April 14, 2016 

By Jennifer Bihm 

Assistant Editor 

 

A Los Angeles doctor has filed a lawsuit against the regents of the University of California and about five doctors from UCLA for damages related to harassment, discrimination and retaliation. South African native Joy Ekwueme, M.D., who had been a pregnant OB GYN resident at the institution in 2013 said she was denied maternity leave and that she felt forced to have her labor medically induced so that she could report to work on time. The lawsuit also names other acts of abuse that ultimately caused the demise of her medical career, she said.

 

“Once you’ve been kicked out of a residency program, it’s next to impossible to get into another one,” explained Ekwueme’s attorney Brad Mancuso during a recent interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel and L.A. Watts Times.

 

“Her career as a highly paid OB GYN has essentially been destroyed… those dreams have been shattered.”

 

Ekwueme said her removal from the program was purely retaliation for reporting bad behavior.

 

Abusive tactics like being asked to verify her immigration status in front of coworkers, the telling of N word jokes, when she was the only black person in the room and having her medical records looked into were often used against her, she said.

 

But the most egregious was what she suffered upon announcing that she was pregnant and after giving birth to her daughter, who is now three years old.

 

“I had to go to work one week after delivering my daughter,” she said.

 

“Women who have experienced labor and delivery know, you can barely sit after that and I had to sit through two weeks of orientation. My vaginal stitches were still intact.”

 

Ekwueme also recalled tearfully how her first rotation after giving birth was at an abortion clinic.

 

“UCLA is the only hospital that does late term abortion, on women that are almost six months,” she said.

 

“After giving birth (her baby was only three weeks old at the time)and then being made to work in an abortion clinic, where I’m expected to crush a baby’s head with a surgical instrument and pull out the baby in pieces… I don’t know how that could not have been intentional.”

 

Dr. Ekwueme, who grew up in a post-apartheid region of Southern Africa, immigrated to America to attend college and, later, medical school. After being admitted to one of the most selective Residency programs in the country at UCLA, she said she found that her accolades and strong work ethic were overlooked. There, she was labeled by her peers as the “Affirmative Action Resident.” During her residency at UCLA (from 2013 to 2015,) though Dr. Ekwueme’s performance was comparable to her fellow residents, many of her supervisors treated her as though she was incompetent and denied her learning opportunities.

 

“This lawsuit touches on two major issues that have plagued UCLA for many years,” Mancuso explained.

 

“The first being the negative racial climate that is still occurring among faculty and staff; and the second being the intentional HIPAA violations by UCLA medical personnel. As a new father myself, this case also hits home for me on a personal level because of how Dr. Ekwueme was mistreated due to her pregnancy. That is supposed to be a time of happiness and celebration; instead, UCLA completely robbed her of that joyous occasion.”

 

“I’ve taken this legal action against UCLA in my efforts to fight for equality for myself, my children, and the generations to come,”Ekwueme said.

 

“We’ve made strides in the fight against racism, but we’re not there yet. People who hold positions of authority must be held accountable, especially people whose decisions have a profound impact on other peoples’ lives. At UCLA, I worked in a hostile environment, where my privacy and even my maternity rights were violated. My supervisors and peers tried to intimidate me. I believe in the law—I’m pursuing this lawsuit to make health care better for everyone, including patients who are unable to speak out. When I took the Hippocratic Oath, I meant every word. That oath demands that medical professionals have integrity. When I’m surrounded by people I look up to who are not acting with integrity, I simply must take action.”

 

Officials at UCLA said they do not comment on pending litigation.

 

In 2013, UCLA settled a racial discrimination lawsuit for $4.5 million, with a Dr. Christian Head.

 

Ekwueme has not yet asked for a specific monetary amount.

Category: Health


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