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During the summer of 2015, Pennsylvania turned Texas resident Ethel Easter wanted to see a doctor. She wanted to see a doctor bad.
In just one 24-hour period, Easter endured over 100 attacks of severe abdominal pain. She had blood in her urine. Her stomach was bruised. She wanted nothing more than surgery as soon as possible.
The Texas woman's health issue was a hiatal hernia. This condition occurs when a portion of the stomach protrudes into a part of the digestive tract known as the esophageal hiatus. Basically, the stomach starts crowding the esophagus. Most of the time when this anatomical anomaly occurs, however, there is no pain and there are no symptoms. Most hiatal hernias don't need urgent surgical repair.
But Ethel Easter was sure she did not fit into that category. She wanted surgery, and she wanted it now. However, the surgeon she consulted at LBJ Hospital in Houston did not agree. He told her she would have to wait two months.
“Well, who do you think you are?” Easter recalled to the Washington Post that the doctor abruptly yelled back at her. “You’re gonna wait like everybody else.”
Easter next went to see her family doctor, who told her that the surgeon's notes on their meeting "raised red flags" that her attitude was a problem. She left the doctor's office with confidence in her surgeon shaken, but unwilling to risk waiting yet another two months to get treatment. She resolved that she would have the surgery in August of 2015, but that she would secretly record the procedure just in case her worst fears were realized. She bought an audio recorder the size of a USB drive, and just before the surgery she did her hair in a ponytail and hid the recorder inside.
The reluctant patient's worst insults were yet to come.
First the surgeon commented that Easter had been a "handful." According to the doctor leading the surgical team, she had threatened to file a complaint and to hire an attorney. Easter maintains she did not threaten to hire an attorney.
Later there were peals of laughter by the surgical team as the lead surgeon remarked "Did you see her belly button?" The surgeon compared Easter to the Biblical Esther, "She's always a queen," (a Jewish joke) and then referred to her several times as "Precious," in a tone that Easter felt was demeaning of her African-American race and an allusion to the 2009 movie of the same name about an African-American girl who was raped by her father.
But the worst insult occurred at the end of the operation as Easter was still under the effects of anesthesia. The Washington Post reported:
After the doctors concurred that there had been many “teaching moments” that day, the anesthesiologist asked, “Do you want me to touch her?”
“I can touch her,” the surgeon is heard saying.
“That’s a Bill Cosby suggestion,” someone interjected. “Everybody’s got things on phones these days. Everybody’s got a camera.”
“Do you have photos?” the surgeon asked a couple times. “[indiscernible] thought about it, but I didn’t do it.”
There weren't photos, but there was audio. And there was soon to be a something doctors fear more than a lawsuit.