Thursday, March 29, 2012

Survivor as Physician

8/17/2017: Sharing this again. Inspired by all the courageous women and men of the #MeToo movement. 

8/2/2015: In light of the recent New York Magazine article in which 35 women share their stories of being assaulted by Bill Cosby and the #TheEmptyChair hashtag that followed, I am retweeting my own story in honor of the female surgeons and physicians who have privately shared their story with me and sit daily in #TheEmptyChair.

Yesterday I had the tremendous honor of receiving the UCSF Chancellor's Award for the Advancement of Women. As difficult as it is, I would like to share with you my acceptance speech. I have thought long and hard about "coming out" as a physician and in the end I have decided that if I can share the message of hope and healing with just one survivor, it will be worth it.

As a rape survivor and domestic violence advocate, I have shared my story with dozens of audiences. The majority of those times, I have relayed the lessons of my experience with minimal emotional investment or consequence. However last night, when I sat down to write this speech, I realized that this time is different. In less than two months I will be a doctor. Since getting my acceptance letter from UCSF, in the back of my mind I have always wondered how I would someday reconcile my new physician self with "Heather the survivor." Being chosen for this award has given me the courage to accept that "Heather the physician" will forever be inseparable from "Heather the survivor."

Preparing for this day, I debated how much I wanted to talk about my own story. Then I remembered how lost I felt picking up the pieces after the assault, how I yearned for the stories of other survivors. I wanted to know that recovery was possible.  I wanted to know how I could possibly heal from an invisible wound so deep the only way I could describe it was so say that “my soul was bleeding.”

15 years later, I can tell you that the healing never would have been possible without the commitment and support I received from the faculty and administration at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. From start to finish, my undergraduate degree took 8 years. Whether it was counseling support, excused late assignments, or weekly meetings with the dean and special test accommodations when my PTSD-induced exaggerated startle made it difficult to take my exams in a crowded room, the University of Wisconsin gave me the time and space I needed to heal and the support I needed graduate.

When it came time to choose which medical schools to apply to, I knew I would need a school that could provide me that same kind of support. Against the better wishes of all but my closest friends, I only applied to only one medical school. I literally decided upon UCSF based upon the impression I felt from their website. I did make a few campus visits to confirm my intuition and I made a special UCSF binder with paraphernalia of evidence as to why I felt at home at UCSF. I’d like to share with you two pieces of outreach materials I collected. One is a Sexual and Relationship Violence Resource Guide and the other is a guide for how managers can support faculty and staff dealing with the challenges of domestic violence. It was essential to be to be at an institution that had mechanisms in place for supporting survivors of me sexual and domestic violence. And I knew I had found that in UCSF.

After getting accepted, I looked up the UCSF’s resources for women and printed off the “Focus on Women” website. I took pride in joining an institution that visibly supported women.  I am even prouder today, knowing I will graduate from an institution with a female chancellor, Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann. Another document I printed off was Dr. Barbara Gerbert’s “Slow Steps to Change” report on the History of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. I met Dr. Gerbert early on in my time at UCSF and Dr. Gerbert has been a tireless cheerleader and supporter throughout my medical education. Dr. Gerbert chaired the committee that proposed this award to Chancellor Martin in 1994. We wouldn’t be here today without her vision and hard work to make this award a reality.

If I can leave you with one message, it is that we need to provide increased support for survivors of sexual violence and foster a dialogue of healing. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the CDC in 2010 and was based on telephone interviews with more than 16,500 adults, more than one in three women have experienced sexual assault, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and the same is true for more than one in four men.

When I first began to deal with the emotional and physical health consequences of sexual violence in my life, I found some comfort in statistics such as these. Yet at the same time, I felt a deep sense of confusion—if intimate partner violence were so prevalent why didn’t my doctors know how to address my emotional pain? Why wasn’t anyone talking about healing? I couldn’t help but wonder if I were the only survivor who wasn’t able to quickly get over it and move on with her life.

As I became a vocal advocate, I learned most women and men suffer in silence. If you are a medical practitioner, I urge you to ask your patients about past and current sexual and domestic violence. Just acknowledging that intimate partner violence has an impact on our health can make a big difference. If you are a survivor yourself, I encourage you to share your story with others when it feels safe. My first month of medical school when I began to question if I had what it takes, a faculty member shared her own story of how being assaulted had impacted her medical education many years later. I held her story close to my heart and knew that I would be okay. Creating conversations of healing will allow survivors to know they are not alone and that healing and recovery are possible.

Thank you for this honor and thank you for your support.


  1. Dear Heather
    Many congratulations on your award and your courage in pursuing activism on this. I have an 18 year old daughter and with her two older brothers I never realised how much a dad can worry. ...
    I hope you will post regularly. If you have time to use a conceptual framework to reflect on your experiences and to further the causes of rape survival and domestic violence advocate I would be pleased of your help learn more and to spread your message.
    Kind regards and much Peace.
    Peter Jones
    Lancashire, UK
    Blogging at "Welcome to the QUAD"
    Hodges Health Career - Care Domains - Model
    h2cm: help 2C more - help 2 listen - help 2 care!/h2cm

  2. Thanks for your comments and support Peter! Please don't worry too much about your children. As much as parents wish they could protect their children from everything, they can't... What matters is that you have given them the skills and resources they need to survive and overcome any challenges they face :-)

    Thanks for your encouragement to continue processing. I don't anticipate anything in the near future, but I am sure there will be future reflections along my journey in medicine.

    Kindest regards,


  3. Anonymous10/28/2013

    Hi Heather,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I have been struggling in my recovery from sexual abuse and I have found support from other survivors invaluable. It makes me hopeful to hear and read of others who have found the strength to move forward.

    All the best,