Active with a support group for victims of sexual abuse by health professionals, Linda Herlehy and Sherry Russell were busy healing themselves.
Both were recovering their self-esteem and trust in others after what they describe as traumatic episodes with doctors. Linda’s husband, Jack, was tempering his bitterness.
Then, in 1994, came an inquiry through their support group: Would they become members of a legislative task force on the problem?
Sherry accepted, eager to make a difference. Linda felt emotionally unprepared for the challenge at the time. “They didn’t need one more woman to tell [her] story,” she also reasoned, so Jack joined instead.
Early this year, their labor bore fruit: a report with 54 recommendations. (See accompanying story.)
Panel leaders say the consumer members, as the lay people were known, deserve much credit for their work. “They were the energy that drove the task force,” said Dr. Michael Plaut, the Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist who was chairman.
Jack, who like his wife of 28 years is 49, said he participated to heal emotional wounds, to advocate legal reform, and to help others avoid abusive situations.
“I’ve grown in those two years,” he said. The task force “redirected my anger…. I think I was inwardly blaming my wife.”
In a civil lawsuit filed in 1994, the Glen Burnie couple alleged that from 1987 through 1991, a surgeon who Linda saw for a fractured kneecap made advances, touched her in ways having nothing to do with her medical care and made sexual jokes in her presence. She also alleged that she became addicted to tranquilizers prescribed by a psychiatrist friend of the surgeon’s.
The surgeon denied any wrongdoing, and in January, an Anne Arundel County judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. The Herlehys plan to appeal.
Woodlawn resident Sherry Russell, 43, said she developed a drug problem and depression during a sexual relationship with her psychiatrist, begun when she was 21 and ended at 27.
She sued in 1982, and at a hearing the next year, a Baltimore County judge dismissed the case after the psychiatrist argued that he had been in Italy when he supposedly was served with court papers at his Maryland address.
The psychiatrist has since moved to the Virgin Islands, where he was served in December with a new lawsuit alleging negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He has denied all Sherry’s charges, and argues that the statute of limitations has expired.
While Sherry welcomed the opportunity to join the task force, she initially felt intimidated by other members’ credentials. “I was afraid of my own feelings of inferiority that I didn’t have a degree,” she said. “I had spent my life getting well.”
As she grew comfortable, she grew assertive. She began to enjoy debating and conducting legal research. A colleague suggested she become a lawyer, boosting her confidence.
But the others sometimes failed to understand her, to the point that one night Sherry “laid awake crying in rage and frustration” at her inability to convey her point of view.
The academic side of discussions disturbed her, “like we’re talking about specimens or bugs or something,” she said.
Even so, there was ample attention to the problem’s human side.
Jack Herlehy said victims’ testimony gave him an intimate glimpse of fear and pain. He was “amazed” at the similarity of the “psychological manipulations” in each story, but saddened by how few women came forward.
He found that many doctors believe “it’s the patient’s fault, the patient consented to it.”
But the inherent imbalance of power between a health provider and a patient renders a truly consensual relationship impossible, experts say.
Patients “willingly lower [their] defenses in a way we don’t normally in everyday social relationships,” said Cathy Nugent, the panel’s vice chairman, who has conducted workshops on the problem. “There is tremendous potential for very subtle forms of coercion and undue pressure.”
Severe depression, eating disorders, panic attacks and extreme anxiety are common effects, Nugent said.
Maryland licensing boards referred just 104 cases to prosecutors in the last five years. But that number is probably underrepresentative. In 1992, the Western Journal of Medicine suggested that thousands of cases go unreported. Surveys show up to 10 percent of psychotherapists and nine percent of non- psychiatrist physicians nationwide have engaged a patient sexually.
Linda Herlehy compared doctor sexual abuse to incest.
“Not to minimize it, but a woman who is raped doesn’t know the person,” she said. “If I had to pick between the two, I would prefer to be raped.”
Both Linda and Sherry acknowledge the skepticism about women’s paralysis in the face of abuse, but respond that walking away is incredibly difficult.
The effects are lasting, they said.
Sherry was “terrified of committing to a hug” with the female therapist she saw after her trauma.
The Herlehys are “still struggling with it as a family,” Jack said. “I’m past the anger, but I’m disappointed with the system.” Added Linda, “I don’t know if you ever really recover.” -30-