Human Trafficking: Stand By or Stand Up

I noticed my first human trafficking patient when I was in medical school during an ObGyn rotation. The moment passed in a flash. We undraped the woman to begin her surgery, and there they were: branding tattoos on her lower abdomen and inner thighs. These tattoos informed us all that the body we were repairing was for sale, although I didn’t recognize this at the time. Shortly after this encounter, I watched the film “The Whistleblower” about the Bosnian sex trafficking ring facilitated by UN Peacekeepers from DynCorp in 1999. I thought the film was overblown hyperbole, so I started reading. I was dismayed to find it largely accurate. I kept reading. I read that sex trafficking occurs not only in foreign countries – in Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Eastern Bloc, Africa – but here in the U.S., too. I read about red flags for sex trafficking: repeated sexually transmitted infections, repeated pregnancy and/or abortion, vaginal injuries, branding tattoos… I remembered our patient. My gut twisted, and a dreadful, sinking feeling set in. We removed her fibroids, but we left the plague that was killing her: human trafficking. 

In reality, I probably had seen patients who were victims of human trafficking during previous rotations in medical school and even while volunteering in the emergency department in NYC as a Columbia postbac premed student. If you’re working in Emergency Medicine, ObGyn, Pediatrics, Adolescent Medicine or Family Medicine, you’ve likely seen patients who are victims of human trafficking. If you’re a radiologist, you’ve likely looked at their broken bones, and if you’re an orthopedic or maxillofacial surgeon, you’ve probably set their bones. As an ENT or dentist, you’ve probably noted and treated their injuries. As a therapist, you’ve likely helped them with their addictions, suicidality, overdoses, or PTSD. As humans, we buy the fruit and vegetables they pick and eat the fish they catch. Similar to the #MeToo movement, the movement to increase awareness about human trafficking will open our eyes to injustice. We will see that “they” are part of “us.” And our defining moment will occur in a flash when we decide to stand by or stand up.

For information about free training in human trafficking awareness, go to the Events tab at https://www.amwa-doc.org/our-work/initiatives/human-trafficking/  (CME credit is available. Additionally, check out free educational videos for CME credit at www.doc-path.org.)