National News

‘Just the Grossest Thing’: Women Recall Interactions With USC Doctor

Posted May 17, 2018 11:42 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2018 11:48 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — He quipped about the looseness of a woman’s vagina. He remarked on the smoothness of another woman’s skin. He surprised one patient by suddenly removing her tampon and dangling it in front of her.

Former students at the University of Southern California are coming forward by the dozens, re-examining years-old interactions with Dr. George Tyndall, the longtime gynecologist at the student health center who is now at the center of a growing scandal. What they considered inappropriate and humiliating at the time, they are now reporting to a special university hotline as signs of the doctor’s trail of abuse.

The university this week accused Tyndall of behavior and comments that “were completely unacceptable and a violation of our values.” For years, medical workers had accused the doctor of touching women inappropriately during pelvic exams, as well as making racist and sexual remarks about patients’ bodies.

USC has come under fire for not immediately reporting Tyndall to the state medical board and for not making the allegations about him public until only after the university was approached by The Los Angeles Times. The university’s handling of the case has provoked outrage from students, alumni and even the Chinese government.

Allegations of misconduct dated to the 1990s, but Tyndall continued to see thousands of patients as the center’s primary gynecologist. He was first suspended in 2016, after a nurse complained about him to the campus rape crisis center. After a yearlong investigation, university officials forced him out.

But they did not report the accusations to the California Medical Board. When their internal investigation was complete, officials said that the findings were a personnel matter and that there was no legal obligation to notify the state oversight board, which investigates doctors accused of misconduct.

The latest scandal at USC comes less than a year after the university was roiled by reports that the former dean of the medical school spent months partying with prostitutes and using drugs on campus. Before his resignation, he had been celebrated as a prolific fundraiser and accomplished physician. The man chosen to replace him was forced to step down after reports surfaced that he had settled a sexual harassment case with one of his former researchers.

USC officials said they had received more than 100 complaints about Tyndall, either through a hotline or a website the university set up to receive complaints. (More than 350,000 students and alumni received an email Tuesday that included information about Tyndall and how to report any concerns.) About half the complaints received this week were anonymous and the majority were about comments Tyndall made during exams, officials said.

In an interview with The New York Times, one woman cried as she recalled dialing into the hotline and recounting an appointment she had with Tyndall before graduating from USC in 2007. During a pelvic exam, she said, Tyndall inserted several fingers inside her and told her “you know what they say about tall women, right?” which the woman, who is more than 6 feet tall, took to mean she had a large vaginal opening. The woman, who is a lawyer and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she did not want to alienate clients, said she did not report his comments at the time. Even now, she said, his remarks make her feel self-conscious during sex.

“It was just the grossest thing, but what are you supposed to do?” she said. “Are you supposed to punch this person? You can’t even recoil, he’s physically inside you.” In the past several months, the woman said, she had disparaged the former patients of Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, the former physician at Michigan State who abused more than 300 girls and women, wondering why they would tolerate abuse from a doctor. “I’d say, ‘They should have put their big girl pants on and reported him.’ And all of a sudden yesterday I realized, ‘Oh wait, that’s me.'”

She said she didn’t ’t believe she had experienced any physical abuse by Tyndall, but like many women who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she could not be certain because she was young and unsure of proper protocol for a physician.

“One of the worst parts is that I feel like a dumb girl,” she said. “I spent all this money on a fancy education, but I am this dumb broad who just didn’t report something awful.”

Soon after she called USC, she said, she left a message with the law firm that represented Nassar’s former patients, whom Michigan State agreed to settle with Wednesday for $500 million. She said she would consider joining any legal action against USC.

When Alexandra Nguyen, 23, saw Tyndall in late 2015, she was immediately put off by his attempt to greet her in Vietnamese and his comments about Asian women’s beauty.

“He was telling me my skin was very beautiful and you could be a model,” she said. Nguyen, who is now in medical school, found the encounter “out of line” but did not stop him.

Tyndall later commented on her “wetness,” she said, and asked if she had a higher level of secretion compared with her friends.

“After that experience,” Nguyen said, “I just never came back.”

As a freshman, another woman went to see Tyndall alarmed by an extremely heavy period. Without any explanation, he pulled out her tampon and “held it up for a very, very long time,” said the woman, who wanted to be identified only as Sarah.

“I definitely told my friends that it was the most awkward doctor experience but it didn’t feel like there was something to report in that moment,” she said. “I struggled to characterize it, but it was incredibly intrusive and inappropriate.” She has insisted on seeing a female gynecologist ever since. As part of a summary of their findings from the 2016 investigations, officials from the university said that a box of photographs was found during a search of Tyndall’s office.

The photos were clinical in nature, including images depicting different states of disease or abnormalities. These types of images, the university’s statement said, were not unusual in a clinical setting to be used for clinical reference or patient education purposes.

But another former patient, who saw Tyndall several times in the late 1990s, said he showed her several photographs of other women’s genitals, saying they were part of a research project. The woman, who declined to give her name, said Tyndall had repeatedly complimented her smooth skin. She complained verbally to a woman she thought was a nurse at the center, but did not submit a written complaint.

“I cannot believe they would let him stay there so long,” she said. “The university should be ashamed of itself.”

Tyndall, who denied any wrongdoing to The Los Angeles Times, did not return phone calls Thursday.

Several staff members also accused Tyndall of targeting students from China, many of whom were seeing a gynecologist for the first time. On Thursday, the Chinese government issued a statement expressing “serious concerns” about the case and that they were seeking more details.

“We ask the USC authorities to deal with the case in a serious manner, conduct an immediate investigation and take concrete measures to protect the Chinese students and scholars on campus from being harmed,” the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles said in a statement. “The consulate has all along attached great importance to the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens overseas, including Chinese students and scholars.”

The university said it was not yet clear how many of the new complaints were from Chinese students.

But the accusations were already reverberating among USC students from China, who make up nearly half the university’s 11,000 international students. The university also has a significant presence in China, with offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong to run academic programs, raise money and recruit new students.

“I feel disgusted. I feel like in the future, Chinese students will feel like it’s not safe,” said Lisa Wong, 23, a graduate student at the Marshall School of Business, who added that it was unusual to receive regular gynecological exams at this age in China. “We come here to learn and we’re vulnerable. If something is strange, and the doctor reassures us it’s normal procedure, we don’t usually say anything more.”

Other Chinese students interviewed on campus said that they would be unlikely to complain if they received strange comments from a doctor or thought they were being touched inappropriately.

“China’s sex education isn’t strong, neither with the government or within family,” said Xing Nan, a student at the law school. “Chinese people tend to refrain from talking about this topic so there’s a culture of ignorance, and so you might not be able to protect yourself. You’re also vulnerable when you go in, so you tend to believe or trust whatever the doctor says.”

In response to the Chinese government, a spokesman for USC wrote in a statement: “The university sincerely apologizes to any students who may have visited the student health center and did not receive the respectful care each individual deserves.” Last year, USC officials changed the way the student health center is run, making it part of the university’s medical center. During the time that Tyndall worked at the center, it operated independently and had no oversight from physicians or administrators at the medical school. In a letter sent to students this week, the chairwoman of the student health center said now, health care providers are faculty in the departments of family medicine and psychiatry and “undergo a demanding credentialing and peer-review process.”

Several medical experts and ethicists said that, regardless of the law, the university failed to meet its ethical obligation in not reporting Tyndall sooner.

Under state law, hospitals and clinics are required to notify the medical board if they suspend or terminate physicians. The board receives nearly 10,000 complaints each year and last year opened more than 1,400 investigations. If it finds serious misconduct, it can revoke a license to practice.

“If we receive a complaint from the member of the public or clinic or another doctor, we look into it,” said Carlos Villatoro, a spokesman for the board. “But the complaint has to come to us in the first place.”