When Susan Allen and her husband were unable to have a second child, her obstetrician sent her to a well-known fertility specialist. After operating on her, he concluded that Allen’s chances of becoming pregnant were slim.
That was in 2008, and she thought that heartbreaking chapter of her life was closed.
This month, the grief came flooding back. The specialist, Dr. Roger Ian Hardy, has been accused of inappropriately touching and sexually molesting female patients, some while under anesthesia, in incidents that date back at least to 1998.
He surrendered his Massachusetts medical license in January, but Allen and other patients did not learn about the state Board of Registration in Medicine’s allegations against him until they were reported in the Globe on May 1. Allen, 44, is not aware that anything inappropriate occurred during her surgery at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, but she is unsettled.
“Now I just have that question mark,’’ said Allen, who lives in Wakefield. “Was it me, too?”
The Globe interviewed seven patients who said they were treated by Hardy while under sedation. All said they are struggling to comprehend the shocking allegations — and some said they are wondering whether they might have been victims. Some have felt grateful to him for helping them build families. Several said he was a professional and caring doctor, making the apparent betrayal sting all the more.
Hardy has denied the allegations to board investigators. He told them he had treated thousands of women over 20 years working at Fertility Centers of New England and at several community hospitals.
The accusations, Allen said, “bring back all of the pain of infertility, plus add violation to the mix.’’
“You put faith in this person and you go under anesthesia,’’ added a 33-year-old patient from the Merrimack Valley. “I can’t help feel like I was violated, even in an emotional way.’’
The woman, like most of Hardy’s patients, did not want to be identified, in part because she considers fertility treatment private. With help from in vitro fertilization, she gave birth to two children. She still has frozen embryos at the Fertility Centers of New England, where Hardy was medical director, but said, “I wouldn’t be going back there.”
The medical board began its investigation last October after a doctor, a reproductive specialist like Hardy, notified the agency that a longtime patient confided in her that Hardy had allegedly touched the patient sexually, including stroking her genitals, during several exams in his office without a chaperone. Hardy told her it was part of her infertility treatment, the patient later told board investigators, according to documents obtained by the Globe. She was not under anesthesia.
Women seeking fertility treatment can be especially vulnerable, said Alice Domar, a psychologist and Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in treating patients struggling emotionally with infertility.
“Most of my patients perceive fertility doctors as having a lot of power because they want to have a baby more than anything in the world,’’ said Domar, who was interviewed by the medical board during its investigation. She in part provided information on nurses who told her they felt they were working under a “code of silence’’ at the clinic — something the current and prior owners deny.
A 38-year-old woman who was Hardy’s patient for three years said in an interview with the Globe that women suffering from infertility “put their trust and faith in the doctor in a way that’s more emotional than with a regular obstetrician-gynecologist. I was there because I believed he had the expertise and knowledge to help in our specific situation and I wanted a baby who was healthy.’’
‘You put faith in this person and you go under anesthesia.’
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology publish success rates for fertility clinics. But women interviewed by the Globe said they chose Hardy based on recommendations from friends or doctors. Several patients said he was not their physician, but was the doctor on-call for the clinic when they started ovulating and went in for an egg retrieval procedure, which is done under sedation.
Some patients are frustrated because state authorities will not provide details about his actions that could help them determine if they might have been victims. The Fertility Centers of New England has provided no information to them, Hardy’s patients said.
Nicholas J. DiMauro of Burlington, the center’s attorney, said that after Hardy resigned, the clinic called active patients to let them know they needed to reschedule with another doctor. But he said the clinic did not discuss the allegations with patients, because it had no way to verify them.
He also said that the current owner, Dr. Joseph Hill, is not aware of any inappropriate behavior by Hardy at the clinic after Hill bought it in 2003.
The medical board’s allegations include that Hardy, 55, touched the breast of one patient and that he inappropriately touched the genitals of at least three other women — all of whom were sedated. One of the women described trauma to her genitals she said occurred while sedated for a procedure Hardy performed at the Hunt Center in Danvers.
In some cases, according to board documents, nurses said they did not tell anyone about what they witnessed; in other instances, employees said reports to superiors went nowhere.
Nurses and other staff interviewed by investigators remember witnessing incidents but not always patients’ identities. So definitive answers for Hardy’s patients may be elusive.
Barbara Piselli, acting executive director of the medical board, said investigators have contacted specific patients identified as having been involved in the allegations.
Hardy’s alleged misconduct occurred in a state widely considered a mecca for infertility treatment. A 1987 law that was expanded four years ago requires most insurers to cover in vitro fertilization, with no cap on the number of procedures or the cost.
“The state has the very best insurance coverage in the country,’’ said Barbara Collura, president of Resolve, a national nonprofit that advocates for women and men with infertility.
The organization recently gave Massachusetts an “A’’ rating, based on its generous insurance coverage, and the large number of peer-led support groups — 11 — and fertility specialists — 42.
“I have patients who literally won’t move out of state because coverage is so good,’’ Domar said. “It’s not just women of financial means. It’s patients from all walks of life.’’
Allen, the only patient who agreed to be identified by the Globe, said she did so in part because some of the fertility centers’ staffers were reluctant to speak up about Hardy’s alleged behavior, which apparently continued for years.
That makes her angry, she said. “If you see this happen again, say something.’’