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Kavanaugh hearings triggered painful memories, one doctor finds

“Many of my patients named the Kavanaugh hearings as a source of dread,” says one Massachusetts primary care doctor.
Image: U.S. Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 27, 2018.Jim Bourg / Reuters

Patient after patient came into Dr. Eve Rittenberg’s office, complaining of stress, headaches, an inability to sleep.

With each, it only took a little gentle question for the reason to come out: The acrimonious hearings in the Senate over the nomination of judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were triggering bad memories.

The hearings, which featured accusations that Kavanaugh had attacked psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford when both were in high school, as well as other women, have launched a national debate about sexual assault and whether women tell the truth about it.

The televised hearings also featured detailed descriptions of the alleged assaults. Social media has been awash with a national discussion of the issue, and President Donald Trump has fanned the flames by mocking Blasey Ford and suggesting that men are at risk from angry women and false accusations.

It has taken a toll on victims, including Rittenberg’s patients.

“Stories of struggle and abuse, of trauma inflicted by people with power, have permeated my sessions with patients over the past couple of weeks,” Rittenberg wrote Thursday in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Rittenberg is a primary care physician at the Fish Center for Women’s Health, part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. She sees patients with a range of complaints, as well as people coming in for annual wellness checks.

She has been struck at how many come in seemingly traumatized in recent weeks. One, a patient with a history of sexual abuse, said she had been suffering flashbacks. “She held out her left arm to me, where for the first time since her adolescence, she had started cutting herself,” Rittenberg wrote.

“Many of my patients named the Kavanaugh hearings as a source of dread,” she added.

“The news in which they are immersed has resonated deeply and brought back memories of their own experiences.”

The #MeToo movement has led more women to come forward with stories of sexual assault and trauma, but Rittenberg said the Kavanaugh hearings have brought matters to a peak.

“One of the things that played out was the power dynamics in which this person, who as a young man was said to have sexually assaulted a younger woman, was now in a position of more power and being considered for a lifetime appointment to a position in which he will be making decisions that will be impacting people in this country,” Rittenberg told NBC News Thursday.

It’s highlighted the feeling of powerlessness that many women have when they are attacked or abused, she said.

Such attacks are very common. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network or RAINN, one out of every six women has been the victim or a rape or attempted rape. Only 6 percent of rapists are ever convicted, and women are often not believed when they report assaults or abuse.

According to RAINN, 94 percent of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Hearing the sheer amount of these stories over the last couple of weeks has promoted me to share my views, but also to offer some thoughts about how professionals can respond,” Rittenberg said.

Her advice includes being clear and gentle with patients.

“One patient said, ‘it is terrifying for me to have someone stand behind me when I can’t see them,’” Rittenberg said. So she kept within the patient’s line of sight when examining her.

“The therapeutic relationship can be one that helps people recover from trauma,” Rittenberg said.

Doctors and other caregivers might want to be aware of the extra stress that current events are having on people, and act sensitively, Rittenberg said.