Is Getting Sick Like Being Raped?

A patient I saw recently, who has been sick on and off for the past 16 years, spent the better part of the past two years in the hospital, under the knife, and once released, shuttling between doctor’s appointments. At one point she broke down in tears and said, “It was an assault. It was like being raped.”

And I found myself tearing up while silently witnessing the confession she had just made.

Was I Assaulting People?

Hearing this broke my heart. Trained as a gynecologist, I know that what we do can feel like a violation. In the office, we strip off people’s clothes, insert cold foreign objects into their warm vaginas, and sometimes let our fatigue and busy schedules lead us to be more brusque than any healer should be. We forget to call people by name, fail to ask for permission, and walk out before listening for the questions our patients may be too frightened to ask.

In the hospital, it’s even worse. We dress people in modesty-stealing hospital gowns, feed them bad food, and wake them at 4am for blood draws (and stick them again a few hours later when their doctors think of new tests they want drawn after rounds.)  We call them “Room 201” instead of by their names, we expose them to a roomful of people before placing cold stethoscopes on bare breasts, we talk about them in front of them like they’re not there, and then we leave as quickly as we entered.

We strip people of their dignity, dehumanize them into body parts, violate them, and then leave without saying “I’m sorry,” much like someone who commits date rape might.

In more subtle ways, we bare not just people’s bodies, but their souls, without leaving anyone in charge of tending those bared souls. As we suffer from pain, fear what is happening, or even contemplate our own death, we become more vulnerable than we’ve ever been in our lives, and who is there to hold our hand?

My Own Assault

As I alluded to here, I’ve been blessed to only be hospitalized once, when I gave birth by C-section to my daughter. I was an attending physician at the hospital where I gave birth and like any OB/GYN having a baby, I was considered a VIP. Even so, giving birth to my daughter was one of the most dehumanizing experiences of my life. The surgery wasn’t too bad. I trusted my doctor, and my business partner was assisting, so I felt held by two doctors I loved. So while it wasn’t exactly a touchy-feely home birth or even a nurturing midwife drug-free birth, I coped pretty well.

It wasn’t until I was in the recovery room afterwards and started puking my guts out that I started feeling fearful. I had warned them that narcotics throw me through a loop, and they promised me I would be getting only spinal anesthesia. Nobody told me they put morphine in the spinal. The vomiting began – and continued for 12 hours straight until I almost dry-heaved my sutures out.

I asked for Zofran, the nausea drug I knew helped me when I’d been given narcotics before because of a dental procedure. They told me I was given Zofran, but in fact, they gave me Compazine. It made me nearly psychotic.

In the midst of all this, my IV ran dry for hours, until blood was creeping up my IV line and I had stopped making any urine because I was so dehydrated.  I begged them to hang a new bag and bolus me with more fluids. I pleaded for Zofran. Nothing happened.

By midnight, 10 hours after I had given birth, I was so dehydrated that my lips were cracking and, needless to say, there wasn’t much coming out when I tried to breastfeed. Dried out and in severe pain from all the wretching, I called my doctor at home because by this point, I was so dehydrated that I knew I needed at least another liter of fluids, only the nurses weren’t giving it to me. My doctor, in a gesture I’m sure she meant to be helpful, wrote an order that I could order my own drugs and IV fluids. Every hour all night long, the nurse came in to say, “Doctor, what shall I do next?” And I’d bark off the orders.

By morning, I was finally peeing and the nausea had stopped. But I was exhausted, my baby was crying, my husband felt completely helpless. So what did I do? I checked myself out of the hospital and went home. At least there, I could take care of myself in peace.

Healing The Wounds

If this is what happens when a doctor gets hospitalized, it’s no wonder people feel assaulted when they leave the hospital. My patient told me she’s recovering from PTSD because of her hospitalization, and something just feels wrong about that.

As doctors and other health care providers, aren’t we supposed to comfort, nurture and heal, rather than assault, violate, and traumatize? What is wrong with this system?

I know there are wonderful doctors in this world. I know we’re all doing the best we can and navigating our way within a very broken system. Now that I’m out, my goal is not just to bitch about how broken it is, but to be a voice of healing and to start a conversation about how we might begin to mend the wounds the system has inflicted upon not just the patients, but the health care providers who care for them.

Have You Felt Assaulted By The Health Care System?

Does getting hospitalized feel like being raped, or are we just being melodramatic? Do you feel nurtured by the health care system? I know people have stories on both ends – miraculous stories of doctors and nurses who have nurtured them every step of the way and horror stories of what went wrong. As someone from inside the system, I know we’re all doing the best we can. So tell us your stories. What’s working? What’s not? Let’s get this conversation going.

With wishes for healing for us all,


Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.comPink Medicine Revolutionarymotivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.

Learn more about Lissa Rankin here.



Dale Overall

An interesting comparison regarding some of the tragedies in health care and the horrific experience and trauma of rape.

While some are offended at the very idea of comparison there are some experiences while being treated in hospital that have been frightening and just plain awful.

Most people generally experience considered and kind care from health care workers on all levels but there are many experiences that have also been emotionally jarring and damaging.
Any large institution will create experiences that are both good, fair, bad and appalling.

Getting sick is nothing anyone signs up for, we do not fill out a form applying for an illness or desire to being treated in a hospital. Doctors and other health care givers make mistakes or they would not be human. Some mistakes are outright careless and others become the stuff of medical malpractice. Most of us do not go through this but we have to consider that there are times when bad things happen to good people.

Mari gets somewhat melodramatic when she calls for getting this rubbish off Care2. No science and doctors do not have all the answers but there are simply times when patients do experience bad or indifferent treatment and this can lead to death and tragedy. It happens in some cases. That is life. And when negative things happen it can be frightening and in some cases the consequences are terrible for the person or family involved.

Comparing this to rape could be considered over the top but I be

Dale Overall

Adding to my previous comment as Care2 does not have a twitter like word counter telling us when we are coming to our limit of what is being typed, so some of us who like to write a lot have to stagger our comments and add an addition to what I just said below. Maybe later I will count the words and see what the actual word limit it-but it would be helpful if Care2 did the Twitter thing to tell us to start editing our words because the count is running out! So, as I was saying below before getting the edit/chop:

Comparing this to rape could be considered over the top but I believe that point here is that both things happen to people who have not asked for these chain of events to happen.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

so sad. i could see this...

Lika S.
Lika P5 years ago

Well, let's see. I have back pain that is at best, a level 3, and flairs up to a 10 for little reason or rhyme. It's in the muscles that pull hard on my spine, and it spreads outward through the back of my ribcage.

When I get a respiratory infection, my spine feels like it's shattering. This is in my mid to upper back. I had one doctor laugh at me saying I have funny symptoms. Because I have range of motion issues, often, I feel old. A separate nurse practitioner laughed stating that I am "so funny". The one training her was trying to encourage me to try to walk faster AND longer for my exercise. Like she can't hear me when I say I am in severe pain?

Needless to say, not only did I fire them as my caregivers, I complained as well. Anyway, it's been 12 years since I first went to a doctor for my back, and I still have no diagnosis, I still struggle with sleep, and I just know that with unrelated procedures, when I've received IV fluid and liquid antibiotics, the pain diminishes or goes away.

At least my current doctor believes me. He tries, but he doesn't know either.

Susan Robinson
Susan Robinson5 years ago

My dad was hospitalized several times recently for cancer surgeries. Each time, he spent time on various units--ICU, step-down, and critical care. Overall, he received excellent care. There were a few missteps. Our biggest complaint was that no one valued his sleep. Certainly, sleep is one of the biggest contributors to recovery, yet he got very little sleep in the hospital. He was awakened every few hours all day and night to have his vitals checked, and they didn't even do them all at once--sometimes one person would do something and then someone else would come a half hour later to do something else. The nurses would come into the room and talk loudly even if he were snoring. They laughed and talked loudly at their station outside his door all day and night. Beeping machines sometimes were left unattended while they did their "report." Alarms blared when other patients got out of bed. Keeping patient areas quiet and arranging schedules to ensure patients can rest needs to be the next area of focus for hospitals. Librarians learn to whisper; nurses can, too. Surely a patient who is stable could have his vital signs check delayed a half hour if he is sleeping. My dad suffered delirium, also known as sundowning, from the chaos, noise, and lack of sleep. Studies show that hospitals that have decreased the noise and commotion and allowed patients more rest have better patient outcomes and less delirium.

Dee C.
Dee C5 years ago

I think it is absolutely absurd to compare any of this with "rape" It is most sad and unfortunate that anyone ever has a bad experience with doctors/nurses or any hospital staff..but to compare medical procedures with being raped is just wrong..

Michele Wilkinson

Interesting read.
Thank you

Karen Perkins
Karen Perkins5 years ago

I worked in the intensive care unit of a small hospital and while there were some staff members that were brusque and treated patient's as inconveniences, they were a minority. I have seen doctors come through the unit at 6:30 in the morning, again on their lunch break, and one more time in the evening. And then answer the phone at 4 am. And heard patients complain about waiting in their offices because they were sure the doctor was out playing golf. And I know these doctors are lucky if they get a full day off. As a matter of fact, I've seen them come in on their day off. I worked with a lot of doctors I really admired for their dedication. And I have seen nurses get together and wash, trim and style a patient's hair because she had been there so long and was tired of feeling bed-rumpled. I've seen nurses take patients outside on a pretty day - taking the monitors and IV with them because the patient missed being outside. Or wheeling a young man to the window where all his friends were in the parking lot, dancing and whooping it up. I've seen a lot of good, caring health care professionals doing the best they can. But that was in a small acedemic town that served a rural community. The larger hospitals are just so impersonal and people aren't people there - they are cases. So I don't know the solution but I do know there are caring people out there. I've been priveleged to work with quite a few.

Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W5 years ago

For those who DO NOT consider her statement valid -

I'm a four-time rape survivor and a three-time survivor of abusive doctors, I can tell you.
It's extremely similar!
Her comparison is right, dead On!

Lindsay H.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that my mother in law would have died in hospital had it not been for her 3 adult children. Her youngest son worked for the hospital she was admitted to and HE suggested they take turns being with her for 8 hour shifts, giving her 24 hour surveillance – during which careful notes were taken and doctor’s visits logged. During that time a myriad of medical mistakes were noticed and brought to the doctors and nurses attention. Too many to itemiz; often had to nag to get the situation stabilized and John used his influence as an employee. In her mid 80’s she was pretty frail but a fighter; she came through the major surgery OK, but after a month of hospitalization she was not eating much and going downhill fast. So the family decided to take her home to die. As she was being readied to leave we were told that she had contracted a highly contagious infection since being in the hospital, so we would need to wear masks and gloves when tending to her….nice farewell gift. Once home and able to sleep soundly through the night – an essential part of healing not seemingly valued in hospitals – she began to rally. With delicious nourishing food, ‘sun baths’ on her butt to heal the bed sores and plenty of good old fashioned rest she is now a spritely and happy camper once more; and one lucky lady. Time to fix the very sick hospital and medical system. And BRAVO for your guts in writing this article.