Content warning: This article discusses topics of sexual abuse.
The Columbia University Irving Medical Center claims that its care is “enhanced by our compassion for patients and their families and a devotion to maintaining the highest standard of care.” However, care for the patients of Columbia gynecologist Robert Hadden was defined by abuse, harassment, and a lack of transparency that has persisted for decades.
Nearly five years after Hadden pled guilty to charges of sexual assault, 175 women have come forward with allegations of abuse against him. Though almost a decade has passed since these women say Hadden abused them, many are still struggling to reconcile the lasting psychological and physical harm of their mistreatment at Hadden’s Columbia offices: Some women have not been able to see a doctor without feeling anxiety, and others are still piecing together the full extent of their abuse, hampered by the University’s reluctance to disclose full medical records to Hadden’s former patients and their lawyers.
Hadden was first arrested on June 29, 2012 after the New York Police Department received a complaint alleging that he had licked a patient during an exam, but he was soon released and returned to his office the following week. He was not removed from patient care until six weeks later in August.
In 2014, Hadden was criminally indicted after the district attorney opened an investigation against him and charged him with six counts of sexual assault. In 2016, Hadden pled guilty to only two of those charges and took a deal in which he lost his license but was put on probation—he was not sentenced to any jail time.
As time went on, more and more women have continued to speak out against Hadden, alleging that he took advantage of his position of power over his female patients and committed hundreds of abuse cases. Last September, Hadden was indicted by the Manhattan Federal Court for at least two decades of sexually abusing patients, dozens of whom, including multiple minors, he enticed and induced to travel interstate to his medical office.
In September 2020 the University and New York-Presbyterian Hospital issued a statement to the press about the charges against Hadden. Neither institution directly claimed responsibility for the length of time that Hadden was allowed to continue his practice and abuse of patients.
“Nothing is more important to Columbia than the safety of our patients, and we condemn sexual misconduct in any form. We commend the women who have spoken out against Robert Hadden and will cooperate fully with the US Attorney’s Office,” Columbia said in a statement.
NewYork-Presbyterian said, “The trust that patients place in their physicians is sacred. Robert Hadden’s abhorrent actions violated that sacred trust and damaged women’s lives. We will continue to condemn his horrific conduct and provide our full cooperation to law enforcement as it works to ensure that justice is served.”
According to many survivors, these statements contradict their personal experiences dealing with the University. At the time of Hadden’s initial arrest in 2012, Columbia did not reach out to his former patients or respond to the women who had come forward with stories of abuse. Lawyer Anthony T. DiPietro, who has been working on the case against Hadden for nine years, claims that the University was made aware of allegations of sexual misconduct against Hadden as early as 1995, citing a letter sent in that year by the then-acting chair of obstetrics and gynecology, Dr. Harold Fox, apologizing to a patient for an incident of sexual abuse involving Hadden.
“From 1995, this has been going on,” DiPietro said. “We’ve asked for them to own it and tell patients what’s going on, but the opposite has happened.”
Tsahia Hobson, SPH ’16, was a patient of Hadden between 2003 and 2012 and an employee of CUIMC. As a former University employee familiar with the inner workings of Columbia’s administrative system and powers, she discussed how allegations against Hadden were most likely known by those working in the medical center beforehand.
“This didn’t happen in a bubble. … [Hadden] had a supervisor. He had a chair of the department. If he was in a particular division within OB-GYN, he had a division head. There were chaperones in the exam rooms when the abuse was happening,” Hobson said. “If there were complaints that were made, and it seems there were about his behavior, but his boss had to know, the chair of his department had to know.”
Despite the University’s acknowledgment of Hadden’s abuse in the 1995 letter, it was neither publicly acknowledged at the time nor was Hadden’s employment reconsidered. At the time of Hadden’s arrest in 2012, his patients were not notified, and those who inquired were told that he was on vacation or medical leave. In 2013, Dr. Katarina Eisinger, then chief of obstetrics and gynecology, sent a letter to patients announcing that “Dr. Robbert Hadden has closed his private practice at Columbia University Medical Center” and encouraging patients to transition their care to “one of his excellent partners.”
DiPietro also claimed that Hadden’s profile remained on the University’s OB-GYN website until 2015. A search on the University’s OB-GYN website currently yields no profiles, press statements, or results for “Hadden” or “Robert Hadden.”
The University’s failure to acknowledge the charges against Hadden has made it difficult not only for women who have spoken out to come to terms with their past experiences, but also for former patients to even find out whether they were abused at Hadden’s office. Unequal power dynamics between physician and patient have made it so that many women are unsure of whether what Hadden would have called medical treatment was actually a form of sexual abuse.
For Hobson, these barriers have prevented her from coming to terms with what happened to her and healing from the harm that was done. She had not recognized the inappropriate behavior Hadden had exhibited toward her until she discussed it further with her friends and realized that her experiences were not normal.
“I believed that everything he was doing was medically necessary and giving me the best care,” Hobson said. “It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized this was not what it was supposed to be.”
Almost a decade after leaving Hadden’s practice, she continues to wrestle with the impact of the abuse she experienced, which was often veiled under the pretense of medical necessity. Hobson recalled an appointment where Hadden claimed that he needed to inspect her Brazillian wax for “red spots and irritation.”
“[Hadden] said to me, guys like this because you can get more pleasure if you don’t have hair down there.” While Hobson was shocked at Hadden’s statement, she rationalized that the interaction was “a sexual health thing from a gynecologist.”
Hobson went on to describe inappropriate breast examinations that Hadden performed wherein he pinched her nipples for long periods of time. In addition, she discussed her HPV vaccination which Hadden had administered himself rather than have a nurse do it. Instead of injecting her in the arm as normal, Hadden unnecessarily injected the shot into her buttocks.
Marissa Hoechstetter, who was the first woman to speak out publicly against Hadden, faced a similar challenge. She was Hadden’s patient between 2009 and 2012 and friends with his niece. In part due to their acquaintance, she had trusted Hadden with the delivery of her twin daughters.
Though Hoechstetter remembers that “there were things that were odd from the beginning,” such as questions about her sex life—which she did not bring up herself as a medical concern—and unusually long breast exams, she did not fully realize that she was being abused until May 2012 when she said that during a postpartum exam, Hadden licked her.
After that, Hoechstetter never returned to Hadden’s office, nor did she hear from Columbia about Hadden’s arrest just one month later. Hoechstetter only found out about the arrest and the charges against Hadden when later that fall, her friend told her about “what someone accused Dr. Bob of.”
“She said that, and I felt so sick. I just remember any little tiny kernel of doubt that I had somewhere in my head that I had made it up, that I had imagined it, was gone,” Hoechstetter said.
After realizing the full extent of her abuse, Hoechstetter says that her relationship with doctors was “destroyed.” She described her anxiety “even just going into a medical office.”
“Ultimately I think telling the story probably was good for my mental health. I am committed to taking care of my body and myself, and I’m not going to have a health condition because I didn’t go to a doctor,” Hoechstetter said. “I don’t want this experience to cause me further physical harm. It’s caused a lot of mental harm.”
Hoechstetter and Hobson are not alone in their fight to overcome the lasting trauma of their abuse: According to DiPietro, some of the women he represents have not been able to see a gynecologist, even for annual checkups, since they say they experienced abuse at Hadden’s office.
“They’re so traumatized that they can’t go. They’ve decided that it’s less painful for them to neglect their own medical needs than to return to a gynecologist after what they’ve been through,” DiPietro said.
Another institutional obstacle that has challenged Hadden’s former patients is the difficulty they have faced accessing necessary medical documents or changing birth certificates to remove Hadden’s name. For instance, Hoechstetter reported her abuse to the Manhattan district attorney in 2015 and spent the subsequent years fighting to remove Hadden’s name from her children’s birth certificates, filing requests to Columbia through DiPietro. Hoechstetter never received a response from Columbia allowing the change, but her advocacy led to a 2019 bill passed by the New York City Council that allows parents to obtain new birth certificates if the physician who delivered their children loses their license.
Although Hoechstetter was eventually able to obtain and amend her children’s medical documents, other patients have faced difficulties retrieving their files from Hadden’s Columbia offices, and DiPietro says that he still does not have access to Hadden’s personnel files, credential files, or even complete sets of medical records for some of his clients.
Currently, Hobson is in the process of trying to get her medical records from the University to see whether any further abnormalities in her treatment were documented. While she was provided with the records for her final four years of treatment with Hadden, she claims that Columbia has not given her access to her records between 2003 and 2008 or provided any rationale for their unavailability.
The lack of transparency from Columbia coupled with holes in personal medical records has left survivors feeling invisible and unacknowledged in the eyes of the University.
“I’m so angry because I worked with Columbia University from 2003 to 2018, and for all of these years, I had a doctor abuse me as well as other women. [Columbia] did not take any responsibility in saying if something happened to you, can we make this better?” Hobson said.
Hoechstetter points to the University as more “responsible in some ways” than Hadden, citing its lack of response and redress as harmful to survivors.
“You start seeing a picture of an institution that basically protected this guy to protect their own liability, and they let him keep harming people for decades,” Hoechstetter said. “I should have never been able to see him.”
“The University has failed on so many levels,” Hobson said. “I think there’s just a complete absence of a stance. They have not done anything right. As far as I’m concerned, it has just been a big behemoth betrayal and a universal failure of a medical center because they allowed this thing to happen and they will not acknowledge that it happened.”
For Hobson, the lack of acknowledgment is something that is especially harmful to her as a Black woman. She spoke about how Black women specifically are often not believed by their health care providers on the amount of pain and the tests they need. Hobson said that it was particularly important for her to speak out as a Black woman in the health care industry.
“I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I’m not afraid of Columbia University and what they have to say,” Hobson said.
Still, Hobson is reminded of the abuse and trauma she went through on a daily basis. As a former employee and graduate degree recipient from Columbia, her life will be forever intertwined with the University. As an entrepreneur in the health care industry, many of her conversations revolve around her time at the University.
With a federal court trial scheduled for September, DiPietro and the women he represents are continuing to push for the University to implement a list of 13 reforms including publicly informing Hadden’s former patients of his arrest, conviction, and loss of license; posting placards informing patients of their right to have a chaperone present at all exams; and providing a way for chaperones to anonymously report doctor misconduct.
The University has not issued an official response to DiPietro nor his clients regarding these suggested policy changes.
Moving forward, Hobson would like to see the University change its course and render justice to Hadden’s victims, starting with a public apology and a recognition of wrongdoing.
“There has to be some kind of recognition that, you know, doctors aren’t gods. They’re not God, they’re people. They make mistakes, they do bad things, but when they do bad things, there have to be consequences for it,” Hobson said.
Hoechstetter agrees, citing the implications of institutional complicity on the larger community.
“It’s disturbing when you realize that an institution is more interested in protecting itself than hearing 175 women’s stories,” Hoechstetter said. “How do you know as a student or a patient or an alum, or whatever, that you’re not going to be in a similar situation when you look at how the institution continues to act and respond to us. … That’s alarming.”
Now, nearing nine years after she left Hadden’s office, Hobson and Hoechstetter are still fighting for their stories as well as the stories of all of the other women who have come forward to be recognized by the University and to be justly redressed. Hoechstetter points to the recent case against University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall, who also committed decades of sexual abuse at his offices, as an example of a university facing a public “reckoning” and acknowledging the scope of institutional failure. That case was settled Thursday in a $1.1 billion settlement with a total of 710 women suing USC.
Above all, Hoechstetter hopes to implement institutional policy changes that will prevent future patient abuse at the University’s hospital.
“It might be hard to prevent a first occurrence of a doctor assaulting a patient, but we surely should be able to prevent repeat occurrences of this stuff and root it out,” she said.
Though Hoechstetter has spent the past decade healing from her experience, she nevertheless reflected as a survivor of abuse, “It doesn’t go away. It never leaves you. It changes you and you change with it, but it’s always there.”