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Opinion

Opinion | JOAN VENNOCHI

A strong message for Beth Israel

The settlement between Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Harvard doctor who said she endured years of sexist treatment — and punishment for complaining about it — is a hallelujah moment for working women everywhere.

It took courage for Dr. Carol Warfield, the former chief of anesthesia there, to file suit against a premier teaching hospital, the chief of surgery who she said humiliated her, and the chief executive who she said ignored her complaints. It also took tenacity to press forward as the defendants tried to bury her in endless paper and pleadings.

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Warfield and her lawyers didn’t fold. Instead, they put together a witness list that included virtually every senior woman surgeon on the staff. While admitting no wrongdoing, the hospital apparently decided it was worth $7 million to avoid trial. When the settlement was announced, the hospital’s general counsel struck the right chord, saying, “As we look back on this case, there are lessons for the institution.”

Ellen Zucker, Warfield’s lawyer, applauded the hospital’s basic approach.

“After years of contested litigation and on the eve of trial, BIDMC resolved this case in a way that recognized Dr. Warfield’s success as the hospital’s chief of anesthesia and her ground-breaking work in the area of pain medicine,” she said. “That was certainly gratifying, as was the institution’s acknowledgment that there were lessons to be learned.”

But not so fast.

Paul Levy, the chief executive who at one point chided Warfield for creating “a culture of whining” and for not “adjusting” to the surgical chief’s approach, is gone. But Levy didn’t step down because of Warfield’s suit. He left in the wake of another controversy involving his hiring of a close personal friend and former student, who is now his wife.

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Dr. Josef Fischer, the chief of surgery who Warfield said treated her with contempt and campaigned to fire her, no longer performs surgery at the hospital. In a deposition, he said he was asked to step down and resign his clinical privileges after an “incident” in the operating room. In a separate deposition, Levy said Fischer was asked to step down because he was paying his wife as a consultant. What is clear is that he was not asked to step down because of the way he treated Dr. Warfield. With all of that, Fischer still has an office and a library named in his honor. He participates in a weekly “Morbidity and Mortality” conference, during which patient complications are discussed. According to a staff physician who attended on Wednesday, Fischer was there as usual, “holding court and clipping his nails.”

The hospital’s willingness to keep him around in any capacity is truly astonishing, given the hostile climate female doctors said he created during his tenure as surgery chief.

His treatment of Warfield was only part of a pattern of biased and sexist behavior. Court documents show that several doctors believed, as one doctor put it, that he had “a problem with strong women.” Residents in surgery complained that Fischer made it clear he did not believe women should be surgeons.

According to motions filed in advance of trial, one doctor was prepared to testify that she heard Fischer make comments “about the breasts of foreign women.” Another was ready to testify about the discrimination displayed when she was pregnant, which resulted in the loss of her secretary, operating room locker, and cases. An award-winning teacher and physician said she was told by Fischer that she could not instruct residents. Another said she was removed as director of a speciality practice and replaced by a less-qualified man.

The most chilling testimony was set to come from a female resident whom Fischer fired, but who was reinstated after Harvard Medical School intervened. According to court pleadings filed shortly in advance of trial, she was going to testify that at her graduation ceremony, he held up a Barbie doll with a noose around its neck.

Yet even after this $7 million settlement, Fischer remains at the hospital, clipping his nails and commenting on cases in front of women who would have testified against him.

Asked about Fischer’s continued presence, Zucker declined comment. But she noted, “Quite apart from this case, I will tell you what my years as an employment attorney have taught me: Real organizational commitments are best judged by the daily decisions of an institution’s leadership and not by words in a policy or a statement crafted for public consumption.”

The settlement — apparently one of the largest for a gender discrimination case in the state — sends a strong message. The women of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center will have to wait and see what happens next.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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