California hospital canceled transgender man’s hysterectomy minutes before operation, lawsuit says

A Catholic hospital in Eureka, California, canceled a hysterectomy scheduled for 29-year-old Oliver Knight, pictured here, minutes before a surgeon was scheduled to operate, according to a lawsuit filed against the hospital.
A Catholic hospital in Eureka, California, canceled a hysterectomy scheduled for 29-year-old Oliver Knight, pictured here, minutes before a surgeon was scheduled to operate, according to a lawsuit filed against the hospital. Courtesy of ACLU of Northern California

Oliver Knight says he didn’t find out a Northern California hospital had canceled his hysterectomy until minutes before the surgeon was set to start operating.

By that time, Knight had been at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka for three hours and had already put on the pink gown a nurse made him wear instead of the blue gown Knight requested, telling him pink was required for “female” surgeries, according to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed Thursday against the hospital on Knight’s behalf.

“They hooked me up to an IV to get ready to put me to sleep,” Knight wrote in an ACLU blog post about the incident that happened Aug. 30, 2017. “About an hour after waiting, my surgeon finally came to get me. But when I saw the look on his face, I got a terrible feeling.”

The surgeon told Knight the hysterectomy was off and that it wouldn’t be rescheduled due to the medical center’s Catholic affiliation, the lawsuit said. That left Knight “sobbing and shaking” — and when Knight asked if the operation had been canceled because he’s transgender, the surgeon responded “yes,” according to the lawsuit.

Before the surgery, there had been an “ethics assessment,” and medical records show that during the assessment David Groe, a reverend “with no medical training or medical licensure,” decided to cancel the 27-year-old’s operation, the lawsuit said.

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of anti-trans bigotry but I didn’t expect it from a hospital,” Knight, now 29, said in a statement released by the ACLU. “It seems the hospital doesn’t understand how it feels to be treated inhumanely just because your body parts do not match your soul.”

Filed in Humboldt County court, the lawsuit accuses the hospital of violating the Unruh Civil Rights Act by denying a patient care for being transgender. The lawsuit also accuses the hospital of both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. California’s Unruh Act bars sex-based discrimination in all business establishments, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said the Unruh Act’s definition of “sex” is written so that it “includes a person’s gender identity and gender expression.” The lawsuit accuses the hospital of breaking the law by denying Knight medical care that it “regularly provides to non-transgender patients.” The surgery had been deemed medically necessary to treat Knight’s gender dysphoria, the lawsuit said.

“This is a hospital that is open to the general public so even though it’s religiously affiliated, it’s illegal for them to turn away someone based on gender identity,” Jessica Riggin, a partner at Rukin Hyland & Riggin LLP, which helped file the lawsuit, said in the ACLU statement. “Everyone should be able to get the care they need.”

St. Joseph officials said they have not reviewed the lawsuit, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, but officials said in a statement that they “take these allegations very seriously. We are committing our full attention to investigating this matter.”

The Eureka hospital is one of five run by St. Joseph Health Northern California, a health care provider that’s owned by Providence St. Joseph Health Network, a 51-hospital, 25,000-doctor nationwide health system with 18 hospitals across California, according to the lawsuit.

“At St. Joseph Health, we believe health care is a basic human right and that every individual seeking care should always be treated with compassion and respect,” the hospital’s statement said, according to the Chronicle.

The canceled surgery caused grief and disruption for Knight, according to the lawsuit.

“I had an anxiety attack and thought about all the pre-op and mental preparedness I had to go through just to get here. I freaked out and started crying,” Knight wrote.

The hospital gave Knight some Ativan to treat the anxiety, according to the lawsuit.

“Fifteen minutes after that, the hospital staff asked me to leave,” Knight wrote. “I still had booties on my feet as a nurse led me outside. I felt humiliated and queasy as I sat on the curb waiting for my roommate to pick me up.”

A few days later, Knight got the operation done at Mad River Community Hospital in nearby Arcata, where his surgeon also had surgical privileges, the lawsuit said.

“The hysterectomy was successful, but Mr. Knight contracted an infection while at Mad River,” according to the lawsuit.

The ACLU filed a similar hysterectomy-related lawsuit on behalf of a transgender man in Sacramento in 2017. The church-affiliated hospital in that case won, and the decision is now being appealed, according to the Chronicle.