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A surgeon’s lawsuit highlights gender disparities and workplace discrimination in medicine

The surgeon faced a dilemma: continue an operation that could kill an extremely sick patient on the operating table or sew the patient up, extending their life by only a few painful days at most.

Dr. Deborah Keller, a second-year attending colorectal surgeon at the time at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, wanted assurance she was making the right decision.

She asked a nurse to call her boss, Dr. Pokala Ravi Kiran, the division chief of colorectal surgery, for a second opinion.

“The patient is going to die. Close. What’s the issue?” Kiran barked at her, humiliating her in front of the other medical staff members in the operating room, Keller says.

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The brusque remark during the 2019 operation was not out of the ordinary for Kiran, Keller says. She claims he would also comment on her appearance and make her do administrative duties that male colleagues were excused from and that he hired her at a lower starting salary than her male teammates.

Yet her institution did nothing to address the imbalances, her attorneys allege in a complaint filed on Dec. 21, 2021, in Manhattan federal court in which they accuse the prestigious New York City-based medical center of tolerating a “toxic culture of gender discrimination.”

Attorneys representing NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails about Keller’s case. An attorney for Columbia University and Kiran directed NBC News to Robert Hornsby, a spokesman for Columbia University. He declined to comment on the allegations, saying the university does not comment on pending litigation.

Given how ill the patient was in the operating room that day, Keller says, any supervisor would have offered the same advice hers did. But she feels her boss would have addressed the other surgeons on her team — all men — more respectfully had they been in the same situation.

“It would have been the same result, but it just wouldn’t have been embarrassing them in front of a room full of people,” she said. “I had not ever had a patient die. I just needed to know that I was doing the right thing.”

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