By Vanessa Galli, MD
Nearly one in five women have reported experiencing rape in their lifetime according to the most recent data from the CDC. Statistics never mean as much to the reader as an “n of one” or a personal testimony. I myself am the one in five, a survivor of rape. That is not the point of this article, but rather serves as a context for a larger conversation.
I bring this all up at the beginning of this article because it shouldn’t be any different than talking about any other part of one’s life story. The shame and the embarrassment that these events are shrouded in stops us from having open conversations and prevents survivors from seeking the help that they need. I also bring this up to challenge your stereotypes about rape trauma survivors and for any of you reading this who share my experience to remind you that you are not alone in this journey. One in five means that many of you reading this unfortunately share this part of my life’s story.
Sexual assault can come in so many forms, both big and small. I have always been aware of gender biases in conversation, although have become increasingly aware of these throughout medical training. Each time I was called “Sweetie”, “Honey”, and “Angel” and told that I “looked like a Barbie Doll” by patients, it became harder to just shake it off and walk away. I attempted gentle correction, changing the subject and removing myself from the conversation. I never found a “good” solution and was left feeling guilty on some level. I found myself asking the question, “What did I do to bring this on?” I was experiencing some form of survivor’s guilt.
I also began see how often we do this to one another in the work environment. I began to notice that my female colleagues are frequently addressed collectively as “ladies” or automatically by their first name in conversation, while their male colleague sitting next to them may be addressed in the same breath as doctor. In the hospital setting, I have overheard staff complementing male providers for their “bluntness” and female providers with a similar communication style accused of being “harsh and unapproachable.” We live in a world of micro-assaults that are committed innocently in the work place every day.
So what exactly do we do about this? I do not believe in being overlying politically correct as that doesn’t further the conversation and leads only to frustration and tip-toeing around the true issues at hand. I believe in being direct and open in communication, a style that was born from my Northeast roots. So on that note, I challenge each person reading this to question your own preconceived notions and stereotypes. We are in a line of work that relies on solid skills in pattern recognition and judgement, although sometimes we need to leave that judgement at the door. We need to have open conversations with each other. We need to feel comfortable and safe correcting one another, whether it be a patient or a co-worker. Only then, will we create a work environment and a patient care environment that is safe for everyone.
Vanessa Galli, MD is a Chief Resident in the Family Medicine Residency Program in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.