Due to a back injury, I started physical therapy at the USC Verdugo Hills Hospital on August 28th at 1:15 p.m. In a large hospital room designed to serve a number of patients simultaneously, each bed is separated from the others by a curtain. Following my first session, my therapist turned off the light while I lay on an ice pack and relaxed. Across the way, behind another curtain, a therapist, a man, worked with his patient, a woman and senior citizen. His tone was friendly and professional. They discussed her progress, her heart, and he asked her whether or not she felt any numbness in various parts of her body as, I assumed from her responses, he touched her. It all seemed above board. Then the conversation turned from the professional, to well, something else.
“So, every year to a year-and-a-half or so, I go with my patients to get a massage,” he said.
“Oh… that sounds wonderful,” she said with uncertainty.
“Usually, I take my patients downstairs to the spa. You know, I wait until the spa has a deal– 20% off or so.”
“I know, they’re so expensive, otherwise I’d get them all the time,” she said.
“Good. So, we go and get a couple’s massage in the evening. How does that sound?”
“That sounds fine,” she said, more quietly now.
“And then we can grab some dinner,” he said cheerfully.
I could barely contain my shock and mouthed, “OH MY GOD!” Two other female colleagues of his were milling about the room. One of them saw my face, looked away and quickly exited the room.
In the spirit of “If you see something say something,” I’d like to say I said something. I did not. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what I heard. I could be missing something. Perhaps they know one another well. Perhaps there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Perhaps…
Here’s the thing, it’s not my determination to make. I will say something, and when I do, it’s in his supervisor’s hands. And therein lies their biggest problem. USC school officials ignored and suppressed evidence of the sexual misconduct and criminal behavior of two powerful campus medical figures for decades.
Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, disgraced dean of the Keck School of Medicine and renowned eye surgeon, resigned his $1.1-million-a-year post in March 2016 following the drug overdose of a young woman in his presence, in his Pasadena hotel room. After nearly a decade of overseeing “hundreds of medical students, thousands of professors and clinicians, and research grants totaling more than $200 million,” he said he wanted to, “explore other opportunities,” The Los Angeles Times reported July 17, 2017.
It was just the tip of the iceberg. The Times uncovered video footage and photos of Puliafito using methamphetamines and other drugs with criminals and drug dealers spanning his decade as Dean. Times reporters also discovered evidence indicating that the school knew about it all along.
It’s hard to imagine anything more egregious than Puliafito’s behavior, or the school’s aiding and abetting of it. That is until this spring, when The Times published a bombshell revelation that Dr. George Tyndall, a campus gynecologist, had been sexually abusing his patients and harassing fellow employees for nearly 30 years, and, again, the school knew about it. In spite of their public denials of wrong doing and obfuscations, paper trails, discovered by The Times, don’t lie.
USC might want to consider a rebranding campaign: “USC, A Safe Space.”
Which would be a hard sell considering the number of Tyndall’s alleged victims could reach into the thousands. Jon Manly, a lawyer well-versed in mass litigation for sex abuse victims, told The Times, “I have never seen anything like the volume of calls we are getting.”
The details are harrowing in both cases, the coverups worse.
You’d expect then, that the medical professionals at USC might be more vigilant about identifying and rooting out those who behave inappropriately with patients. You might even think that the predatory medical professionals themselves might reserve their questionable comments and suggestions for a time when they are actually alone with their patients. However, Dr. George Tyndall received a large payout after decades of sexually abusing his patients in full view of countless other staff members. If he wasn’t hiding, well, why would anyone else?
What I overheard pales in comparison, but in light of these things, it’s speaks to a troubling pattern at USC. Whatever this physical therapist’s intent, it sounds like he’s taking advantage of his patient’s trust for his own benefit. Let’s be clear. He suggested a patient share an intimate evening with him as if it were medical therapy. I once managed a spa. Psychologists frequently recommended couples try a couple’s massage to remedy sexual dry spells. Follow that with a dinner date and you have the makings of something far outside current models of patient care. You have the makings of a lawsuit.
It makes me wonder if this kind of thing isn’t endemic at USC. Predators seek out professions that offer them easy access to vulnerable populations. I’m beginning to wonder if they don’t also seek out employers that offer them protection as they offend with impunity.
Your move, USC.