Is it Medicine’s #MeToo or #TimesUp Moment Yet?

Reading time: 4:00 min

This is a personal reflection submitted by Dr. Karen Breeck, past president of the FMWC. We applaud her courage in coming forward and sharing her experiences with us. It's the speaking out of those who feel they can that draws attention to the issue and provides an example of strength and courage for others to follow as well as speak for those who feel they can't. The issues addressed by the #MeToo movement may be triggering to some. This blog post continues that conversation.

As story after story hits, flooding social media, trickling into our water cooler conversations, I wonder how many physicians have experienced a forced pause to reflect on their own #MeToo experiences? I know I have.

I graduated in 1990. As a woman in medicine of that generation, I do mean a “forced pause.” This isn’t voluntary. This isn’t my choosing of time or place to open up my pandora’s box of unwanted lived experiences. I prided myself on compartmentalizing that box from the rest of my life. However, the omnipresent #MeToo coverage has been like a tsunami. Pounding wave after wave until it cracks through that so carefully sealed set of memories.

Triggers. Flashbacks. Self- judgement. Confusion. Anger. They all start to flow together as uninvited guests inside my head and heart. My instinctual reaction to those re-surfacing fragmented traumatic experiences, is to push them all back, as quick as possible, into the box from where they are now oozing out. My inner voice screaming out “Nothing to see here folks, keep moving along…”

Despite my best efforts at containment, the memories continue to flow out. Yesterday’s experiences viewed from today’s new social norms confuse me even more. Which of these memories are really “bad enough” to even count as #MeToo stories? It was all just “how it was” back then. I’m surprised to notice that even now, my first thought is one of self-judgement - “shouldn’t I have known better?”.

I should have known to not get in that elevator alone with him.

I should have known to never go into empty stairwells with him.

I should have known to refuse the shift trade request knowing he’d be my staff person on call that night as I slept in the call room near his.

The whisper community had warned of him, I just hadn’t believed it.

I hadn’t thought it would ever happen to me.

So, when it did happen, I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know how to react. To the outside world he was a happily married church going family man. At work, he was a dedicated physician put on a pedestal, so as to be closer to “God”. Patients loved him. Other staff men spoke highly of him. And he was the one signing off my rotation performance evaluation.

Medicine was my entire world then. I lived, breathe, and slept medicine. And in that skewed vision of what the world was, I saw no way anyone was going to believe my word over his. He had all the power. So I took my anger at the situation and pointed it in the only direction socially and professionally acceptable at that time... inwards. I decided that somehow this just had to be my own fault. After all, “Why didn’t I take more precautions to guard against him?”

I look back now at these memories and feelings of self-criticism and can see much more clearly. I see him for what he was. A predator. I wasn’t the first or the last he took advantage of. But when you are just trying to survive your 100-hour work weeks, Maslow’s scale of hierarchy is just that. Survival. It was easier to take these experiences and store them away in a pandora’s box never meant to see the light of day. Over the years, there were many more situations and times that the box was opened, but always to stick more experiences in. And never let them out. Until now. When the world tells you - #TimesUp.

I know things have changed a lot for the better in the years that have since passed. There is less overt and covert sexualization of women now then when I started in medicine.  Less sexualized degrading jokes in the OR. Less comments and innuendos about a women’s smile and looks (instead of about her brains and professional capabilities). Less “career chats” from well-meaning staff men that we, as woman, really shouldn’t consider surgical specialties if we wanted kids. “You won’t be able to do the call schedules and you will therefore be nothing more then a burden to the rest of us” as if childrearing was a 100% female responsibility to bare alone. Less orthopods can get away today with throwing their surgical trays at just the female medical students. Less surgeons can get away today with yelling at us for cutting the suture too long (or too short) while concurrently rubbing up against us through our gowns as we were forced to stand so close beside them. Less anesthesiologists today would have bystander ambivalence and say nothing as they watched it all happening in front of them. In many ways, it is very clear today that #TimesUp.

#TimesUp – for abuse of power in our workplaces (and homes).

#TimesUp – for predators that hunt out naïve prey.

#TimesUp – for the enablers that stay quiet about the known predators.

#TimesUp – for my voice to be silent. It did happen to #MeToo.

#TimesUp – for women that judge or don’t believe other women.

#TimesUp – for thinking this is only a “women’s issue”. It happens to men too.

What if the medical community at large agreed #TimesUp?

What if we all took the #MeToo movement as an opportunity to pause and reflect: How can we make it a better experience to be in medicine for ALL people – students and staff, male and female, young and old?

If now isn’t the right time to start having this conversation, when is?

Dr. Karen Breeck
Past President, FMWC