For Vietnamese doctors, a punch in the face leaves emotional scars that can’t be healed
Dr Tran Van Phuc was attacked by a patient’s relative 17 years ago, and the recent assault of a colleague has reopened the wound.
It was a winter night in 2001. A stressful atmosphere hung over the emergency room where I was on duty.
On shift that night were two other doctors, two nurses and several interns. I was under a lot of pressure. Several patients were in critical conditions, and I had to categorize them into groups and give priority to the very worst cases.
The hospital was crowded, and some people started complaining about the long waiting time.
I had to tell myself to calm down. The clock had passed 11 p.m. and I’d still had nothing for dinner.
A father arrived with his 10-year-old kid who had suffered a head injury. I checked the wound and told the father that the kid’s scalp was torn so it was bleeding quite a lot.
I explained to him that the injury was actually not that serious and that a nurse would attend to child while I dealt with other patients.
But the father disagreed. After questioning and yelling at me, he punched me in the face and spat at me, threatening to kill my family.
I collapsed. All the patients, their relatives, the nurses and the young interns looked at me, frightened and speechless. In my whole life, I have never been so humiliated. At that moment, I had two options: sit there and take more abuse, or run and hide from the threats and shame. I just wanted to disappear.
I chose option two, but it did not end there. The father chased after me, grabbed me by the neck, pushed me into a trash can and continued to threaten me. I had never imagined myself ending up in such a shameful situation. I had never felt so alone. It left a lasting wound on my soul. My dignity had been taken away and my personal value had been destroyed.
What happened next was even worse. Shortly after, I started receiving threatening messages. I felt physically, mentally and emotionally damaged. An unidentified obsession took over me. It made me see criticism, accusations, disgrace and isolation everywhere.
I chose to live in silence. I finished my work on autopilot, but somehow the hospital felt like hell. I tried to hide from my shame and guilt.
Tha same wound on my soul flares up again every time I hear about one of my colleagues going through a similar situation. I feel the same humiliation I felt that day, and start wondering when it could happen to me again.
I was stuck in a trap and no one could help. I tried my best to snap out of it, and even considered quitting my job. The more I thought about it, the more stressed I became, even after I took a break to try and forget about it.
I could not share what I was feeling with anyone.
No one knew how hard he had hit me. No one could imagine what kind of yells and threats were thrown at me, or the spit running down my face. No one knew that every day, I was constantly looking over my shoulder in case someone was following me.
I had to change my phone number to escape the death threats.
After nearly a year of living in fear, I finally decided to do something about it. I was so tired and did not want to live like that anymore.
I applied to work at another hospital. I knew that if I wanted to continue with my career as a surgeon, a dream I had pursued for six years at college, I would have to face more abuse. I knew that if I continued to walk that path, I would have to overcome many obstacles.
The only way I found to heal that festering wound was to walk away from my favorite job to switch to another one that could better protect me.
I have come a long way and started to look back at what I went through. It took many years for me to heal. I do not feel resentment, and I have forgiven that angry, violent father, but I do not want myself or any of my colleagues to have to face that situation again. I do not want anyone to have their dignity taken away from them.
Physical abuse is dangerous but the mental damage it causes is even worse. I still receive calls from my colleagues everyday, telling me that they are getting death threats from patients’ relatives. I know how desperate they feel, but who can help them now? Do they just fall into the abyss and have to try and find a way to climb out like I did?
Medicine is a difficult job, and violence makes life a lot more difficult for doctors. If the law continues to treat violence against doctors like streetside brawls, it will continue to occur in hospitals.
Last week, a colleague of mine was punched in the face at the hospital where I work. And like many other times, I read here and there that people are discussing and proposing some new policy to solve this problem. For me, I think everything will just stop at discussion, and the doctors will have to deal with the punches and threats that are thrown at them, just as I did 17 years ago.
*Tran Van Phuc is a doctor at Saint Paul’s Hospital in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.