Maybe five minutes into my first appointment with a veteran Maine physician, he asked, “Did you hear the one about the deaf mute who was raped by seven women?”
His bizarre quip, question, query — whatever it was — rendered me mute, confused, and distraught. My head went into swirl mode and I never heard a word he uttered about my diagnosis.
It wasn’t until he left the examining room that I spoke up and told his female assistant how disturbed I was. She was distraught as well and I could tell from her reaction that it wasn’t the first time she’d witnessed the doctor — her boss — make idiotic, insensitive remarks. She apologized for him and scurried out.
A while later, on a hot July evening, I joined my father in an emergency room where he’d been waiting two hours for a social worker. When she finally appeared, my dad, exasperated and exhausted, told her he didn’t appreciate having to wait so long for her arrival.
“You’re going to have to deal with it!” the social worker snapped at this eighty-four year old.
Again, I was almost rendered silent, but after a moment, I found my voice.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I do not appreciate your tone with my father.”
At that point, the veteran social worker walked out of the room. Moments later, the emergency room physician came into our cubicle and told us the social worker didn’t feel safe with us and had requested security.
Thankfully, the physician believed my father and me when we explained that she’d gone off the rails about 15 seconds into her consult with us. He told us he could call another social worker, but because it was a holiday weekend, it might mean waiting several more hours. My father and I are reasonable people — we agreed to give her another chance.
The social worker returned and she apologized. She explained that she’d been on call, had had a long, hot day, and had gotten trapped in traffic. Plus, she assured us that both her remarks and behavior were uncharacteristic and totally unacceptable. We believed her, we accepted her apology, and we all moved on.
Shortly after my appointment with the “rape joke” doctor, I wrote a letter telling him he’d failed me as a doctor.
“The moment those words shot out of your mouth,” I wrote, “I went into a state of shock. I could not believe that you were making light of sexual assault. Nor could I believe that you were joking about a deaf mute. Clearly this “joke” would not be funny under any circumstance, but given that you’re a physician who is expected to uphold certain ethical standards, and given that you’d known me for about five minutes when you uttered it, your quip demonstrated an alarming lack of sensitivity on multiple levels.”
I added, “Because one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, odds are that every single day in your practice you treat mothers, wives, sisters and daughters who have been subjected to sexual assault or violence. Please think about this the next time you’re tempted to utter a tasteless joke.”
I sent a copy to the doctor’s supervisors. They responded with a letter which validated my dismay and disgust about the situation, and they assured me that the offending doctor would be receiving some specialized sensitivity training.
Days later, as I was driving home, the doctor called. Expecting a lengthy conversation, I pulled over to the side of the road.
“I’m sorry if you were offended by my comments,” he said in a classic non-apology.
And I, in a classic victim-like response, simply answered, “I accept your apology and I appreciate the fact that you called me.”
And that was it.
Except that it wasn’t, because I remain mad at myself for pretending to accept his non-apology.
And I’m still angry with this physician for not having the courage to straight out say, as the social worker did, “I was wrong and I am sorry.”
Thanks to today’s toxic political environment, this has all been bubbling in my head again. The so-called jokes, the insults, the sexual innuendos, the revenge rants — all of it is making me heartsick.
Makes me think that if more of us could find our voices and our platforms, if more of us would quickly and strongly speak out against hateful, ignorant words, and if — when we make mistakes — more of us would step up and simply say, “I was wrong and I am sorry,” maybe we could build a lot more tolerance, civility and respect for one another.