In the consultation room, Ellen Cater cried. It was late 2010 and Dr. James Heaps, a renowned California gynecological-oncologist with bright blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, had just delivered the diagnosis: a genital autoimmune skin disorder that, unless treated by him, would lead to fatal cancer.
Her three-year-old daughter’s face flashed through her mind. “How soon can we start treatment?” she asked.
“You’ll need to see me every three months,” Heaps responded.
Eight years later, Cater discovered that death sentence was a lie. She wasn’t at risk of developing cancer, her new physician said, and the many pelvic exams Heaps had performed on her were medically unnecessary. In a civil complaint obtained by ELLE.com, the 47-year-old stay at home mom alleges that he lured her into his University of California, Los Angeles, Health practice with scare tactics so he could sexually abuse, molest, and harass her under the guise of medical treatment.
“For so long I chalked it up to just being a silly woman who didn’t understand his methods” Cater tells ELLE.com. “Looking back, I should have known.”
She is one of dozens of women with similar allegations of misconduct against Heaps, her lawyers Jennifer McGrath and Darren Kavinoky tell ELLE.com. Among them is at least one UCLA student who claims he sexually abused her.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office has also filed three felony charges against Heaps, including two counts of sexual battery and one count of sexual exploitation stemming from two separate incidents in June 2017 and in February 2018, according to a complaint obtained by ELLE.com. Heaps has reportedly pleaded not guilty and is out on bail. His attorney did not respond to ELLE.com’s request for comment.
Cater sought treatment from Heaps after her regular gynecologist misdiagnosed her lichen sclerosus, a skin condition that causes itchy white patches around the genital and anal areas. She says their trimonthly appointments spanning nearly a decade were almost always the same: an hour-long wait time followed by painful genital probing and a hopeless analysis.
“Before I left he’d say, ‘You’re going to get cancer and need to come back or you’re going to end up sick and die.’ All I could think of was that I’d do anything I had to do to stay alive and see my daughter grow up,” Cater says. “He tried to put the fear of cancer in me [so that he could assault me].”
Heaps isn’t the first doctor to face charges since #MeToo brought about a global reckoning for abusive men taking advantage of vulnerable environments. In January 2018, USA Gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors. One year later, former University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall was charged with sexually assaulting 16 young women under the guise of medical exams (he pleaded not guilty). Just last month, 40 women came forward with accusations of sexual assault by Columbia University obstetrician Robert Hadden, after Evelyn Yang said he abused her back in 2012. The Manhattan district attorney’s office agreed to a plea deal in 2016 that allowed Hadden to avoid prison time, but he is now reportedly being sued by multiple women for alleged assaults including ungloved vaginal touching.
Cater alleges in her lawsuit that Heaps performed similar ungloved examinations. She also claims he made frequent “sexual comments” about her breasts, and performed unnecessary pelvic exams to check her vulva and internal reproductive organs.
“I really believed he was saving my life,” she says. “We’ve been trained since we were young to trust our doctors, so if a doctor hurts us during an appointment, that just means it’s part of the treatment.”
Female “chaperones” usually accompanied Heaps during these examinations. The role of a medical chaperone, according to the American Medical Association, is to serve as a witness for both patient and practitioner during procedures. But Cater says in the lawsuit that Heaps’s chaperones turned a blind eye to the alleged abuse. “I assumed having another woman in the room meant they were there to protect me from things like this,” she says. “So I told myself, ‘They approve of it, so he must know what he’s doing.'”
After leaving his office, she’d call her husband and cry. “I was a mess, just in complete shock about what was going on and the embarrassment and shame I felt,” she says. “To me, it felt like the ultimate symbol of sexuality and of motherhood—a part of me I considered to be private and wonderful—was now damaged for good.”
UCLA says it launched an investigation into Heaps on December 22, 2017, after a former patient reported that he assaulted her while removing an IUD. According to a copy of the redacted Title IX investigation obtained by ELLE.com, the results released nearly two years later found “sufficient evidence that [Heaps] engaged in behavior that constituted sexual assault.” He reportedly retired in June of 2018 while the investigation was still going on. His medical license has been suspended, according to Medical Board of California’s records.
Cater says in her lawsuit that UCLA failed to inform her about the investigation. In fact, she says, she saw him just two days before receiving a letter announcing his retirement.
UCLA Health is now conducting an independent review of its own response to sexual misconduct in clinical settings, according to a statement on the institution’s website: “Because we know we can and must do better, in March 2019, we initiated an independent review of our institution’s response to sexual misconduct in clinical settings. The review is examining UCLA’s response to such conduct and whether our policies and procedures to prevent, identify and address sexual misconduct are consistent with best practices and reflect the high standard of patient care we demand of ourselves.”
Since Heaps was arrested in June on sexual battery and exploitation charges, dozens of other former patients have joined Cater in filing civil lawsuits. The complainants allege that Heaps groped them, made sexual comments about their bodies and partners’ penises, and stroked their clitorises during exams.
“I hope this nightmare ends and he faces the consequences for his actions,” Cater says. “But the truth is that no matter the outcome, I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life—and so will all the other women he abused.”