Laura Perilla-Vargas went to Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston, Texas, on Halloween two years ago to be treated for shortness of breath. Two days later, a stranger’s semen, and blood were found on her body.
What allegedly occurred in the interim was a nightmarish series of sexual assaults that are detailed in a civil lawsuit against the hospital and a doctor. This month, police charged Dr. Shafeeq Sheikh, then a resident at the hospital, with sexual assault. Now, attorneys for Perilla-Vargas, a 27-year-old mother of two, are suing Sheikh for damages along with the hospital and its associated medical school.
According to a petition filed Monday in Harris County District Court, Perilla-Vargas arrived at the Ben Taub emergency room on Oct. 31, 2013, complaining of shortness of breath and wheezing. She stayed for overnight observation, and then developed worrisome new symptoms: spasms, a racing heart rate, fast breathing.
In the early morning of Nov. 2, while Perilla-Vargas was “heavily sedated to the point where she was in and out of consciousness and in a weakened state,” an unknown man entered her room, her attorneys say. She believed the man was a doctor but did not recognize him at the time.
“During the first two visits, the male physician entered the room and placed his mouth on her breast and inserted his fingers into her vagina,” the attorneys allege. “He also attempted to place his penis in her mouth.”
The third time he came in the room, the stranger “pulled her to the edge of the bed, stood on a chair,” and vaginally penetrated her. As these alleged assaults took place, Perilla-Vargas is said to have tried in vain to call nurses for help with the button by her bed but, the next morning, it was discovered that “the nurses’ call button was not working properly and/or it had been unplugged.”
“It’s the feeling that you can’t do anything,” she later told the Houston Chronicle. “You can’t do anything to save yourself.”
Doctor-patient sexual abuse has recently become a topic of heated discussion within the medical world after an anonymous essay was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this August describing extreme cases of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior by medical professionals.
It is difficult to ascertain precisely how common doctor-patient rape is because, as the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) observes, “[t]here is a very low reporting rate for sexual exploitation by helping professionals.”
Perilla-Vargas is one of the few who reported. As she recalled for the Chronicle, she wasn’t able to get help until her sedation wore off and, even then, she had trouble trusting members of the Ben Taub medical staff, whom she alleges did not initially believe her horrific story. Finally, a nurse conducted a sexual-assault examination and confirmed that an unknown male had left behind traces of semen.
A spokesperson for the Harris Health System told the Chronicle that hospital security responded after Perilla-Vargas reported the incident. The spokesperson added that the hospital system has no policy requiring an internal investigation before a law enforcement investigation takes place—a response, in part, to Perilla-Vargas’s claim that officers were at first denied entry into her hospital room while she spoke with security.
The ensuing police investigation took months as Perilla-Vargas prodded investigators to bring her rapist to justice. Police explained the delay to KTRK as a function of the amount of evidence they had to gather.
“All we had was a vague description and we had to go through the hospital records to determine who was on shift at the time this assault occurred,” Senior Police Officer Delinda Compton Mayes told the station.
Police eventually examined Ben Taub General Hospital records including ID card data and surveillance video footage, identifying Sheikh, then an Internal Medicine resident from the Baylor College of Medicine, as a person of interest. Sheikh was not Perilla-Vargas’s primary physician.
Forensic examination of Sheikh’s saliva determined that he “could not be excluded as a possible contributor to the major component of the DNA mixture” found in Perilla-Vargas’s sexual-assault exam, her attorneys say, citing a report from the Houston Forensic Science Center.
Sheikh was finally charged with sexual assault this month—nearly two years after the alleged incident—and he surrendered himself to police shortly thereafter. The Texas Medical Board has also temporarily suspended his license.
Given the timing of Sheikh’s employment, police fear that Perilla-Vargas may not have been the only victim. As KHOU notes, police are “urging other possible victims to come forward” and contact the Houston Police Special Victims Division.
Now, Perilla-Vargas, represented by The Weycer Law Firm, is suing Sheikh, Ben Taub General Hospital, and the Baylor College of Medicine, which staffs the hospital, for civil damages as well. Because Ben Taub is a county hospital, Perilla-Vargas’s attorneys say that the Texas Tort Claims Act will place limits on how much money can be recovered in damages. This act limits the liability of the state government to $250,000 per person and $500,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death.
Stephanie Sanders, one of Perilla-Vargas’s attorneys, told The Daily Beast that her client is now “battling severe anxiety and depression, for which she is receiving counseling and medication.”
“There is not a day that goes by that she has not thought about the night she was assaulted,” Sanders said. “Two years ago, she was a married 27-year-old with two kids. She has since divorced as a result of this incident. She is dealing with the aftermath and trying to figure out how to move forward.”
Perilla-Vargas said she once hoped to become a residential real estate agent but now does not know if she can pursue that career because of the fear and trust issues she has developed as a result of the alleged attack.
The civil suit alleges that the Harris Health System bears part of the responsibility for Perilla-Vargas’s injuries for “failing to provide a safe environment” and that the Baylor College of Medicine failed to “properly supervise and train its employees.”
A spokesperson for the Baylor College of Medicine told The Daily Beast that the school “does not comment on pending litigation.” The Harris Health System also told The Daily Beast that it will not comment on pending litigation.
Lisa Andrews, an attorney for Sheikh, was not immediately available for comment. Andrews has previously told the Houston Chronicle with respect to the criminal charges facing her client that Sheikh “looks forward to proving his innocence in court.”
Update 10/23/15 4:30 PM: Lisa Andrews told The Daily Beast that Sheikh has not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit. She added, “It is not surprising that the victim filed a civil lawsuit in the case as we have suspected that is what the whole purpose for the criminal case was.”