Guest column: Speaking my truth

By Mary Dudzik

From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank everyone who was involved in the planning of the party last week celebrating my more than 25 years of service to the people of Mount Desert Island as a family practice doctor. I want to thank the beloved patients, friends, colleagues and coworkers who attended, sharing such kind words. I am humbled and grateful beyond words. I will carry the love and the light that I felt that night with me always.

But there is one very important point that I would like to clear up, as I believe everyone deserves a true explanation for why I stopped working, especially my patients. Since my last day of work, I have heard various theories, such as I am sick, I am moving to be closer to my daughters, or most commonly, that I have retired. I am neither old enough nor wealthy enough to retire, that is just the way MDI Hospital has spun my departure. The truth is I resigned, and I want you to know why.

I have been a primary care family physician at MDI Hospital since I finished residency in Bangor in 1992. I am a founding member of the Women’s Health Center, involved in its creation and building, two different times. I served a term as medical staff president, as a member of the board of trustees, and served as director of obstetrics for 24 years. I started the Longitudinal Integrated Clerkship with Tufts University School of Medicine that brings two third-year Tufts medical students here every year, and have served as the director and coordinator of that program since its inception. I have taken care of inpatients, outpatients and nursing home patients, delivered babies and taken care of every age group from birth to old age.

You would think that with a list of accomplishments like that, as well as an excellent clinical reputation with colleagues and patients alike, that I would not be subject to gender discrimination in the workplace. You would be wrong.

Before I go any further, please let me be clear that this is not a criticism of MDI Hospital in terms of the care given there. Many hardworking people at many levels from maintenance to the intensive care unit do their very best to take care of people and do an excellent job, even given the increasing changes in medicine that seem to try to drive a wedge between patients and their caregivers. I am speaking of my personal experience with the hospital as an employer, and over the last 10 years or so, that experience has been tremendously difficult and painful.

“When men in the work place, intentional or not, call women ‘girls,’ create hyper-sexualized environments, begrudge us for wanting equal pay, dismiss our desire for conflict resolution as immature, punish us for having children, interrupt or co-opt our ideas, they are telling us: ‘You matter less,'” Corynne Cirilli wrote. “The basic truth, that we are simply not as valuable as men, is drilled into us at every turn.”

This is the sad truth and not just for me. In recent years, six primary care providers have resigned from their positions here, including all three providers at the Women’s Health Center. Five of those providers are women.

In my time at MDI, I have been paid less than a male colleague who worked the exact same hours with the exact same responsibilities, I have been prevented from serving in a medical staff leadership position that I was elected to by my peers, and I was removed as medical director of the Women’s Health Center after 25 years and replaced with a man who had been here less than a year. No explanation for that decision has ever been given to me.

To say that it has been difficult to endure this is an understatement. Of course I objected along the way. But as so many women know, raising your voice as a woman gets you branded as abrasive, rude, shrill and a word that rhymes with witch. The same quality as a man gets you branded as independent, a leader, a free thinker. The culture of creating a workplace that favors men over women is alive and well in the world of medicine and hospital administration.

When a person or entity, in order to gain more or hold on to power, uses techniques against a targeted individual to try and make them question their own memory, perception and sanity, it’s known as “gaslighting.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, “I don’t remember that at all” or “I remember that differently.” I also have heard “I never said that,” “that never happened,” “you are lying,” “that is not what happened/is happening,” “you don’t know enough to have an opinion in this situation,” and “stop trying to push a feminist agenda.”

I think it is one of the most dangerous forms of abuse, as it is commonly used by men against women, and makes women feel like they are indeed the problem, that there must be something wrong with them that keeps them from understanding reality.

Until recently, I chose to endure behaviors like this. After all, it affected only me, not my patients or patient care. I loved my practice, my patients and this community that I call home.

But in the last year, a situation arose that affected patient care and put patients at risk. And that is something that I could not endure. This situation put a very vulnerable group in our community at risk of substandard, dangerous care.

I raised my voice, loudly, and so did other caregivers. But we were not heard in spite of the overwhelming evidence that we gave. All the people who raised their voices were women. I often wonder if we would have gotten results sooner if we had been men.

I am very relieved to say that that situation has been rectified, but it took a lot more time and a lot more risk than it should have.

I decided I could not work for an employer that put patient safety second to an inability to listen to smart women using their voices. Two other providers agreed with me. One has already left, and another will be leaving in May.

Once the situation had been rectified, I asked if I could withdraw my resignation. I wanted to finish my career here as I have always wanted, see the people I have seen for decades, watch the babies I have delivered grow up. I even wanted to do OB again, something I gave up a little over a year ago because an illness in my family demanded that I cut back on some of my responsibilities. The hospital’s response was “no.”

The reason given was that I am “insubordinate.” If pointing out bad care to a health care institution is insubordinate, then I am guilty as charged. The hospital threw away a perfectly good physician with a large practice and wide breadth of clinical skills. Because sometimes she sees something that needs to be dealt with and says something. I thought I would be protected by whistle-blowing laws, but apparently I was wrong.

So I have not retired, I am just no longer an employee of MDI Hospital. I wrote this so my patients and the MDI community could understand the reason I left, as they deserve the truth.

And I am writing this because it happened to me. I am a privileged, white, educated, strong woman. If this happened to me, I cannot even imagine what it is like for women of color, different ethnicity, gender identification, religion, etc. This happens all the time to women, and no one says a word because they can’t.

I am in the fortunate position of being able to walk away and be financially secure. Many people are not so lucky. They depend on a paycheck, health insurance, on benefits for their families. There is no way to risk losing that all by pushing back against inequality. And the people watching it happen say nothing, and therefore become complicit, for the same understandable reasons.

But I believe change is coming. I so appreciate the women, actresses, athletes, CEOs and others who have told their stories of discrimination, harassment and even assault in the workplace. They are privileged, just like I am, to feel relatively safe in sharing their stories. I say “relatively” because there is risk of retaliation for all of us. I hope over time that every woman, everywhere, will be able to speak her truth. We have been silent for way too long.

Sorry, guys. Time’s up.

Mary Dudzik is family practice physician. She lives in Bar Harbor.

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