The collateral damage from Larry Nassar’s crimes reaches far and wide.
The search to uncover Nassar’s enablers exposed institutional barriers that have kept sexual abuse out of public view. Litigation will continue for years. Communities will take as long to heal.
The effect on physicians is less publicized, but also concerning. Some people have conflated his crimes with traditional osteopathic training, which has rightfully angered many DOs. Others worry about the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. What is not considered is the direct impact on some physicians, especially those trained or mentored by him.
Many of us are struggling to process our reactions. Anyone associated with Nassar likely feels embarrassment, anger and betrayal. The scope of his harm comes into focus when you consider the vast network of physicians, therapists, trainers, and coaches who sent athletes to him for over 25 years.
I have worked hard to combat my impulses of guilt and shame, anger and depression. We shared the same mentor in medical school, worked on state concussion legislation, filmed osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) video projects, worked OMT workshops at national conferences, yet I never heard or saw evidence of his vile assaults against children. I asked myself for months, did I miss something? Was it always there?
Reconciling our emotions
After the assistant attorney general read my victim statement at the sentencing, I resolved my conflicts through three realizations.
First, Nassar did not use OMT to abuse his patients. The survivors’ statements all described something entirely different from legitimate medical treatment:
- High number of “treatments” (some “treated” hundreds of times)
- No gloves
- No lubrication
- No chaperone (including medical students or residents)
- No explicit consent
- No explanation
In September 2016, Nassar initially defended himself by saying, “I do not use gloves because I am not penetrating into any orifice,” a statement debunked by over 160 women. He lied because any physician would know his actions weren’t legitimate.
Second, Nassar’s confession made me realize how aggressively he groomed his environment. Consider his status with USA Gymnastics, the numerous lectures across the country, famous Olympians’ pictures plastered on his walls, years of community outreach, his autism charity foundation and his prolific social media presence. This calculated image kept the referrals coming.
Finally, I learned how pervasive sexual abuse is. Since Nassar was first charged, national scandals have erupted across politics, media and the entertainment industry, only scratching the surface of the issue. The national statistics are staggering, according to RAINN’s (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) website:
- Every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted.
- Every 8 minutes, that assault victim is a child.
- Only 6 out of 1,000 perpetrators go to prison.
- 1 out of every 6 American women has experienced an attempted or completed rape.
- About 3% of American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape.
- From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated or found strong evidence that 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse.
- Of victims under 18 years old: 34% of victims of sexual assault/rape are under age 12, 66% are age 12-17.
Resolve to get involved
DOs are needed to help heal our communities. We cannot allow this issue to fade into the night. Here are a few ways to move forward:
- Sexual assault claims must be taken seriously: If authorities had taken action against Nassar in 1997, hundreds of survivors would have been spared. Women and men often decline to press charges because they fear retribution if they aren’t believed. Watch any victim statement and see if any single one seems insincere.
- See something, say something: A common thread through the numerous high-profile sexual abuse cases was how many people told victims “Oh, that’s just Harvey (Weinstein) being Harvey”, “that’s just Charlie (Rose) being Charlie”, “that’s just what Dr. Larry does” to explain the behavior. If you witness borderline unethical behavior, call it out.
- Ask about sexual abuse: Make sure your intake forms have questions about sexual assault. Do not forget about follow-up inquiries with established patients.
- Learn your state: Each state has different statutes of limitation, legal definitions of rape, and age of consent. Visit RAINN’s guide to get information specific to your state.
- Build your network: Get the right professionals in your referral network (psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and social workers) to facilitate treatment for patients. The quicker you can get your patient in, the more likely they are to get help.
Let healing begin
Allow yourself to feel the pain. Avoid denying your feelings, particularly if your reaction is strong. The pain fades with time, but denial makes it linger.
We owe the survivors our effort to confront sexual abuse. We are osteopathic physicians, and our dedication goes far beyond “do no harm.”
As our osteopathic oath articulates, “I will be ever vigilant in aiding in the general welfare of the community, sustaining its laws and institutions, not engaging in those practices which will in any way bring shame or discredit upon myself or my profession.”
Nassar broke our oath. We will pick up the pieces and move forward, so this never happens again.