Photos by Ryon Horne / AJC

Hurt that doesn’t heal

In their own words: Six women. Six stories of pain.

It’s the last thing patients expect to happen.

Doctors are supposed to touch during an exam, but not fondle. Psychiatrists should listen to a patient’s darkest secrets, but never parlay the intimacy into a kiss. Anesthesiologists put patients under for surgery, but shouldn’t have their way with them.

When physicians barge through the sacred boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship, the damage to patients can last for years – if not forever.

It’s the sensitivity and confidentiality of a doctor’s visit, combined with the deference paid to people who work in white coats, that can leave a patient so confused and harmed when a physician abuses instead of heals, experts say.

Just think about the dynamic during a therapy session with a psychiatrist or the most intimate exams for a medical problem.

“In the patient’s mind, I’m trusting this person. I’m telling this person things I have not and would not tell anybody else – or almost anybody else,” said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law at Columbia University. “I’m therefore really putting myself in a vulnerable position, but I know I can do this because this is a person of trust and authority.”

Frequently, patients who are abused start to avoid doctors altogether. Some resort to seeing only female doctors. Many can’t get help because they can’t get comfortable with a therapist.

Some have trouble with other close relationships: If a doctor betrayed them, is anyone trustworthy?

Patients tend to blame themselves instead of the perpetrator or obsess over whether they could have stopped it.

Making matters worse, victims often aren’t believed if they do report a doctor, or the complaint is brushed off to preserve the physician’s career.

That response, some experts say, can be as damaging as the sexual violation.

“First there’s the betrayal by the actual predator himself. Then there is the betrayal by the colleagues and supervisors,” said David Clohessy, the executive director of SNAP, a support and advocacy organization for people sexually abused by clergy, doctors, therapists and others. “You’ve got people who are deeply wounded in the first place by a predator, and they turn to the appropriate officials for help and they get ignored at best or rebuffed and attacked at worst.”

Many patients keep silent for fear they won’t be believed. That’s one reason no one knows the pervasiveness of physician sexual misconduct. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution usually does not identify those who report sexual abuse, but the half dozen named below agreed to give voice to the harm they say doctors inflicted.

These are their stories, in their own words.

Maria Zito

In October, Dr. Raja Jagtiani pleaded guilty to one count of criminal sexual contact after eight women — patients and employees — accused him of touching them improperly. The New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners revoked his license, but its order allows him to reapply in 10 years. Maria Zito says that when she went to Jagtiani with severe neck pain, he took her breasts from her sports bra and aggressively groped them. Zito, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder even before her visit to Jagtiani, is expected to read a victim impact statement in court on Dec. 23, when he is to be sentenced.

Ryon Horne / AJC

Doctors & Sex Abuse: ‘I trusted you’ | A national investigation

I am a domestic violence survivor, so I have a lot of PTSD. I’m trying to be healthy and normal, and he doesn’t realize what damage he’s done again to me. I’m like a freak show. I function every day, but it’s very difficult.

When he did this to me, I was waking up at night sweating and seeing his disgusting face. And I consider myself to be a strong person, I’ve been through a lot. I built myself up from so much. So to have somebody tear you down again, it kills you inside.

I couldn’t focus. I run my own cleaning business — literally, I almost lost it. I was home schooling my daughter, and I did no work with her.

I’ve had people say to me, “Why didn’t you push him off? How could you let him do that?” I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. When you’re in the position, you can’t even believe it’s happening. Plus, I could barely even move. And I was half naked.’

“You have to speak out... We can’t let them think that they can get away with this.”

I said, ‘Is it because he’s a doctor they don’t believe me?’

I used to drive past there and still see him in practice and still see his sign up, and I said, by the time I’m done with him, I’m going to make sure that the sign is down and he’s gone. And that’s exactly what I got.

It’s been a couple months now. The sign’s down, and he is out of there. I wanted to kiss the building. It was joyous. I did a happy dance in my car.

You have to speak out. You can’t take this. Because they’re doctors we can’t let them think that they can get away with this.

It felt so great in court. My shining moment was him standing there, saying he did it for sexual gratification. I got my power back. People know that something really did happen, and he’s a liar — not me.

Pauline Trumpi Evans

Pauline Trumpi Evans was 24 and living in Wisconsin in 1963 when she told her psychiatrist of several months that she no longer needed treatment for social anxiety. She told authorities that during her final visit, he offered her a drug, ostensibly to assist her therapy session. Instead, she said, it knocked her out, and he then raped her. She says she became pregnant as a result. She went to police but says he was not charged after he agreed to give up his license. Then, five weeks later, he got it back, according to Medical Board minutes. She requested the minutes after hearing the news secondhand and provided them to the AJC. The state says it has none of the board’s records prior to 1976. The psychiatrist died in 1994. Evans wrote three books stemming from the experience and its aftermath, referring to the psychiatrist only as Dr. K.

Ryon Horne/AJC

Doctors & Sex Abuse: ‘I carried extreme anger all those years’ | A national investigation

I did carry my baby to term and gave him up for adoption. That was the most horrendous thing in my life.

It just made me so angry. Anger and a sense of great injustice. He had done what he’d done and gotten away with it. And laughed. And went on as if nothing had happened. And I had to deal with that every day of my life.

They say anger turned in is depression. Because I wasn’t going to take it out on my children – I think it came out as displaced anger on (other) family members.

You’re supposed to be a survivor and heal and find closure. And that sounds all good. To some extent, there has been some. But I am now an old lady. And I’m at the stage when I look back on my life, and I realize how my life could have been way different if that hadn’t happened.

I wouldn’t have been angry all those years.

“It just made me so angry… He had done what he’d done and gotten away with it. And laughed.”

I think I had a lot of energy. I think I had a pretty good degree of intelligence. I had a lot of stick-to-itiveness. Determination. I think it could have changed the course of my life as far as devoting this energy and intelligence to something else other than trying to deal with this trauma. So, no, there would not have been books written. But I think that energy would have gone to something else, possibly helping other people more, instead of dealing with my own grief and loss and trauma.

I feel that I’ve done the best I could under the circumstances. I try to look at the fact that I did survive. I never had to be hospitalized or anything. I think some people it would have done in. I do look on myself as a survivor in some ways.

Yolanda Moore

Dr. Gopal Basisht was accused by the Florida Department of Health of improperly touching the vaginas of two patients and making sexually suggestive comments. This spring, he voluntarily relinquished his medical license to avoid further administrative action and promised he will never reapply. So far, six patients have filed suit. Yolanda Moore, 47, said she sued after hearing that the rheumatologist had suddenly “retired.” Her suit alleges that he had groped her breasts and genitals, over two visits. Basisht’s attorney Geoff Ringer said Basisht denies wrongdoing and will fight the lawsuit, and a jury should hear the evidence. He said Basisht gave up his license because he was near retirement and didn’t want to fight the board.

Ryon Horne/AJC

Doctors & Sex Abuse: ‘You really hurt me’ | A national investigation

The second incident, the only reason why I came in is, I was having pain in my hip area. It was to the point where it sort of felt like my hip was locking up on me, and I couldn’t walk. So I came in.

I think that, in his mind, as long as you kept your mouth closed it meant that you accepted it. That you participated.

It took me six months to physically go to another doctor. I went to the hospital (instead). They knew I needed to see a specialist. But why would you want to see a specialist when people are doing things like that?

It caused me not to trust anybody.

“We trusted him that he had our best interest at heart. The best interest was his sexual gratification.”

The hardest part? In your mind, trying to block it. Trying to bury it. Trying not to think of it.

The pain that’s been caused to us, there’s nothing that they can do that would be able to put us back to a place where we want to be and where we feel safe. No gun, no other person, no nothing can ever make us feel safe. What I lost, can’t nobody give back to me.

We trusted him as patients. We trusted him that he had our best interest at heart. The best interest was his sexual gratification.

It’s something that impacts all your life.

You just don’t know. It affects your work. I worked at a call center. Sometimes, you get angry just thinking about what the person did to you. Sometimes, your demeanor gets strange and when a customer calls you and that customer’s angry, too, the anger comes out. It’s not that you’re mad, it’s just that you’re dealing with some things that you don’t know how to – you’re crying out, basically. And you really don’t know how to tell anybody, this was what happened to me. This is what’s going on in my life.

Yvonne Vazquez

Illinois in 2014 temporarily suspended the license of Dr. Charles Dehaan for sexually inappropriate conduct with multiple patients.He faces accusations in civil and criminal court of using his home health service to abuse elderly and bedridden patients. In a separate case,this past May he pleaded guilty to defrauding Medicare. Sentencing for that is pending. His attorney, Debra Schafer, did not respond to messages from the AJC but has challenged the accusers’ accounts in court. Yvonne Vazquez, 59, has filed suit against him, claiming he pulled her shirt up and felt her breast while using a stethoscope. When she resisted, she says, he leaned back and briefly mastubated while smiling at her.

Ryon Horne/AJC

Doctors & Sex Abuse: ‘I’m a good survivor’ | A national investigation

I told my daughter, and she laughed — “Come on mom.” I was like, ‘OK, maybe it was a mistake.’

The thing is, this impacted my life probably in a different way than others. When I was younger, I was molested. It took years to put that skeleton in the closet, and I never wanted it to come out again.

When I first went to a lawyer, I broke down.

I’m sitting here thinking, nobody’s going to believe me, just like before.

“Somehow I survived it. I’m a survivor.”

When it got in the open and my friends started finding out, they’re like, “Why didn’t you tell?” Who was I going to tell? I told my own kids, and they laughed about it. My daughter was, I want to say, 16 at the time. She called me because she was in Houston. She says, “Mom, I’m so sorry because I laughed at you about Dr. Dehaan. I thought you were just kidding, and I didn’t believe you.”

It’s just, I don’t know. You say something, and you don’t know if you said enough. And then you don’t know if you really want to talk to anybody.

If he did that to my daughter? He wouldn’t be alive. I’m being honest. He wouldn’t be alive. Because of what I went through, I swore nobody would ever touch my daughters in that way.

I didn’t think, at my age, anything would ever happen again.

I went through depression. I’ve always figured out a way to figure out my problems, whether it was my depression, whether it was figuring out how I’m going to pay my rent the next month. Somehow I survived it. I’m a survivor.

Melitta Johnson, sister of Elgin Stafford

Dr. Robert Kevess in 2015 pleaded no contest to five felony counts for sexual contact with male patients at a University of California clinic. Elgin Stafford was among the students who accused Kevess, but Stafford died before the criminal case was resolved. As he faced the possibility of seeing Kevess in court, the 23-year-old disappeared and was found floating in a waterway. His parents sued Kevess and the university, alleging that psychological trauma from molestation led to Stafford’s death. The lawsuit was settled out of court. The terms are confidential. Kevess’ attorney, Robert Beles, says all contact between Kevess and the patients was consensual, and any suggestion of a link between Kevess’ conduct and Stafford’s death is “scurrilous and false.” Kevess is on probation in the criminal case.The judge rejected prosecutors’ recommendation that he be ordered to register as a sex offender and serve more than a year in jail, citing an evaluation indicating that a medication Kevess took may have caused him to be hypersexual. His medical license has been revoked.

Ryon Horne/AJC

Doctors & Sex Abuse: ‘It affected so many people’ | A national investigation

I don’t know if my brother’s death was due to a suicide. But Dr. Kevess’ actions – Mr. Kevess’ actions – led to Elgin’s death.

He was extremely disturbed by what happened. This is already in addition to him having some mental health challenges at the time. He really just wanted to find medications that worked for him. But what happened with him and that physician replayed in his head all day every day.

“What it did to our family – essentially just tore it apart. Ripped it to shreds.”

It was shameful. It was very embarrassing. He was like, “I can’t believe this could happen to me. Why did I just sit there and let it happen?” He felt like he was having an out-of-body experience. And he didn’t know what to do.

He was going through something, and he needed help. That doctor, he attacked him at his lowest point. And then the judge allowed him to get away with it.

Handout

Melitta says she and her brother Elgin were very close.

To think somebody could suck the life out of another person. In just a moment. Completely opposite of what they were charged to do in life.

What it did to our family – essentially just tore it apart. Ripped it to shreds. Right now, we are in the process of rebuilding what was taken from us.

LaToya “Koco” Davis

In 2009, Johns Creek physician Narendra K. Gupta was arrested and later indicted for felony aggravated sexual battery of a female patient and misdemeanor sexual battery of two other patients. In a 2011 plea bargain that allowed him to avoid a prison sentence, Gupta admitted to three counts of misdemeanor sexual battery. One count involved LaToya “Koco” Davis. She was seeing him about her hypertension. During that visit, she says, he groped her breasts. She sued Gupta for sexual battery and won a $251,000 civil judgment, which she says she cannot collect since he moved back to India. In a telephone interview with the AJC, he said a disgruntled employee incited several women to make complaints against him.

Ryon Horne/AJC

Doctors & Sex Abuse: ‘He definitely did damage’ | A national investigation

Still to this day, my physicians are women. I don’t trust a man. I don’t know how, as far as a male physician.

Besides going to my doctors for my pregnancies, afterwards it took me about two years before I went back to a doctor. I didn’t trust anybody. I felt like, honestly, I let my guard down, because I’m the one that found him. I just let myself down, and I didn’t trust my judgment anymore.

I’m not from here. At that time, I was working with nothing but men in a male industry. I couldn’t go to them and say, “Hey, who’s the best doctor to go to for women’s health?” So I had to rely and trust my judgment and trust my research.

When I was doing the research on him, nothing else popped up on him. He’s got a five-star rating, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, this is perfect.’ That’s what most people in my case would do, look at the reviews. But you don’t think to Google Narendra K. Gupta, sex cases. Or lawsuits. You don’t think to do that.

Honestly, even after him groping my breasts, some part of me still wanted to give him another chance. It was still like, ‘OK, no, Koco, you’re tripping. He did not just do that.’ Even though you just slapped his hands, because you did not feel comfortable, you still wanted to give him another chance because this is your doctor. He can help save your life.

“I just let myself down, and I didn’t trust my judgment anymore.”

It will literally mess your head up. It will make you second question yourself on everything you do. Every decision that you make going forward. Still to this day, I kind of second question myself, on a lot of things.

It wasn’t consensual. It wasn’t anything intimate. It was more of a pleasurable moment for him. I’m there basically in a room helpless, by myself, taken advantage of. And I felt that he used his knowledge and his power to do that.

(Editor’s note: These accounts were condensed from interviews with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They have been edited for clarity and length.)