Please note that this post has a strong content warning for rape, sexual assault, mutilation, and medical assault.
I’m in the process of preparing for surgery in June, which seems to require reams of paperwork and endless discussions with people in white coats who suck out your bodily fluids and wave devices at you. The surgery dance is a long and often graceless one that ends with being heaved onto a metal table in a cold OR while a surgical team assembles around you to watch, looming from above while the bright lights dazzle you. I’m excited about the surgery, but also afraid; and not for the reason people seem to think I should be.
Complications do occur while under anesthesia. You can have an adverse reaction to anesthetic agents or other drugs used during surgery. The surgeon could damage an internal organ or nick a vessel. The power could go out and the backup generator might not kick in. Equipment might malfunction. Weird things happen in operating rooms sometimes and in some cases they are entirely out of control of the medical team. This isn’t what I’m afraid of.
What I’m afraid of is the vulnerability created by anesthesia.
Hypnotic, dissociative, and paralytic agents are used in anesthesia. You’re not just unconscious but disconnected. Many medications are specifically designed to limit memories of the procedure, which is intended to prevent trauma, but it does more than that. It creates a memory hole, a dark place which anything can fill, and the thing about dark places is that sometimes scary things hide inside of them. Dark draws darkness.
People are sexually assaulted, mutilated, and abused while under anesthetics, and sometimes this abuse is allowed to continue as serial rapists and other assailants move through different medical facilities while patient complaints are ignored. This is what I am afraid of. I fear the thought that I might be assaulted, that my body might become an object of humour and mockery and amusement. I fear the potential that I may never know about it, and that if I do, I may be powerless to take action, because victims of medical assault are rarely believed when they attempt to file complaints.
A blind Lakota elder was mutilated while under anesthesia and a nurse nervously alerted him, advising him to have a friend examine his surgical site and take photos. A nurse anesthetist sexually assaulted patients and videotaped it in Georgia. An anesthesiologist in California assaulted multiple patients. Graeme Reeves, ‘the Butcher of Bega,’ mutilated hundreds of women in surgery. A dentist partially anesthetised and raped his assistant. Nonconsensual pelvic exams on anesthetised patients are routine at teaching hospitals, as Cara Kulwicki recently reminded me.
There comes a time when your mind goes into overload and shuts down, which is what mine starts to do when I think about medical assault, particularly of patients under anesthesia, but the sensory input just keeps coming. It’s not enough for people to abuse patients who are putting their lives and bodies in the hands of people who claim they will take care of them. Anesthesia fetishism is real and there are thousands of videos of anesthetised patients being assaulted and mutilated; some are available for a fee, and others can be viewed for free, distributed through the black market by doctors and other medical professionals.
Acting and enthusiastic consent for role play are one thing, but these are clearly not the case in the vast majority of these videos, if any. These are real people, overwhelmingly women, who were assaulted while under anesthesia, under the ‘care’ of medical providers, in a place they thought was safe. And they may have no idea that they were assaulted, let alone that it was videotaped and shared with the world. That the kindly surgeon or anesthetist or scrub nurse who checked in so thoughtfully after the surgery committed a profound violation.
Those same drugs that make a patient utterly vulnerable, unable to fight back, unable to remember, unable to clearly articulate experiences of assault, those same drugs are used as a weapon on patients who report assaults under anesthesia. The defense to sexual assault charges is that the assault must be ‘a hallucination.’ Scholarly papers like ‘Sexual hallucinations during anesthesia and sedation‘ underscore this. Anesthetic agents lend themselves extremely well to gaslighting as a faltering, confused, and tangled mind attempts to make sense of something, to find an explanation for lacerations or bruises or marks that shouldn’t be there.
And this is what I fear, deeply, and will fear until the moment the mask goes over my face. It’s what I will fear when I am in recovery, and it’s what I will fear for years afterwards, because I will never truly know what happened while I was unconscious and vulnerable in that operating room, or groggy in the recovery area. I think about asking a trusted doctor friend with hospital privileges if it might be possible for her to stay with me, but I don’t know if that will be allowed. And I know that asking for an escort marks me, singles me out.
After all, I have nothing to be afraid of. I’m in the hands of trusted medical professionals. They trained for this.
This is a fear that many people consider to be irrational. They rush to assure me that the vast majority of medical professionals are ethical, upstanding people who would never commit these kinds of crimes, let alone tolerate them. They tell me that medical professionals would be appalled to know that a patient might be afraid of being assaulted while under anesthesia, that patients under anesthesia are treated with extreme care and sensitivity. They tell me that I can’t let a few bad apples ruin the bunch.
But the thing is, I am the one going under anesthesia. And I am still afraid. Because bad apples and outliers and statistics equal real people and real lives. And I am a real person with a real life and thus I experience real fear.
And I am afraid. Not of poor surgical outcomes or unexpected reactions to anesthesia but of this, the dark place where the dark things hide and there’s no lightswitch.