Patient secretly recorded doctors as they operated on her. Should she be so distressed by what she heard?

By Yanan Wang

Ethel Easter didn't trust her surgeon. Photo / Supplied
Ethel Easter didn't trust her surgeon. Photo / Supplied

Last summer, Ethel Easter wanted nothing more than to see a doctor. A hiatal hernia had caused her to suffer more than a hundred abdominal attacks within 24 hours, her stomach was bruised, and she found blood in her urine. The pain was excruciating, so Easter prayed that a surgery could be scheduled as soon as possible.

The doctor who would be operating on her at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston did not share her urgency.

He told the 44-year-old Easter that she would have to wait two months, and Easter burst into tears.

"I can't do this for two months," she cried. "I can't do this anymore."

"Well, who do you think you are?" Easter recalled the doctor abruptly yelling back at her. "You're gonna wait like everybody else."

Shaken, Easter later went to see her family doctor, who told her that the surgeon had taken notes on their meeting and raised "red flags" about her attitude - "as if I was the problem," Easter said in a phone interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday.

The Harris Health System, to which Easter's hospital belongs, said in an email statement that confidentiality laws prevented it from commenting on specific cases without the patient's "written authorization."

From the start, Easter was troubled that she didn't trust her own surgeon, but she was in too much pain to cancel the operation. Then she had an idea: She would go through with the surgery - it was ultimately scheduled about a month later, for August - but she would sneak a recorder into the operating room so that her family could know what happened to her in case things went wrong. She had a "bad feeling," after all.

The audio recorder was the size of a USB drive. At the time, Easter had braided extensions in her hair. When she was changing into her hospital gown, she put her hair up in a ponytail and stuck the recorder inside.

"I was fearful," Easter said. "I didn't know if I was going to come out of the surgery, so I just wanted my family to know if something went on."

The surreptitious recording, parts of which she shared with The Post, became the most traumatic part of the experience.

It began with the surgeon asking Easter about what happens to her when she takes penicillin. "When I was a baby, they said I swelled up," Easter can be heard responding in the recording.

An anesthesiologist then arrived, and Easter grew silent as she was instructed to just "keep breathing. You're doing perfect."

After Easter was sedated, the surgeon recounted their dispute to the other doctors. "She's a handful," he said in the recording. "She had some choice words for us in the clinic when we didn't book her case in two weeks."

"She said, 'I'm going to call a lawyer and file a complaint,'" he recalled with a laugh. (Easter said she never mentioned a lawyer.)

"That doesn't seem like the thing to say to the person who's going to do your surgery," another male voice retorted.

The comments afterward became personal. The surgeon and the anesthesiologist repeatedly referred to her belly button in jest. "Did you see her belly button?" one doctor said, followed by peals of laughter.

At another point in the procedure, the anesthesiologist appeared to refer to Easter as "always the queen," to which the surgeon responded, "I feel sorry for her husband."

The surgeon also used the name "Precious" several times in a manner that Easter interpreted as racial.

"Precious, yes, this is Precious over here, saying hi to Precious over there," he can be heard saying in the recording, though it is unclear whom he is addressing. Moments later, he asked: "What do her eyes look like? You know the eyes are the windows to the soul."

After the doctors concurred that there had been many "teaching moments" that day, the anesthesiologist asked, "Do you want me to touch her?"

"I can touch her," the surgeon is heard saying.

"That's a Bill Cosby suggestion," someone interjected. "Everybody's got things on phones these days. Everybody's got a camera."

"Do you have photos?" the surgeon asked a couple times. "[indiscernible] thought about it, but I didn't do it."

While much of the exact dialogue is difficult to discern from the recording, Easter was distressed by what she believed to be its subject matter. She thought "Precious" might be an allusion to the 2009 movie of the same name, chronicling the life of an illiterate African American teenager who suffers childhood abuse.

"He called me Precious, an African American obese woman who was raped by her father," Easter told The Post. She also thought the comments about "touching" and Bill Cosby were suggestive, and according to her, the surgeon said: "I thought about touching her. I could take pictures."

"To think that I'm lying there," Easter said, "and they're talking about touching me inappropriately. Sexually."

What bothered Easter the most were moments in the recording when, in her view, the doctors acted flippant about her health and well-being. She was disturbed that the surgeon talked on his cellphone at one point during the surgery, and even more so that he seemed unbothered by her penicillin allergy.

He said in the recording that swelling and rashes were not severe enough reactions to preclude Easter from receiving Ancef, an antibiotic injection that causes side effects in a small percentage of penicillin-allergic patients. The surgeon suggested first giving Easter a small dose as a trial.

This would prove an unfortunate decision. At the end of the recording, a groggy Easter can be heard telling a doctor that she was "itchy." Shortly after the surgery, Easter said, her arms swelled up and started getting rashes, though her hernia was successfully repaired. Her husband brought her back to the hospital - this time to the emergency room, where she was treated for an allergic reaction.

For several days, Easter said, she had trouble breathing.

These symptoms prompted Easter to listen to the recording. She was angered by what she found.

"He jeopardized my life," Easter said. "It's just by the grace of God that I'm even alive right now. It was an unnecessary risk that he took with me."

Last fall, Easter sent the hospital a letter with her complaints with the recording attached. Stacey Mitchell, the administrative director of risk management and patient safety for the Harris Health System, responded by thanking her for providing them a copy of the recording "to better analyze your concerns."

"With regards to the recording, as I explained in my prior correspondence, we reminded the OR staff and physicians to be mindful of their comments at all times," Mitchell said in a letter dated December. "After carefully listening to the recording that you provided, Harris Health does not believe further action is warranted at this time."

Mitchell also noted that the doctors in the recording are employees of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, not of the Harris Health System. The UT Health system likewise told ABC News that it could not comment on the case because of patient confidentiality laws.

Easter has not decided whether to initiate legal action against the doctors and hospital. She said currently she just wants to "let everybody know what was going on - make people aware of what was happening."

The experienced has changed Easter emotionally and psychologically, she said, and she now struggles with "trust issues."

"Even my husband has said that I'm not the same person he married," Easter said.

What did she hope would come out of making the recording public?

"If I had it my way," Easter said, "I'd like them to come forward and apologize. Come forward and say, 'We took an oath, and we violated it.' This is for all the workers and the doctors: Don't do this. Just treat people the way they would like their mother, their sister, their wives to be treated."

- Washington Post

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