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At least he didn't put his hand on your thigh

Beth and Kathleen met outside the surgeon’s office five minutes before their scheduled meeting with him. Beth carried three copies of the latest quarterly report for her hospital. She’d dressed up for the meeting, wearing a frilly white blouse, a black skirt, and pumps with kitten heels. By contrast, Kathleen wore her usual business attire, a staid brown check jacket and pants with a coordinating dark shirt and sensible flats. The report had just come out and it showed the complication rates by surgical specialty.


            “Surgical Site Infection rates are still increasing across the board. We need to get SSIs under control,” said Beth. Like many hospitals, St. Barbara’s postoperative patients were experiencing higher than usual SSI rates.


            Before becoming a quality improvement leader, Kathleen had served as a clinical nurse educator for the orthopedic unit of a large urban hospital. Now she identified research-based tools and best practices that staff could use to reduce infections in patients recovering from surgery.

            A month earlier, she had arranged for a national expert on SSIs to give a talk to the surgeons and surgical nurses in the health authority. The talk was followed by a catered dinner, and most of the surgeons had attended.


            “Do you think all of the surgeons are using the SSI-prevention protocol,” she asked Beth.


            “I think they’re trying, especially those who were able to come to the talk.”


            “What else can we do,” said Kathleen.


            Beth was known for being steady and patient. Until recently, she’d been the lead operating room nurse for her hospital. She gave her more impatient colleague an encouraging smile. “Be patient, Kathleen. Improvements don’t happen overnight. Look how many centuries it took for physicians to accept that handwashing between patient visits slows the spread of infections.”


            “I know, I know. It’s just that I spent months lining up that talk and we need to see improvements.”


            Beth laughed. “Remember that there’s a three-month lag between the time we submit data and when we get the report. The talk was less than a month ago. That means that any improvements arising from changes in practice implemented after the presentation will not be reflected in this data.”


            “You’re right, Beth. It just seems to take forever.”


            The door opened as Kathleen was completing her sentence. Dr. Peterson, the physician head of quality improvement, beckoned the two women into his office. He pulled out a chair around a table and invited them to sit on each side.


            “Kathleen, change is slow. You need to be patient,” he said. He cupped his hand around her gleaming red hair and held it against her scalp. He had his eyes closed and was humming quietly. His lips had a slight smile.


            Kathleen stared at him. She squirmed. He wasn’t verbally harassing her and she didn’t have the impression there was anything sexual in his touch. But it was still inappropriate. She wanted to scream at him, to tell him to get his paws off her. But that would likely end the meeting. It had taken weeks to find thirty minutes when he was available to meet with them to review the data. Kathleen worried that it would take twice that long to reschedule it, if he even agreed to meet with her.

            His eyes opened. Before she could get a word out, he repeated himself, “Patience. You need to be patient.”

            She slowly exhaled and decided she wouldn’t say anything.

            The meeting proceeded as if the awkward incident at the beginning hadn’t happened.

            Beth and Kathleen thanked Dr. Peterson for meeting with him and left his office.

            Neither said anything until they were out of the building. “I thought you were going to punch Dr. Peterson in the face. I’ve never seen you look so angry,” said Beth.

            “I didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t threatening me. It didn’t feel like sexual harassment. I don’t know if he was trying to teach me a lesson in patience.”

            “I’m glad you didn’t say anything. He’s a very busy surgeon and it’s hard to get a meeting with him.”

           “Still, I wish I’d said something, anything. It felt wrong,” said Kathleen.

            Beth stopped walking. She looked directly at Kathleen. “At least he didn’t put his hand on your thigh.”

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