Surgeon’s arrest for sexual battery a ‘catalyst’ for Idaho health care workers to talk about abuse

Women gave accounts of sexism, bullying and abuse in operating rooms — largely a male-dominated field

By: - February 27, 2023 4:30 am
A tray of surgical instruments, with surgeons and medical staff in full PPE during an operation in the background

Idaho health care workers told the Idaho Capital Sun that they experienced sexual harassment and bullying at work. “Your caregiver should feel safe at work, in order to give you good care,” said a surgical technologist. “It’s so important for our patients also to know these things, and until the awareness is out there, nobody knows, and no change can happen.” (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of alleged sexual battery, harassment and bullying.

Emily Garringer was assigned to a surgery in operating room No. 8 at the St. Luke’s hospital in Meridian. It was March 2019 — her eighth year working as a surgical technologist but her first time in surgery with Dr. Stanley Waters.

Like many other doctors, Waters was not a St. Luke’s employee but had “privileges” to give medical care to his patients in the hospital.

“While introducing myself … he reached directly for my badge, which sits on my chest,” Garringer wrote in a letter last year to a St. Luke’s human resources representative. “He brushed his open palm against my breast, my reaction was to immediately step backwards and sort of swat his hand away.”

Other people in the operating room made jokes, she said. One person laughingly warned Waters not to “mess with” Garringer because she was “like a honey badger,” meaning she would not tolerate mistreatment.

Waters didn’t apologize but instead said, “‘I cannot read your badge,’ as if that justified the act,” she wrote.

Garringer was one of several women who told the Idaho Capital Sun they experienced sexism and abuse on the job in Idaho health care, including harassment and sexual battery.

The women described feeling unsupported and dispensable at work, in situations with men who had seniority. They describe it as part of a broader pattern of harassment in a traditionally male-dominated field.

‘I was not the only person that he had groped’

After the surgery, Garringer went straight from the operating room to a manager’s office.

“I told her what had happened and that I wasn’t sure how to proceed, but I did want to officially report the incident,” Garringer wrote in the letter recounting what happened.

The manager shrugged it off as a misunderstanding or an accident, she wrote.

“She told me, ‘I will talk with him, but for now I do not believe we need to make a bigger deal about it.’ I feel this was dismissed, because from co-workers I know I was not the only person that he had groped or touched inappropriately, those incidents had also been taken to her directly,” she wrote. “I felt like knowing that this was an ongoing problem, it should have been taken seriously and documented. I didn’t receive any follow up from her.”

She was assigned to another surgery with him the next month, then four more times that year, according to a record of her schedule.

Then in the summer of 2020, it happened again, she said.

This time, the alleged groping was mid-surgery, as she held retractors to keep a patient’s incision open for Waters to operate.

He reached past her to grab a surgical instrument and, in the process, “placed an entire palm on my breast and lingered,” she wrote. She recalled it lingering there for three or four seconds. “I believe I said something like, ‘Excuse me,’ (and) he immediately pulled his hand away. Awkward silence following this time.”

She didn’t report the 2020 incident until last fall, prompted by the news of criminal charges against Waters. She didn’t see the point in reporting it when it happened, Garringer said. By then, she’d learned that others had been reporting misconduct and nothing had changed, she said.

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“I felt as if the first grievance had been ignored, and I didn’t want to put myself through the embarrassment and stress again,” she told the Sun.

Garringer described the incidents in a series of interviews with the Idaho Capital Sun, in the letter to St. Luke’s HR and in a police report last fall.

“Every single one of us has just been completely brushed under the rug,” Garringer told the Sun. “Those weren’t just one-off instances, he has a pattern of doing this.”

Waters was arrested last August and has been charged with misdemeanor sexual battery on several different people. The courts have scheduled jury trials starting next month.

Waters has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Garringer told the Sun she hasn’t been contacted by police or the prosecutor’s office since making a formal report. The court records show that prosecutors have not charged Waters based on her complaint.

Prosecutors filed a notice with the court this month in two cases against Waters, saying there are as many as 23 total alleged victims.

“In addition to the current charges in front of this court, (Waters) has five other pending sexual battery cases with similar fact patterns,” said the notice.

Another 17 people have come forward “with similar allegations” but prosecutors didn’t charge Waters in those cases, mostly because of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred, the notice said.

“These instances took place at (Waters’s) office, primarily during medical examinations,” it said. “The victims were mostly his patients, but two victims were his former employees.” The dates those alleged victims gave to police ranged from 2009 through last July.

In a response to that notice from prosecutors, Waters’s attorney says he has now retired. He practiced medicine for more than 20 years in the Boise area and “was well regarded as a top surgeon and respected by his peers, with multiple hospital privileges and literally hundreds of satisfied patients,” the court filing said.

Waters “reviewed the allegations made by others” against him “and denies those as well,” it said. “The investigation by police amounted to an invitation for anyone with any complaint against the defendant to come forward with their story.”

In that court filing, Waters addressed the allegation in one case — in which a patient accused him of rubbing her foot on his penis through his clothing. Waters believes that the patient had a “history of post-traumatic stress disorder (that) may have triggered some emotional response and caused her to believe she had been inappropriately touched,” it said.

A former employee also sued Waters and his orthopedic practice, accusing him of sexual harassment after she started working for him in 2018. The lawsuit said Waters tried to persuade her, an X-ray technician, to meet him alone outside of work. It said he made comments about her body and would hug and touch her, and put “his arms around her whole body and press himself into her posterior.”

His behavior made her “highly uncomfortable” but she “was afraid of losing her job,” so she did not respond to his advances, the lawsuit said. He fired her in early 2019, it said. The Idaho Human Rights Commission determined in August 2020 that there was “probable cause to believe sexual harassment occurred” and then, in June 2021, issued a “right to sue” letter to the former employee.

The case was later dismissed with a settlement.

Chuck Peterson, the Boise attorney representing Waters, could not be reached by the Sun, which left multiple messages through email and voicemail. Peterson told the Sun through an office employee last October that he had “no comment on the case.”

Workplace harassment ‘a systemic issue across health care’

St. Luke’s Health System is the largest health care employer in Idaho, with eight hospitals and thousands of employees. But the problem goes beyond St. Luke’s, Garringer and several others said.

The events Garringer and others described “happened inside of St. Luke’s, but it’s in many ways a culture in health care,” Garringer said. “It’s a systemic issue across health care. … I mean, no one is handling it well. It just happened to be that this time, there was a real catalyst (in an arrest that) allowed some of us to stand up.”

A member of St. Luke’s leadership agreed to an interview but would not talk about individual employee complaints or about the allegations against Waters.

“I’m heartbroken to hear that you’ve had conversations with some of our team who have felt that they’ve been bullied, and have felt that they have had some issues while working here at St. Luke’s. That’s heartbreaking, it’s disturbing, and we take those really seriously, as far as our whole team,” said Dr. Frank Johnson, chief medical officer for St. Luke’s Boise, Elmore County and McCall.

“The important thing when it comes to any issues related to harassment or bullying or behavior like that, is that we create an environment at St. Luke’s where people are safe to speak up and know that their leaders will respond when they do speak up,” Johnson said. “I think we’re in a good spot for that right now.”

Garringer did not feel that way. She left her job in the wake of Waters’s arrest last fall, after writing the letter to St. Luke’s human resources. She now does health care as a traveler but lives in the Treasure Valley.

“A little bit of empathy would have gone a long way,” she said.

Garringer wishes that administrators had talked with Waters’s alleged victims. Instead they were told not to discuss it at work or anywhere else, she said.

“I understand that we need to keep each individual safe and anonymous, if that’s what they want, but they could have easily put together some meeting, group, whatever, where victims could have chosen to go — or not if they didn’t want to ‘out’ themselves,” she said. “I think the optics, the way all of that looks, it shows they don’t really care.”

When a patient is harmed in the hospital, managers gather the whole team to talk about what went wrong and how to fix it in the future. Nothing like that happened in the wake of her and others’ reports about workplace harassment and sexual battery, she said.

Your caregiver should feel safe at work, in order to give you good care. ... It’s so important for our patients also to know these things, and until the awareness is out there, nobody knows, and no change can happen.

– Emily Garringer, in a January 2023 interview about bullying and sexual misconduct in health care

She made a formal complaint of misconduct in 2009

Leanne Fratti is a nurse and surgical technologist who worked with Waters starting in the mid-2000s.

She “put up with his grossness for years,” she told the Sun in an interview. Because she tolerated it, she became “one of his deemed favorites” to assist in the operating room when he performed surgeries, she said.

The orthopedic surgeon — in his 50s at the time, and now in his late 60s — would sometimes flirt with young female staff while operating on a patient, Fratti said. Other times, he would lose his temper and berate lower-ranking health care workers, especially other men, she said.

He never touched her body, and she didn’t see him touch any other women, she said. But his behavior crossed a line in March 2009, and she filed a complaint.

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Fratti provided a digital copy of her complaint to the Sun; its metadata confirmed it was authentic. In it, Fratti described two Tuesdays in a row that month when she felt targeted by Waters.

The first Tuesday, he walked into the operating room and, upon seeing her, launched into complaints and implied she was “basically not up to the job” — then stared at her in silence when she asked a question about the surgical case, according to her complaint.

The second Tuesday, he got angry at Fratti’s timing, she said. After that surgery was complete, Waters approached Fratti. She was near the sink where surgeons and other staff “scrub in” to make themselves as germ-free as possible before going into the operating theater.

“He literally physically cornered me, was like surrounding me,” Fratti told the Sun. “I didn’t appreciate that and told him so, but that’s what finally threw me over the edge. He was literally cornering me … inches from my face and yelling at me.”

It wasn’t just her, Fratti said.

“His room makes me and others very uncomfortable (because) he is a very disruptive and abusive surgeon,” Fratti wrote in her 2009 letter to St. Luke’s.

I have had difficulty with this Dr. for a long time now. ... The abusive behavior is unacceptable and I do not want to subject myself to this.

– Leanne Fratti, nurse and surgical technologist, in a 2009 letter to St. Luke’s management about Dr. Stanley Waters

Fratti recalls meeting with the director of orthopedics at the time and with St. Luke’s attorneys. There was a human resources representative in the room, she said.

“That’s what it took for me to finally report him … and go and get absolutely nothing accomplished,” Fratti said. “I’d seen so much, I’d heard so much, direct witness to him being gross and vulgar to people.”

After raising her concerns to St. Luke’s management, Fratti says she still had to work with him, and his behavior “never changed at all.”

Fratti told the Sun that Waters would “fawn over” young women in the hospital “and tell them how amazing they were and — I just don’t know how to explain how disgusting it was, but you’d walk out of there feeling just disgusting.”

She said, for example, that he used a soft touch when passing surgical tools to “pretty girls” but would “grab on and squeeze so hard it hurt” with staff he didn’t like.

Fratti agreed to speak on the record because she now works for an outside surgical group, and she was “sick” that it took years for anyone to hold Waters accountable for alleged misconduct.

“This needs to be told,” Fratti said. “And I know, in health care, countless people can probably attest to these (things happening).”

‘It can be hard to speak up’ in health care

The operating room “is a weird place,” Fratti said.

It is one health care workplace that has a harsh reputation. During a surgery, the OR is a cold room that contains a handful of people, standing for hours in uncomfortable sterile garb, aware that one clumsy elbow bump could maim or kill the patient.

“Our job is to make the surgeons happy and make the surgery go as well as possible,” she said. “So even if you hate the surgeon, you still have to kind of placate them.”

She and other lower-ranking staff found ways to do that, she said. When a surgeon wasn’t communicating, some surgical techs found they could engage them and get them into a better mood by asking questions to activate “teaching mode.”

Some surgeons wouldn’t acknowledge the techs were in the room and would only talk to the surgical assistant.

Johnson said that pattern of behavior in U.S. operating rooms goes back to when surgery was “mostly dominated by male physicians, with female nurses, and a very defined power differential and a different expectation of the role of the surgeon in that environment.”

That was true when he was in medical training 25 or 30 years ago, he said.

“The surgeon was able to do whatever they wanted, in terms of behavior, and that was tolerated at the time,” he said.

The operating room had the same power dynamic as other male-dominated workplaces — but supercharged and combustible from the stress of operating on a brain or heart or hip.

A hospital workplace does not need to be that way, though, he said.

“I’m grateful that we’ve had changes over the last few years to that environment and to that expectation. Some of the great changes that we’ve got — we have so many more female surgeons that are excellent and outstanding, and that’s changed the dynamic of the way that operating rooms work,” Johnson said. “Coming out of medical school now, over 50% of physicians are female, and that has been a real benefit, and it’s caused a real reflection on the nature of how operating rooms structure and how they function.”

Are there issues? Yes, there are still issues. We're in a much better place today. It's my commitment, it's our commitment as leaders, to continue to foster that transformation for the benefit of our patients and staff.

– Dr. Frank Johnson, chief medical officer for St. Luke’s in Boise, Elmore County and McCall, on workplace cultures that enable bullying or harassment

Fratti and other women told the Sun these problems are not unique to St. Luke’s.

One woman said it began with her first job in Twin Falls. She lost that job after the man who harassed her told management she’d been spreading lies that he grabbed her bottom at a party with their coworkers — which he had, but she hadn’t been telling anyone, she said.

That happened in 2015. The woman asked to be unnamed to protect her privacy, and because she continues to experience harassment.

She didn’t even tell her now-husband about it in detail until last month, when she decided to talk to a reporter about it. “I tried to tell my husband, and I just, I broke down,” she said. “People wonder why, decades later, you haven’t talked about something.”

If you’re a victim of sexual abuse or violence, help is waiting at (live chat) or 800-656-4673 (phone). To report a sexual battery or other crime, call 9-1-1 or your local police or sheriff’s office.

The 2015 incident was only the first time, she said. At the next hospital, also in Idaho, she felt more empowered and valued. Then, a colleague she had trusted sent her a text message immediately after she took another job. The text asked her for nude photographs.

She made a full-time career of travel work — filling temporary openings at hospitals around the U.S. — because harassment is easier to tolerate when it has an end date, she said.

“It is pervasive,” she said. “I might be able to think of one place I’ve worked where there isn’t an issue … and I’ve worked at around 15 different hospitals.”

Numerous journal articles, first-person essays and research studies describe patterns of bullying, verbal abuse, assault, battery and sexual harassment in health care — not just in operating rooms in Idaho, but throughout American hospitals and in other countries.

“Bullying contributes to burnout and drives talented and caring people out of the health professions,” says The Joint Commission, the nation’s foremost hospital accreditation organization. “The kinds of improvements needed in patient safety and health care cannot be achieved if talented people are lost.”

Johnson said St. Luke’s is committed to a safe and supportive workplace.

The health system last January rolled out a “safety together” training and a new protocol meant to give employees more of a voice, he said.

“It can be hard to speak up. And we needed to recognize the need to support people speaking up, by providing sort of specific tools that help them to communicate with their leaders, and that help our leaders to escalate those concerns and get them addressed appropriately,” Johnson said.

“We have human resources processes that are robust. I’ve certainly had to be involved in a couple of those with different situations over my five years in this role,” he said. “Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often. But when it does happen, we get those addressed quickly and expeditiously through both the HR process and (the board of directors for complaints about an independent doctor).”

The Sun asked Johnson what options an employee has if they report misconduct and feel it isn’t taken seriously.

“We do have an established chain of command that goes all the way up — oftentimes to me as the final step to address (a complaint) — so we ask our employees to utilize that chain of command,” Johnson said. “And when that chain of command starts with a direct supervisor, if an individual is not getting the response that they expect, we do have an established structure to go above that to take the next step.”

In her 18-year career as a surgical technologist, Fratti said, the environment has “gotten immensely better” as a new generation of surgeons has entered the workplace.

“It’s getting healthier but it’s still really sick and broken,” she said.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton was a senior investigative reporter with the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover included health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.