist further elaborated that a female nurse must assist male doctors to conduct physical examinations and treatments on female patients – and vice versa – as the practice is necessary to avoid any sense of discomfort.

But in the event that patients or even parents are unsettled by a doctor’s method or demeanour, the doctor with over four decades of medical experience under his white coat advised Malaysians to speak up.

“It’s imperative for both patients and parents to inform the attending doctors and nurses of how they feel, as some doctors (and even nurses) are overly friendly to a fault,” he sighed.

“Yet should it be to no avail, then I encourage you to direct your complain to the state health department and they will look into the matter prior submitting it to the MOH.”

Be that as it may, the doctor acknowledged that identifying what is deemed as inappropriate can be tricky, but underlined that one should always trust their gut feelings – which he opined are sparked from our knowledge on what is right and wrong.

“Try communicating your concern to your parents, to your peers or a family friend who’s a medical practitioner,” he advised.

“And when the discussion gives sufficient support to your scepticism, try speaking with the doctor about it, under the company of your parent(s), and should there be no changes, then it’s best to lodge a proper complaint.”

As the doctor reiterated that patients should be able to instinctively trust doctors, he emphasised that it is best advised to speak up and ask questions when we are uncomfortable.

In doing so, he relayed that it will give (potential and alleged) perpetrators an impression that the patient is vocal and conscientious.

Sexual Abuse Is Not Only Limited To The Medical Profession

While the world of gymnastics is still recovering from Nassar’s scandal, here at home last year, we were also shocked to learn that a national aquatics coach was charged for raping a 20-year-old national diver.

According to reports, 36-year-old Huang Qiang reportedly raped the athlete on 26 September 2017 at the diving gym of the National Aquatic Sports Complex in Bukit Jalil.

And in light of this incident, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said the ministry had set up a special committee to study the issue of sexual harassment of athletes as well as implement necessary short and long-term measures.

However cases involving sexual abuse is not only limited to the medical and sports field as Malaysian Digest previously collected stories of women hailing from various industries – recounting their horrifying accounts.

On that note, we spoke with an advocate and solicitor named Juliana, who stressed that sexual abuse knows no boundaries as it is not unique to a particular industry, race, religion and gender.

“Sexual abuse has been going on for years in all industries,” she lamented.

“I once handled a case involving a patient who was sexually violated by her gynaecologist who often inserted his fingers up her vagina under the guise of medical procedure.

“In a separate case, my client, who worked in the advertising industry, was repeatedly sexually harassed by her superior, to a point her job was at risk as she refused to accept his (the superior’s) sexual advancements,” she recalled.

Juliana then shared that at this point of time, there is no comprehensive law on sexual harassment in Malaysia, as section 509 of the Penal Code only criminalises the offence of ‘insulting the modesty of a women’, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years.

“In August 1999, the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) introduced a code of practice known as the Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment – but it’s not thoroughly enforced.

“In fact, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) stated that only 400 out of 450,000 registered and active companies have adopted and implemented the code as of August 2010,” the lawyer in her 50s revealed.

Because most cases involving sexual harassment and assault are handled internally, Juliana lamented that most cases are dismissed, despite the fact that the Employment Act 1955 stipulating that it is compulsory for employers to investigate any complaints of sexual harassments.

“I’ve had clients sharing with me that their employers offered to pay for their silence, and even attempted to manipulate them into thinking that they blew things out of proportion,” she unveiled the shocking reality.

“These twisted misconducts are even practiced even after they’ve received a legal letter, which to me indicates how infinitesimal they deem sexual abuse to be.”

However, Juliana offered a ray of hope as she pointed out that the MOHR has proposed an amendment to the Employment Act 1955, which prohibits all forms of workplace discrimination, and she prays that the new amendments will be implemented in the near future.

To overcome sexual abuse, her advice to Malaysians who find themselves in such a predicament, is to seek legal counsel as well as to file a report with the authorities.

“It’s time for women to speak up – regardless if they were sexually abused decades ago – as it will create a snowball effect to show that time’s up for these misogynistic abusers.

“And as for the past and current victims, remember that you’re never alone and to never permit your abusers to silent you.”

If the women in USA gymnastics can bring one sexual abuser down and make him serve 175 years in prison, to other women out there suffering from the same fate, don’t allow your abuser to walk away a free man.

- Malaysian Digest