Aja Newman went to the emergency room for shoulder pain. Her doctor was a superstar. What’s the worst that could happen?
Sometime after 2 a.m. on January 12, 2016, Aja Newman roused herself from her hospital gurney and made her way down the long hallway to the bathroom. She had checked in at Mount Sinai’s Emergency Department more than four hours earlier with severe shoulder pain. Aja is a practical person and had been reluctant at first. “Emergency rooms are for emergencies is what I was taught,” she says. But the pain had been dogging her all day long and amplifying steadily, so that by 6 p.m., while she was shopping at Target, “my hands were tingling, and I was afraid.”
The attending doctor who examined her first was Andy Jagoda, the head of the Emergency Medicine Department, who has been at Mount Sinai for 20-plus years. Aja was too uncomfortable to remove her coat, so Jagoda took her vitals with it on. She received anti-inflammatories for her pain as well as X-rays and an EKG to rule out a pulmonary or cardiac problem. Within an hour, Aja was feeling well enough to have changed into a hospital gown in Room 8, a small single room near the doctors’ station with a large glass window in the door. But at the shift change, when Jagoda officially handed her off to David Newman, an overnight attending physician, with a passing joke — You two might be cousins! You have the same last name! — he noted that Aja still seemed very tense; hospital records show that David Newman ordered four milligrams of morphine, which a nurse administered around midnight. Jagoda had been a friendly type of guy, Aja remembers, but “I never got the friendly thing from David Newman. He was very straight to the point.”
On her woozy walk down the hall, holding her IV bag in her hand, Aja tried to piece together what had happened next. She knew for sure that she’d been drugged. She was struggling to stand up, to stay conscious; she felt disoriented and nauseated. Now, did this shit happen? she wondered. Or did I just have a really, really bad dream?
Earlier, as Aja Newman was dozing from the morphine, David Newman entered Room 8 and told her he was going to give her another dose. She objected. She had already been given morphine, she said, but the doctor was determined. He plunged a syringe into her IV port, and the skin around it began to burn. “Don’t jump,” he said.
“I’m like, ‘Wait. Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not okay.’ And I am immediately concerned. I’m going under way too fast,” she remembers. But even then, it didn’t occur to her that David had any intention of harming her. Aja had been born at Mount Sinai, as had her six siblings and her own three children. Her grandmother had been a nurse there, and she grew up in the neighborhood. Mount Sinai was “my hospital,” as she puts it, and her general attitude regarding the professionals there was “Hey, Doc, do your thing. I trust you.”
She felt David hastily moving the bed, then wedging himself between the bed and the wall and masturbating while he molested her. It all went very fast. “I was in and out of consciousness, and one of the first things I felt was him groping my breast,” she says. “It wasn’t really real until I realized I couldn’t move. I can’t say I know my eyes weren’t open, but I couldn’t see.” The sound of the masturbating was unmistakable. “I felt the bed move. And the groping was making me like, ‘Get off me.’ I’m trying to move. I’m trying to fight. And it’s like either he’s really strong or I’m not doing anything at all.” After, she says, David wiped her down roughly with the bedsheet and muttered, “Bitch.”
Arriving at the bathroom, Aja was still sifting through mental images, trying to get a grip. “You going to go out there and accuse him of this?” she says she asked herself. “Nobody’s going to believe you. You are clearly still drugged, and you’re not in a position to go out there and say something and then pass out. But I know I’m in danger. And I’m like, You’ve got to get out of here.”
It would be four more hours before Aja left the Emergency Department, alone. Hospital video shows her dressed in her winter coat and fedora-style hat, moving unsteadily toward the exit. In her left hand, she carries a large plastic bag into which she had stuffed her hospital gown and the bedding, to be used, she hoped, as forensic evidence.
The horror in the jerky, grainy hospital video from that night is in its banality. There is Aja in her winter coat, following a physician’s assistant in scrubs and running shoes to Room 8. There is David, wearing a white collared shirt and red tie beneath a crewneck sweater, moving back and forth between a computer monitor and a row of chairs, sometimes stopping to bend over a patient or to talk to a resident or an orderly. He doesn’t smile much. He puts his hand in his pocket. He takes his hand out. He rubs the back of his head. He scratches his nose. Frequently, he walks out of the frame only to return to his computer again. There is a moment, around 2 a.m., when you see him working at the computer and his posture seems wired. He’s typing, then he rises and walks away, and moments later he’s back and it looks, though it’s hard to tell, like his shirttail is untucked, just a little. The next time you see him, it’s tucked in again.
Outside the hospital, Aja vomited on the sidewalk and then walked to her sister Shatekqua’s house about half a mile away. When she arrived, Aja told Shatekqua to call the police.
“My sister went to the hospital last night,” Shatekqua says on the 911 call. Her tone is high-pitched and frantic. “She says the doctor masturbated — jerked off … on her?” It’s as if she can’t believe her own words. “On her,” she repeats, with more assurance. “This is crazy,” she continues, “the stuff you make up in movies. I mean, what the hell?”
Transferred to the EMS dispatcher, Shatekqua relays Aja’s instructions.
“She said, ‘Tell the ambulance not to come.’ She just needs the police.”
One year later, in New York State Supreme Court, David Newman was sentenced to prison after lab tests showed that, in addition to the morphine that had been prescribed to her and logged in to the hospital record, Aja had been given an unauthorized dose of propofol, a powerful anaesthetic used in surgeries and in smaller doses to help patients disassociate during the setting of a limb. It is what killed Michael Jackson. Semen samples gathered during forensic tests had matched David’s DNA, and, in a deal that reduced his prison time to two years, he pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse in the first degree and four counts of sexual abuse in the third degree. The state’s case included three more people — all young women of color, all poor — who said David Newman had touched or grabbed their breasts when they came to the ED in the last half of 2015. One had come in for a cold, another for a rash on her eyebrow, a third for a headache.
In a field that doesn’t generally breed superstars, David Newman was the exception. He had published op-eds in the New York Times and the Huffington Post; he had done a TED Talk showing how medical data gets misinterpreted. He had been profiled in Wired magazine. With help from the superagent Binky Urban, he had published a book with Scribner, Hippocrates’ Shadow, which advocates for transparency between doctors and patients. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome in a little-brother, college-athlete kind of way or that he had been a medic in Iraq or that he had a confrontational, wiseass way of talking that delighted the residents he taught in the ED.
When Detective Eusebio Santos came to his door in Montclair, New Jersey, at around 9 p.m. on January 12, David started to lie. “I am embarrassed,” he said, “because I whacked off in the lounge, and it was possible that the ejaculate may have gone from my hands to the woman’s blanket. Semen may also have transferred from my hand to her face during the time I treated her. I can’t believe this is happening. My explanation doesn’t make sense.” And then: “She may be mistaken about me ejaculating on her face, because she was on morphine. I gave her a second dose of morphine myself.” And then, three different times, “Is she alleging that I raped her?”
By the time of his sentencing a year later, he had been fired from Mount Sinai, and the New York State Department of Health had suspended his medical license. (It was later revoked.) The $1.2 million house in New Jersey he had recently bought with his wife, also an emergency-room doctor in the Mount Sinai system, was sold, and his wife had started divorce proceedings and moved with the kids to her hometown of New Orleans, where her parents still lived. In the courtroom, David called his own actions “disgusting,” and the judge commended him on his remorse. But on the day of his sentencing, Aja stood up in court and gave a victim-impact statement. David, seated at the defendant’s table, twisted all the way around to look her in the eye. “I believe you’re only sorry because you got caught,” she said.
Aja Newman is a tall 33-year-old woman with sparkly eyes and a wry smile. At the time of the assault, she was working as a baggage handler at La Guardia airport. Aja thinks of herself as a fierce person, a fighter, so “victim” sits uncomfortably with her, though, after years of therapy, she understands that the word fits. In the courtroom, David Newman said, “It’s not your fault,” and at this acknowledgment of her powerlessness, Aja wept. “I believe what people do is they stop associating themselves with you,” she says, describing the dynamic between doctors and patients. “It’s like, ‘I’m the superhero, and you’re the damsel in distress,’ and it’s almost like you’re disposable. You’re a thing to do.”
In a statement, the hospital says, “We are so sorry that Ms. Newman was the victim of this horrible criminal act.” But for more than three years, it has been fighting her in court, where she has brought a damages suit. It has cut ties with David Newman and deployed what might be called a “bad apple” defense — despite a finding by the U.S. Department of Health that members on staff had failed, at least twice, to report his activities up the chain of command, thus placing “all patients at risk.” In the meantime, David has served his brief sentence and is living in New Orleans near his ex-wife and kids. After his criminal conviction, he parted ways with his lawyer and at one point offered to pay Aja a $30,000 settlement out of cash he had borrowed from a friend. How did she feel about that offer? “The nice Aja says, ‘No, thank you, sir,’ ” she says, then looks away from me. “But all I completely felt was ‘Eff him.’ ”
The man overseeing the hospital culture of Mount Sinai is the dean of its medical school, Dennis Charney, a bulky 68-year-old psychiatrist who cultivates a reputation for toughness. He pioneered the use of ketamine to treat PTSD and in 2012 co-authored a book on resilience. In 2015, he entered the hospital’s annual prostate-cancer event — a push-ups contest — and won with 106, a fact he likes to mention in conversation. In August 2016, a disgruntled former Mount Sinai faculty member whom Charney had terminated for falsifying medical data shot Charney with a shotgun outside a deli in Chappaqua. Charney has spun his injury into a part of his legend, telling the tale of his own heroism on YouTube. “Once you are a trauma victim, you are a trauma victim for life,” he says.
Mount Sinai is a massive world-class teaching hospital with a selective medical school and competitive residencies, with women in several prominent leadership positions and a collection of programs focused on underserved communities. Caring clinicians are literally everywhere. (I am a patient at Mount Sinai, and my doctors are excellent.) But the hierarchical, macho, fear-based, profit-oriented culture of hospital medicine is especially intense and pervasive there, according to dozens of interviews, most off-the-record owing to anxiety about career-damaging retribution. People who know Charney well note that, for a psychiatrist, he is short on empathy and patience, and though the hospital denies it, among the faculty and staff, he has a reputation as a bully. So in 2009, for example, when Andrew Goldstein, then a second-year medical student, organized a panel on pharmaceutical companies’ extending their patents in order to increase profitability (a position Mount Sinai’s CEO, Kenneth Davis, endorsed in an advertorial in the New York Times) and had the temerity to question a last-minute addition to the panel by Charney, he received a call while studying at home from the dean himself. Charney came out blasting. “It really did feel like every other word was fuck,” Goldstein remembers now.
In 2013, Mount Sinai had merged with another hospital network, partly in an effort to expand its patient base and acquire a larger number of patients with private insurance. The hospital has always suffered financially from its location in Harlem, where a large portion of its regular patients are on Medicaid and rely on the emergency room, which has metal detectors and guards at the door, for their primary care.
But the transition was messy, and according to several people with knowledge of the finances, the hospital system began bleeding cash. Charney and Davis — also a psychiatrist and Charney’s close friend — sharpened their focus on profitability, consolidating and cutting wherever they could, including in the ED. In September 2017, when Erik Barton, an emergency physician and M.B.A. who had been hired to rationalize processes among the seven emergency rooms in the Mount Sinai system, presented Charney with his budget, which included an increase in head count — “to bring things up to safe standards,” Barton tells me — “he slammed his hand on the table and said, ‘How do you expect me to go to the board with that?’ ” Barton remembers. “I was in shock to be treated like that in front of a whole group of people.” Citing differences in management styles, Barton proffered his resignation within six months.
And, according to a complaint filed in federal court this spring that charged the hospital with widespread violations of Title IX, when Charney got involved in the hiring of the new head of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health, he sent an email to the female candidate favored by the search committee, calling her an IDIOT, in all capital letters, in red. The hospital says she was asking for ridiculous compensation, but the candidate withdrew her application, saying she had never been so bullied in her life. Charney tapped a 32-year-old resident named Prabhjot Singh instead. Singh was a “rising star” within Sinai with connections to the Arnhold family and a protégé of the public intellectual Jeffrey Sachs. When he got the job, Singh allegedly demoted and humiliated women on his staff and hired a deputy who allegedly called women “cunts” and “bitches.”
For all the progress made in diversifying its ranks, medicine remains a boys’ club. “We signal to men in power that they can do whatever they want,” says Esther Choo, an emergency-room physician who has helped to launch a #timesuphealthcare for the medical profession. “We promote men early. We reward rock stars, the people who demonstrate virtuosity, whether it’s teaching or research or clinical care. The way we reward it in men, they never experience a check on their behavior or any meaningful feedback. There’s a lot of wink-wink-nod-nod that makes you one of the guys.”
Last June, a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the incidence of sexual harassment within academic medical centers was unparalleled in any surveyed profession except the military. “Hospitals are basically hotels,” says Tim Johnson, an OB/GYN at the University of Michigan who worked on the study. “You’ve got beds and people staying in the beds. You’ve got cleaning people. You’ve got food service. You’ve got doctors wandering through the place late at night. It’s kind of like a hunting ground. Hospitals are like hunting grounds.” Although the NASEM report did not tally sexual abuse or assault of patients by doctors, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found 450 such documented cases from 2016 to 2017. In half of those, the doctors are still practicing medicine. Last year, 17 women sued New York-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital for damages, claiming their gynecologist, Robert Hadden, had touched them inappropriately, often without gloves, and given them prolonged breast exams. In 2016, Hadden was convicted for sex crimes but received no jail time.
Shitshow is the word I most frequently heard used to describe the emergency room at Mount Sinai, a cramped and dingy low-ceilinged space where, as is the case in other crowded emergency rooms, patients are often treated sitting in chairs in a hallway. For years before David Newman ejaculated on Aja Newman, the seven EDs in the Mount Sinai network had been subjected to cost cutting so severe that the patient-to-nurse ratio was, according to people who worked there, 12 to one. (The optimal ratio, according to National Nurses United, is three to one, although many urban ERs, especially in New York City, fall short.) Attending doctors sometimes saw as many as 40 patients on an eight-hour shift, more than twice the recommended number. Certain shifts were jokingly called “pre-tending” because a resident would be put in charge of the caseload, reporting up to an already overworked attending physician. In the immediate aftermath of David Newman’s arrest, his defenders argued that to sedate and masturbate on a patient in such a busy ED was logistically impossible. But looked at another way, such an environment, in which everyone is singularly focused on avoiding potentially fatal mistakes, gives cover to a predator. Even if an ED is wholly staffed by earnest, caring professionals, implementing and maintaining safety measures may not be a top-line concern. For its part, the hospital calls David a “sick and depraved individual” and the incident “an isolated one of twisted, criminal behavior [that] would not have and could not have been prevented with additional staff.”
On a bright late-summer afternoon, I have tea in Harlem with three of the plaintiffs in the Title IX case, and they describe Mount Sinai as a pervasively sexist work environment obsessed more with profits and optics than with fixing deep-rooted problems in its systems and culture. “The bully culture comes from the leadership,” says Natasha Anushri Anandaraja, a doctor sidelined by Singh who now directs the hospital’s Office of Well-Being and Resilience. “Money comes before people, and the only way to be successful is to destroy people along the way.” Inevitably, the conversation turns to suicides by employees at Mount Sinai over the past three years — an indicator, as so many people I’ve spoken to have said, of a sickness in the hospital’s culture. There have been three documented suicides: a doctor, a resident, and a medical student. All have been women. Two have been women of color.
From left: Video stills from Mount Sinai surveillance cameras. 1:59 a.m.: David Newman walking back to his desk around the time of the assault6:22 a.m.: Aja Newman leaving the hospital with a bag containing her gown and bedsheets to be used as evidence.
In October 2015, Charney promoted David Newman to full professor. No one was surprised. Young doctors especially liked him and responded to his habit of chucking conventional medical wisdom. “It’s a broken system,” David Newman preached during his TED Talk in 2012, in which he debunked the widespread use of statins and, especially, cardiac stents, arguing that neither saves lives in the overwhelming majority of cases. That same year, he published what he later called “an epic” opinion piece in the Times taking aim at the annual or biannual mammogram, a ritual recommended by the American Cancer Society for every woman over 45. The best science, David Newman argued, shows that regular mammogram screenings do not save lives and instead subject women to procedures, surgeries, and testing they do not need. A storm of hostile debate ensued as readers took sides, half lining up alongside David Newman and the other half wondering why an ER doctor might pretend to be a breast-cancer expert. From 2015 to 2016, David Newman authored or co-authored no fewer than 11 articles in academic journals, including, incredibly, “Are Sexual-Assault Victims Presenting to the ED in a Timely Manner?”
According to his testimony and news accounts, David Newman says things started to fall apart for him late in the summer of 2015. And in all of his statements, he describes what he calls his “meltdown” as a one-off, his “first major manic episode” of a previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder. “That I did not identify and address this problem before I hurt someone is my great, open wound. I will always, always, regret it,” he wrote to me in an email.
At a hearing last year to determine his sex-offender status, a psychiatrist testified that during this period, David Newman was an insomniac but “extremely productive [and] highly irritable and began to evidence reckless, impulsive behaviors.” At home, he was belligerent and argumentative. He wrecked his car colliding with a FedEx truck. He spent wild amounts of money on what in one interview he called “leisure items.” He would go to a local pizza joint for lunch, order a slice, then walk out without paying, practically challenging the counter help to notice and confront him. He started stealing things — “petty thefts,” the psychiatrist called them — but by his own admission, this kleptomania extended to at least one not totally empty vial of propofol. In a hospital, drugs are dispensed under rigorous protocols (doctors prescribe but do not administer them), but David Newman had taken the vial from the bedside of another patient and injected the remainder into Aja Newman’s veins on January 12. “I lifted it,” he said in a deposition. (A medical-school friend says that David Newman always had an appetite for transgressive behaviors, including shoplifting. He used his badge as a paramedic to get out of speeding tickets and delighted in being a member of the Mile High Club. He also could be confrontational, this friend said, with a sometime violent temper and a heightened but fragile sense of his own importance.)
Even after his incarceration, David referred to his groping as “breast exams.” He did it to Aja during his initial encounter with her before he sedated and masturbated on her. “He said, ‘How are you feeling?,’ and he checked my vitals,” Aja remembers. “And then he was really checking actively on the left side of my breast. He kind of cupped it. At the time, it didn’t feel sexual. Well, slightly. Enough for you to notice but not enough for you to confront.” Believing he was making an honest fumble during a legitimate examination, Aja directed his attention to the right side of her body, where the pain was.
His explanation, retrospectively, was that he had decided to implement — on his own, without authorization, funding, or the consent of the patients — a pilot study to demonstrate how regular breast screening in the ED might save more money and lives than mammography. “When I try and understand the logic of why I did that, it seems faulty and absurd,” he said, referring to himself as “batshit crazy” at the time. In the deposition, David said he couldn’t remember how often he’d had chaperones in the room but that he must have had them sometimes. “It’s pretty obvious to me that there were other people involved and probably present for some of that.” He also said he didn’t know how often he recorded the results of the exams in a patient’s chart.
In his email, Newman refutes the notion that any systems, structures, or culture at Mount Sinai or in medicine might have enabled or protected him. “I went rogue,” he wrote. And he pushes back at the suggestion that implementing safeguards in the ED might be advantageous. They would break the trust at the heart of the doctor-patient relationship, he said. At the same time, he maintains a mental distance from his acts, rarely speaking of the victims themselves, then downgrading them to euphemisms: “my transgression” or “the felony incident.” In a hearing before a medical-licensing board last year, the transcript of which was acquired through a FOIA request, Newman expressed his desire to tell a more compassionate narrative of his dysfunction than the one given by prosecutors and the press, and he mentioned a dream of being able to see patients again, either with a chaperone present or by videocam. “You know, I think I was an awfully good doctor for a long time,” he said. And when the medical board asked him how he planned to maintain his mental health going forward, he said that, although he was not taking meds, he would see a psychiatrist and stay vigilant regarding his disordered thoughts.
But even during that interview in 2018, he seemed to defend the “study” as, at least in theory, a good idea. “When I think back on this plan, there were some really smart and intricate details about it,” he said.
In his deposition, David also conceded that it was impossible to know how many women’s breasts he had touched.
The hospital room where the assault occurred.
Aja Newman knew no one would believe her. Sitting on the bathroom floor, she reckoned with this. “You’re going to have to humble yourself,” she told herself, “and you’re going to have to get help.”
When she got back to Room 8, Aja gathered the bedding from the gurney and put it in a plastic bag, which she stashed in a small storage cabinet in the room. Then she sat on the bed, making sure to stay upright, and waited. “I didn’t lay back down,” she remembers. “I did want everyone to know, ‘She’s awake.’ I sat there and thought, I don’t care if I fall off this damn bed. I’m going to sit here.” Soon a dark-haired physician’s assistant named Andrew Lapsley entered the room.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, you’re awake! You had us scared there for a minute.’ ” Lapsley had been monitoring Aja, and although she was passed out after David’s second injection, she was aware that Lapsley and a nurse had come into her room and that they were repeatedly calling her name. The nurse seemed particularly alarmed. “Why is she like that?” Aja heard the nurse ask Lapsley. “I didn’t leave her like that.”
Now, facing Lapsley, Aja said what she needed to say. “Oh, about that. Um, your doctor. He ejaculated — he masturbated on me.”
“All right,” said Lapsley, according to Aja. And then he followed up with a sarcastic query. “So — you want me to call the cops or something?”
Aja was stunned. “He wasn’t being defensive,” she says now. “He wasn’t being kind. He said it like I asked him all the goddamn time. It was really no emotion.”
Lapsley never reported Aja’s allegations internally, and Aja says he never took them seriously. Instead, he set about trying to minimize them: “Well, look,” she remembers him saying. “I can go get someone, you know, or you can sleep on this and we can talk about it tomorrow if you don’t want to say anything right now.”
Aja says she had never felt so vulnerable or embarrassed. “Go get your supervisor,” she said.
Lapsley became confused. “You want me to get Newman?”
Only then did Aja understand that the doctor who had assaulted her was the one in charge of her case. She became more afraid. “I want my discharge papers, and I’m going to leave,” she said. She started to make excuses — her sister had her kids, she needed to get back to them. She says she could hear David pacing back and forth outside her door; at one point, he reentered the room to check up on her. At 2:25 a.m., David wrote in her chart, “pt now ambulatory and feeling more comfortable, wants dc home.” Shortly thereafter, Aja lay down and passed out again. (To the Department of Health investigators, Lapsley gave a different version, saying Aja had pleaded with him to say nothing. But even that violates the hospital’s Code of Conduct, which states, “All staff have a responsibility and are required to report any activity by any staff colleague, physician, contractor, or vendor that appears to violate applicable laws, rules, regulations, or this Code.”)
When Aja woke up again, it was 6 a.m. The discharge papers had been shoved under her naked foot.
The Daily News published its first story two days later, on January 14. Support for David Newman poured in from everywhere. Friends and colleagues sent boosterish emails telling him to hang in there, that they believed in him, offering solace and help — unofficially from the American Academy of Emergency Medicine and from well-connected friends with resources and expertise. On social media and in private Facebook groups, current and former colleagues, acquaintances, students, and admirers swore their allegiance. “Dr. Newman is literally someone who has changed the ways thousands of other physicians practice medicine and by extension improved the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of patients around the world. This earns him the benefit of the doubt from me,” someone named Verjeep wrote in the comments of a news story.
Another theory went like this: Emergency rooms are notoriously difficult places to work. ER doctors regularly experience violence and harassment from patients, and half have been assaulted at work; they are frequently hit up for drugs by addicts in need. This victim was just such an addict. Or she wanted sex or money, was retaliating for an affair gone wrong, mistook him for someone else, and, when she didn’t get her way, made a false charge. “He’s the victim,” a close associate told me at the time. “I don’t believe that he would do anything like this. My routine day is getting yelled at and cursed at by patients who aren’t getting what they want. I can imagine details where something happened where she didn’t get what she wanted and maybe this is retaliation. Or maybe she received pain medicine and it made her a little loopy or she hallucinated him … ” Here he trailed off.
Even conspiracies were easier for David Newman’s wide circle to believe than the truth. This was revenge by pro-mammography forces, they said. “This has setup all over it,” a colleague told me then. “It’s Lee Harvey Oswald — they’re coming after David, the people who came after him for the mammography piece in the Times.”
It was at this point that Aja decided to watch David’s TED Talk to try to gain a deeper understanding of who her attacker was — this great doctor who people said could not possibly have done what she knew he had done. It was a way, she says, of gaining some measure of control. “It felt like he was overshadowing me as the good guy. He’s the doctor. He’s a veteran, and he’s this and he’s that. So you kind of feel overshadowed by that. By him.” So one evening, she sat on her living-room floor with her laptop and started yelling at the screen. “Actually, I thought it was a nice TED Talk, too,” she says. “This fucking douchebag, he’s pretty smart.”
The accusations against David Newman made national news. Within a week of the incident, a 20-something African-American woman came into the office of GEMS, a social-services agency that supports young women and girls who have been victims of sex trafficking. That was the guy, she said, who had grabbed her breast when she went to the ED with a cold four months earlier, on September 22. At the time, the young woman described the encounter in group therapy: how she’d sat in the ER feeling extremely uncomfortable while a blond physician she recalled as “Dr. David” touched her breasts. She was freaked out, she said at the time, because he was a doctor and she was a young woman of color with a history of sexual abuse, and she kind of left her body for a moment and started counting tiles on the wall. On October 7, her social worker emailed Mount Sinai to report the complaint, then followed up by both email and phone, but “there is no documentation of these events,” according to the report from the Department of Health and Human Services, and “the allegation was not investigated at the time of the occurrence.”
“We were all freaking out,” recalls someone who worked in one of the system ERs at the time. “People were talking about it constantly.” The hospital suspended David Newman from its staff on January 15, although within the department, residents continued to push for more support for their star. At a faculty meeting about a week after the event, department chair Andy Jagoda announced that there would be an investigation and the lawyers would take over.
Holly Atkinson, one of the plaintiffs in the more recent Title IX case, was watching the David Newman story unfold with horror like everyone else. At the time, she was an assistant clinical professor focusing on health and human rights and had taught the same medical-school course as he had. Though she knew his stellar reputation, she did not find the accusations against him beyond belief. When she saw all the rousing defenses on the blogs, she says, “I was outraged. Outraged! Doctors saying, ‘There’s no way. These are just lying women.’ People who just automatically say that a doctor is not capable of this kind of behavior.” When Atkinson, together with Anandaraja, went to HR in 2018 to complain about the sexist abuses of their boss, Prabhjot Singh, their HR contact warned them of Mount Sinai’s preoccupation with its public image. She said, “The final outcome of any investigation would depend on what Mount Sinai stood to gain or lose as an institution, and Charney would be the one to decide.” In a later conversation, according to their complaint, HR added that when the David Newman news first broke, Charney had wondered aloud “whether the narrative about the case could be spun as a drug problem — investigations often had a political context.” (The hospital calls this anecdote “absolutely and unequivocally false.” In July it announced that Singh would “step down” from his post, though he remains on the faculty of the medical school.)
On first meeting, Aja Newman comes across as guarded and watchful. She expects little from authority figures — police, lawyers, shrinks — and she comes by her mistrust honestly. Raised in the projects by a single mother who was a doo-wop singer back in the day and who died, when Aja was 10, as a drug addict, Aja was reared by a band of older siblings whose own lives were chaotic and sometimes criminal. As a girl, her life was defined by a constant fear that she would be taken from her family by child services. “I kind of disassociated everything. I was just alive. I didn’t allow myself to process anything. It was like as long as I didn’t end up in foster care and I don’t get separated from my brothers and sisters, it’s better than that. I kind of had a little stigma against foster children. I didn’t want to be like these people.”
When Aja (and not the eminent fallen doctor) is the subject of her story, the events of that night seem all the more grotesque — “nefarious,” as Esther Choo puts it. “It feels like a nonrandom choice. Could this person have been more vulnerable? What more could you have added to her vulnerability? Who are the patients we always blow off, who data makes clear have poor outcomes because of uneven access to care? Right at this moment, we are at a crisis for poor black women in this country. We are systematically not providing good health care to African-American women, and this is the woman he chooses to do this to?”
What’s extraordinary about Aja is not what happened to her in the early morning of January 12, 2016. It’s that despite it, she retains a confidence in her point of view that comes across, once she’s relaxed, as a kind of sunlight. She wears her experience lightly. She has good kids, and they get good grades — almost effortlessly, she says with delight — and they bring her joy. Her trauma is evident under stress. She’s very often late. She doesn’t know how she’s going to feel until she feels it, and then she can get emotionally flooded out or frazzled.
Aja had been sexually assaulted before. Starting when she was about 12 years old, she was forced into regular sex with the fiancé of one of her sisters; he was a man well over 40 years old. He took pictures of her naked and paid her to deliver drugs for him. And Aja did it because she needed to get along. “I really felt like I lived a double life all my life, and I was this really scared kid who showed up everywhere acting tough. And I felt tough. That was me for a long time. I showed up, I was always a no-nonsense person. I’m not going to take any mess, but at the same time, I couldn’t deal with it.”
So when Aja got caught up in some bad stuff with the fiancé, having to do with a gun planted in someone’s car, and was arrested, and the cops found naked photos of her in the trunk of his car along with photos of other children and teenagers, they pressured her to testify against him. At first, she wouldn’t. “I was young and I was stupid and I wanted to do anything he said to downplay conflict in my house.”
All this history surged forward in Aja’s mind as she sat on the bathroom floor in the emergency room that night. Her first impulse, which she admits was irrational, “was to go out there and fight him like he was a girl in the schoolyard,” but a stronger impulse prevailed. “I just wanted to be better than all the examples I had.”
Half a dozen police officers arrived at Shatekqua’s house and accompanied Aja to Harlem Hospital for questioning and a rape kit. “I went through my story 13 or 14 times. I felt like before I got to the end of the story, someone was asking me again. So I’d start from the top. People were like, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Sure, I’m sure.’ ” It felt, she says, like an interrogation. “The cops weren’t, ‘Oh my God, you poor thing.’ They were like, ‘Man, I don’t want to get in the middle of this. It’s nasty, and I think she’s crazy.’ ” Over and over, the police asked Aja whether she used drugs. “Besides the ones that I’m on right now? No,” she said. “I know that I’m a little incoherent and I’m dozing off like a damn junkie, but I was upset.” (The toxicology report showed she had nothing in her system except the drugs she had been given, legally and illegally, at the hospital.) A female police officer, seeing Aja was losing her patience, pulled her aside. Stay in it, she said. The officer had been sexually harassed at work. Keep your head up and be strong and make sure you keep repeating your story.
Aja handed her bag full of bedding to a forensics team and watched as a technician turned the sheets over and over, spraying Luminol on them, inspecting them in darkness under UV light and spraying again. They weren’t finding anything, she could tell, and were about to wrap it up and send the bundle to another lab. It was looking like a dead end, and Aja could not tolerate that. She stopped them. “Spray that stuff on me,” she said.
Initially, the technician objected — the spray isn’t made for use on people. But Aja persisted. “I want to help,” she said. So the technician closed the door, Aja signed her consent and took off her hospital gown, and she was sprayed all over her body.
“I heard the whole room go” — here Aja sucks in her breath. “It was all over my face, all over between my breasts like I told her. I remember she started crying, and she was like, ‘Aja, don’t move.’ And she took the samples off my face. I believe that’s the only thing that caught him.” The definitive match was gathered, in the end, from a spot near Aja’s right eye.