Nurses are harassed every single day. In small ways, in big ways, in many different ways. It happens so often that we often laugh about it over lunch. That’s what happens when something happens on a daily basis and when you see your superiors (who are meant to lead by example) doing it: it normalizes it and makes it acceptable or the ‘done thing’. In the same way that abusive parents often produce abusive children, and how if a parent swears, a child will be immune to others swearing because ‘same old, same old’, nurses are also immune.

But we should not be.

I remember the first time I was harassed. I will always remember it.

I was twenty-two years old, fresh to the work force and very naive, very eager to please and make a good name for myself. I would always wake up really early, put on some light make-up and go to work on time, if not earlier. 

A particular surgeon would compliment me every time he saw me. He would call me ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’. I thought nothing of it. This is what all play-boy surgeons do to pretty nurses, right? It’s nothing, it’s harmless. 

Soon the compliments escalated to ‘hotness’ and ‘sexy’. I did not like that. But I said nothing, after all they were only words. I was new, planning my wedding and I had enough to worry about. I did not want to seem as if I was making trouble. And they were just words. I shrugged them off. 

Until one morning. One morning, when the two nurses I was assigned with were up to their elbows in paperwork and not paying attention. When I was looking for something in a cupboard, back towards the room. When he crept up behind me and quick as a flash slipped his palm between my legs. 

It was as if my brain short-circuited. It was so fast. It was absolutely shocking. I went berserk. I turned and started screaming insults at him and started hitting him with all my might, in his chest, his arms, his shoulders. My colleagues were flabbergasted. They had never seen me this way. They had no idea what happened. They hadn’t seen it. I had no witnesses. 

And he was laughing. He had orchestrated it so well. When we were busy, when no eyes were on us, with me facing a cupboard, a dead-end so I could not run away. I was not in some alleyway in the middle of the night. I was not drunk out of my face in a club at three in the morning. I was at work, where I thought I was safe.

And then I did not know what to do. One of the nurses who was there happened to be my very close and loving friend and she was sorry she had not seen it. But she encouraged me to tell my boss. He spoke to the surgeon sharply and told him to leave me well alone and I was never on his service ever again. 

But I did not file a sexual harassment case. Because I had no witnesses. And my friend had agreed to say she saw the whole thing, but I could never agree to that. I would never ask another person to lie, even if I was telling the truth.

He left our hospital soon after this episode and I was glad to never have to see him again. But the thing that hurt the most about all of this was how some of my colleagues said it was my own fault. For wearing make-up and leading him on and being a tease. That I was flirting with him and I was asking for it.

For the record, I wasn’t. I was planning my wedding so I naively thought that it took me off the market. I still saw myself as a bit of a little girl, it did not even cross my mind that a grown man could possibly think of me in a sexual way. If I was flirting, I honestly was not aware of it. And even if so, a bit of flirting is a very far cry from an overt request to slip your hand between my thighs while I’m not looking.

It was a terrible experience and I have heard of many such stories from other nurses:

– my colleague bent down to pick up a pen and a patient cried out ‘mmmm do that again…’

– a friend of mine got a Facebook friend request from a doctor after he performed a breast exam on her. 

– a patient started to stroke a nurse’s hand while she was removing his intravenous cannula.

– a relative brought her son to the ward to see if my colleague would date him…because, you see, a nurse is an investment because she can take care of the whole family in the future.

– a patient asked a nurse if she would take a picture of his private parts after a circumcision so he could have ‘before-and-after’ pics.

And the list goes on and on and on. 

But I have a few tips on how to deal:

1) stop it from the word ‘go’: if someone is saying things that make you cringe or feel weird just tell him firmly and undramatically to never say anything like that to you ever again. Words can quickly turn into actions in the blink of an eye.

2) it is never your fault: people should behave and control themselves. If they can’t, they must seek help and that is not up to you. And that is that. 

3) tell someone: I was young and naïve. Perhaps if I had taken action earlier, this whole mess would not have happened and someone more senior could have advised me better. You are not causing trouble, you are taking care of yourself and others as I illustrate in point number 4.

4) try to follow-up: if the person harassing you has been removed from your vicinity it solves your problem. But very few will learn their lesson and never do it again. He will probably do it again with a new victim in a different setting. If you find out that this is the case, gang up and file a report together. There is strength in numbers.

I have been a nurse for ten years now and I feel like I have the tools necessary to not allow anyone to harass me or my team. It still happens, but I think people are becoming more aware and better educated on what constitutes acceptable behavior and what is not permissible. I hope there will come a day when this won’t be an issue anymore.

Well. A nurse can dream, yes?