I Learned to Buy My Scrubs Smaller, So Doctors Would Stop Looking Down My Shirt
I've been a scrub tech for almost 10 years, which is a really female-dominated profession. All of my peers are women, but the department chairs, the surgeons, and the people we work closely with day-to-day are mostly men. Being a scrub tech, the colloquial term for surgical technologist, means that I work in the operating room alongside surgeons. I handle the instruments, ensure safety precautions are followed, and anticipate surgeons’ needs and next moves by having knowledge of hundreds of medical procedures.
In my very first job, I was in a small hospital. One of the doctors was really friendly with me. I was young and naive and didn’t know or even think to question why that might’ve been.
One day after a case, I walked into the pathology room, which is where specimens like blood samples are dropped off to be examined for disease. The room was not much bigger than a large closet. There were people right outside at the desk, and others waiting in the operating room next door. As I was setting down the samples I brought in, I heard the door close behind me, and there he was.
People come in and out of this room all the time, and it's not normal to shut the door to simply drop something off and be on your way. I immediately thought something was up, and I froze.
I started to put two and two together and realize what it meant for this doctor to be extra friendly, and a sense of terror came over me. The fight or flight reflex kicked in — but it was was all fright. I asked him to open the door. I had no idea what his plan was.
That is when he pinned me up against the wall. I had never been in a situation like that, and my immediate reaction was to scream and cry as loud as I could. I said “you are scaring me please stop!" I guess I was loud enough that he thought the people outside would hear, and he just slammed the door and left. I'm so grateful that was as far as it went.
After that, he was immediately cold and rude to me. He never spoke to me directly again, though we continued working in the same place. It seemed like he wanted me to know that he was not affected or bothered by me being in his presence, and that the situation did not faze him at all. The times that I did have to do a case with him, he would go out of his way to talk to everyone in the room except for me. I would get a lump in my throat, hoping I wouldn’t have to stay long or by myself. I was also afraid he would make something up to get me in trouble or get me fired.
What is sad is even retelling this story, I remember the overwhelming fear of losing my job. Even though I knew I had done nothing wrong, I felt that he had the power to twist the situation so that I would be the one who was disciplined. The thought that I could lose a job over a situation I did not want, I did not ask for, and I did not put myself in was absolutely awful.
My second thought was that he would hurt me. I didn't want to imagine what kind of retaliation he'd think up if I told.
But ultimately I did end up telling my supervisor — who said they couldn't do much because the doctor in question was a chief. All they could do was try to keep me off of his his cases, but that didn't mean they were willing to overhaul the whole schedule. So they couldn't guarantee we wouldn't end up working together if we were on call on the same day.
This just meant I hated being on call, or in any situation with him. I was stressed about ruffling feathers, or having the other women who worked there think I was lying. I had no idea if he had done the same kind of thing to any of them; no one talked about it if so. I basically kept my head down, didn't call any attention to myself, and I did not stay there long.
After years of being a scrub tech I have learned to read men better now, because this doctor was not one of a kind. I know when to stop people who are borderline too friendly and when to be sure to turn things professional. I know how to dress so a scrub top isn’t loose and they can’t see down my shirt. I wear a tank top or shirt underneath so that if a top is loose on me, and will gap when I bend down while working, you can’t see anything. It feels ridiculous to consider that possibility while getting dressed for work, but little things like that can prevent someone from commenting, or staring.
Even though I've had to change and adapt my behavior over the years to get by in this field, I know I couldn't have done anything differently in that one situation at my first job. I hope the young techs coming up behind me don't have to learn these lessons the same way I did.
This essay is a part of our exclusive coverage of Time's Up Healthcare, which launches March 1. Read more, here.