Carrie Teegardin, a journalist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, discussed how her reporting team’s local expose on Georgia doctors and sexual abuse ballooned into a national story at a talk at the Yale Child Study Center on Tuesday night.

That piece, which went on be a 2017 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting, preceded the highly publicized trial of Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually abusing young female patients, some of whom went on to compete in the Olympics as gymnasts. Many of the approximately 30 attendees were students from the various health care professional schools.

The Yale-based U.S. Health Justice Collaborative organized the event.

“Doctors know the vulnerabilities of the patients they’re seeing and can sometimes play off that,” Teegardin said. “This is something that happens way more often and is a lot worse than you would imagine, between the abuse, the enabling and the cover-up that happens.”

Teegardin was joined on stage by Maria Zito, a woman whose former doctor aggressively groped her during a visit intended to address her neck pain. Zito and Teegardin shared their experiences dealing with often rigid legal and medical institutions in the fight against sexual misconduct by medical professionals.

Zito began her talk with the gut-wrenching recollection of how a doctor she had known for years sexually assaulted her during a medical exam. She condemned both the practitioner and the system that allowed him to prey on his own patients — the very people he swore to help. She recalled seeing teenage girls walk into her former doctor’s office and hoping they would not face the same treatment she had received.

“Somebody could’ve stopped him; it could’ve been prevented. I made sure it stopped with me.” Zito said. “Its caused a lot of trauma, but I fought for what I thought was right, which was for him to lose his license.”

In 2016, the Journal-Constitution delved into the case of a doctor who had sexually abused female inmates during his tenure as a prison physician. That case revealed to Teegardin’s team a number of Georgia-based medical practitioners who sexually abused patients, many of whom had seen their licenses reinstated by the Georgia Composite Medical Board after they were stripped of them in the wake of investigations.

The results of the Journal-Constitution’s reporting inspired the team to take its investigation nationwide. What the reporters found, Teegardin said, was that doctors who sexually abuse patients are often treated as people with illnesses, rather than criminals. The Journal-Constitution’s coverage of this topic has received national recognition, winning awards including the Philip Meyer Award, which honors investigative journalism, in addition to the Pulitzer honor.

Eventually, Zito’s doctor did lose his license and pled guilty to criminal sexual contact after other accusers and witnesses came forward; however, Teegardin said, even doctors who are convicted of sexual crimes against patients can have their licenses reinstated because of the “forgiving” nature of medical licensing boards. Often, patient abuse goes unreported, she said, because patients are unaware of what constitutes misconduct.

“It’s really critically important that we talk about why people who thrive off of this kind of power might go into medicine, because these sort of power dynamics where they can get away with doing stuff with this, like Larry Nassar did for years,” said Kayla Isaacs MED ’19, an attendee at the event.

Camille Lawhead NUS ’20 praised the USHJ Collaborative for highlighting issues — sexual abuse by doctors and the systemic unwillingness to take patient complaints seriously — that often doesn’t come up on medical school curricula.

More than 265 women have accused Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.

Maya Chandra | maya.chandra@yale.edu