It has been challenging to write this.
I can blame the usual nonstop pace of worklife and homelife, the slow creep of procrastination into my go-get-em attitude towards tasks, and sure, let’s throw in writer’s block for good measure.
But words have always been a source of joy, whether reading someone else’s careful construction or cobbling together my own very amateur poems and stories. I have read armloads of women-driven essays and criticism in the last few months, and I could have written a peer-reviewed journal article (or two) in the time that I have been mulling over this piece.
Maybe the thought that I could write this was germinated back in October, when those amazing reporters started a nationwide conversation with the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s unforgivable actions. Or maybe it was even the October before that, when the horrifying words of the man who now presides as our commander in chief were broadcast to an already polarized electorate.
I have sat down in front of my computer keyboard a hundred times, trying to figure which words to use, clicking and deleting them all. I have inked a thousand lines in my journal, but I never returned to them.
A few short months ago, as it seemed actress after actress was coming out with their own individual yet hellishly similar tales of harassment and assault, some recent and some going back decades, the topic came up in conversation: why now?
The question was not intended to be malicious or insensitive, but was a demonstration of simple agnosticism from someone whose sex, gender, orientation, and social stratum have not placed them on the defensive side of these all-too-common situations.
Because people are finally willing to listen.
So many of us have #MeToo stories to share; so many of us are still not able to share them. It is not a problem isolated to Hollywood or Washington. If you investigated any male-dominated field, like surgery has traditionally been, you would uncover more.
I was inappropriately touched when I was a trainee in surgery.
I don’t remember if I told anyone at the time - not my boyfriend, not my family, not my best friends. Definitely not my chief resident or anyone involved in hospital administration. I may have said something to my co-intern, out of my remaining shreds of personal responsibility; it was the last month of the grueling first year of our training, and I left poor Justin bearing the bulk of the scut on a brutally busy service.
What could I have said? Who could I have told? I was a 24 year old surgical intern from the middle of nowhere, recently arrived at this prestigious institution, and what good could possibly come from me saying something about a bigshot attending of a revered surgical department? I was afraid of getting in trouble, so I did nothing.
You’re a surgical intern. You put your head down, check your boxes, and get the work done. Sleep is for suckers. You don’t want to be that guy, and they are mostly guys.
You’re a woman in surgery. You have so much more to prove than the men, because it is still very much a boys’ club, even in the 21st century. Show no weakness, there will be no complaining, and definitely no crying in public.
I did nothing. I hid in the call rooms, disappeared to different wings of the hospital far from where this particular surgeon would be, did everything to avoid going to the OR.
And it was noticed. At my yearly performance review, I read my evaluation from the chair of that department, which told me that I “was the worst intern they have ever had”. Now my heart started racing and my hands got even clammier - I had worked so hard to make it here, and I was afraid that I would be fired.
My program director noticed my panic, and I’m sure the tears rolling down my cheeks gave me away. He reassured me - this one evaluation was starkly different from all of the others, and he was not concerned. Box checked, and we moved on with my review.
Maybe the right follow up question at that moment in the meeting would have been to ask why that particular rotation was so different for me. Maybe I would have been able to tell him what had happened, why that month I was suddenly uninterested in surgery. Maybe I would have remained silent, as this situation was not so dissimilar from the other - a young woman all too aware of the crushing power differential in the room, in familiarly close proximity to a man who could make or break her surgical career.
So why now?
That has been part of my hesitation. I have struggled with the decision to write about this. It was so long ago. It seems so inconsequential, especially after reading and hearing about so many others’ accounts of being harassed, assaulted, and raped. So many others have come forward with their own stories, written with more fire and grace than I ever could, and what would be the value of adding one more to the crush?
I believe there is value to each of our stories. Because this is the tragedy, that there are so many stories. I must believe that if we speak out and continue this conversation, change will happen. I have not thought much about that month of my life in so long. I now feel guilty, wondering if that senior surgeon continued to abuse other young women in his path, because I did nothing at the time. I like to think that if something like that were to happen to me today, my reaction and action would be starkly different.
Over a decade and a half have passed. I am in a different place in life and career now. I feel free to speak, and I have, and I will.
By Dr. Angeline Lim of Duet Plastic Surgery - Expert Plastic Surgeons
Angeline Lim, M.D. and Jennifer Weintraub, M.D. are the board-certified plastic surgeons of Duet Plastic Surgery, an all-women boutique-style practice in Palo Alto, California. When not guiding her patients through their health and beauty journeys in the operating room, Dr. Lim remains committed to raising her young boys as feminists too.