Sexual Assault of Patients – A Closer Look at the History

Sexual Assault of Patients – A Closer Look at the History

by Beverly Akerman

640px-Electronic_stethoscopeTuesday’s sentencing of anaesthesiologist George Doodnaught–to a decade in jail for sexually assaulting 21 women under his surgical care–should have been good news. But then I read this comment from the presiding judge, Ontario Superior Court Justice David McCombs: “There are no reported Canadian cases in which an anaesthesiologist sexually assaulted sedated patients in an operating room during surgery.”

Wait a minute, I thought. As Columbo might have said, one thing bothered me. With Google doing the legwork I discovered, though the judge was technically correct–there are no reported stories of an anaesthesiologist sexually assaulting his sedated patients—this has happened before, not long ago, and in my home town. It’s the story of the Montreal plastic surgeon who sexually assaulted his anesthetized patients, and was let off the hook by the sad history of sexism.

In April 1995, Quebec’s College of Physicians found Dr. Marc Bissonnette guilty of sexual assaulting a female patient who was under anesthetic on the operating table in his clinic. The assault had been witnessed by her mother and aunt who testified in the criminal trial they had gone to the plastic surgery clinic on July 6, 1993 to take the woman home following a breast implant replacement operation. Finding the door locked, they gazed through the partly shaded window which gave onto the ground-floor operating room. They testified they saw the doctor exposing his penis, then having sex with their unconscious daughter/niece.

Unfortunately, the Quebec Court Judge hearing the criminal case, Pierre Brassard, rejected the mother’s and aunt’s testimony, citing inconsistencies. He opted instead for Dr. Bissonnette’s version: that the patient pursued him and managed to entice him into having sex with her right before her surgery.

Because, you know, preparing to have your breasts carved up is such a turn-on.

Apparently, Judge Brassard said the doctor could hardly be blamed for succumbing to the patient’s wiles, because she was that kind of woman: the kind of woman who testified that she had had sex with a bartender after knowing him for only a few months.

The judge’s comments astounded the women of Montreal, and the case kept on astounding.

Three months later, while making some repairs to his mother’s roof, Bissonnette fell and was partially paralyzed. He was so disgusted with the media by then that he forbade the hospital treating him to comment on his condition.

The College fined Bissonnette $6000 and suspended him from practice for two years.

By March 1996, his paralysis partially remitted, Bissonnette was again conducting surgery full-time, albeit from a wheelchair, this time at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital. “Before he was charged, he had an impeccable record,” said Dr. Pierre Masson, the hospital’s director of professional services.

No use letting one small hitch spoil a perfect record.

The Crown appealed the criminal acquittal and lost. Both the College and the anaesthesiologist appealed the College disciplinary committee’s ruling. As a result, the fine was struck but the suspension extended to five years.

Fortunately (read unfortunately), Marc Bissonnette, like Doodnaught a true serial sexual predator, couldn’t help but continue preying upon those most vulnerable to him: his patients. And so, finally, following complaints in 2002 and 2003, he was banned for life from practicing medicine by Quebec’s College of Physicians in 2010.

Judge Brassard retired from the bench. In 2005, his son Alain, a well-known criminal lawyer, died in a car accident after going through a stop sign, bouncing off an oncoming car, and hitting a tree.

I have a daughter. And I like to think that, within her lifetime, sexual equality will wax as sexism wanes. But that will never happen if we don’t remember—and hold to account—the ones who find it hard to believe the words of those who are assaulted and victimized by sexual predators. And that is so whether the survivors are women or men, boys or girls. And whether the abusers are colonels, university footballers, doctors, pig farmers, or judges.

Unfortunately, those who forget survivor history condemn us to repeat it.

Categories: News, Opinion

About Author

Beverly Akerman

Beverly Akerman’s story collection, ‘The Meaning of Children’ won the David Adams Richards Prize, the Mona Adilman Prize, and made the CBC – Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice Contest Top 10. Credits include Maclean’s, major Canadian newspapers, CBC Radio, myriad literary magazines, scientific journals, and other publications. She’s strangely pleased to believe she’s the only Canadian writer ever to have sequenced her own DNA.

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