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'Wet Brassiere' Comment Lands Heart Surgeon in Hot Water

A Fountain Valley doctor temporarily loses his license for "uncouth," "offensive," "thoughtless, juvenile and crude" comments toward female staff. He denied the accusations. State officials put him on probation.

A heart surgeon who practices at Fountain Valley Hospital is once again on probation with the state medical board for sexual harassment. Dr. Sridhara Iyengar was accused of inappropriate sexual advances, such as licking a female doctor's hand and making lewd comments about an anesthesiologist's bra during surgery.

The medical board suspended his license from Dec. 2 to Dec. 31, 2012, and put him on probation for five years, according to an announcement. It's the second time in 20 years Iyengar has been disciplined for sexual harassment.

This time, Iyengar was accused of inappropriate conduct by three female medical professionals. The alleged incidents occurred in 2007.

The accusations

In Nov. 2007, during a critical surgery, Iyengar allegedly joked that the hospital chief of staff's "brassiere got all wet" when she was near another young doctor. A few weeks later, Iyengar allegedly pulled the married anesthesiologist close, kissed her cheek and said, "I want to take you out and see you get drunk. Do you like Black Label or Blue Label?" She responded by shoving Iyengar away, according to the medical board report.

Also in 2007, Iyengar reportedly asked to see a female doctor’s hand in the physicians’ lounge. Thinking he wanted to examine her diamond wedding ring, she complied. Iyengar then "took her hand and kissed the back of it with his lips and tongue," according to the report.

"It kind of freaked me out," she told the board.

Iyengar was also accused of trying to hug and kiss a female nurse in April 2007, and later telling her, "You know I’m your one true love."

Iyengar was disciplined by the hospital in 2007. He was required to write letters of apology, complete a boundaries course and resign from a leadership position.

In response to an inquiry from Patch, Fountain Valley Hospital issued a statement saying Iyengar "is an independently practicing physician and not an employee of the hospital." Hospital officials also noted the incidents did not involve patients, and said "both the hospital and medical staff have policies that expressly prohibit sexual harassment."

The doctor's response

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Iyengar declined to comment and referred Patch to his lawyer. A subsequent phone call and email to the attorney remained unanswered Tuesday afternoon.

In testimony to the medical board, Iyengar denied making the "wet brassiere" comment, but his veracity was questioned by state officials, who described his assertions as "deliberately untruthful" based on statements from another doctor. Iyengar also denied telling the anesthesiologist he wanted to get her drunk, and denied kissing her. He told the board he did hug her, but said she initiated the hug.

Iyengar also denied licking the female doctor's hand, saying he merely shook it in thanks for voting for him in a hospital election. He said he then put her hand to his head, saying it was a gesture of respect customary in his native rural village in India.

The medical board's verdict

The board described this denial as "deliberately untruthful" based on additional testimony. The medical board further described the surgeon's behavior as being "in poor taste and offensive" but "not unlawful and … not frequent."

In its decision, the board variously described Iyengar's behavior as "immature," "bothersome," "uncouth," "offensive," "thoughtless, juvenile and crude."

Previous allegations

This wasn’t the first time Iyengar’s colleagues took issue with his behavior. In 1995, Iyengar admitted to sexually harassing two nurses at Anaheim Memorial Hospital in 1991 and 1992.

In that case, the Medical Board revoked his license, but stayed the revocation and placed him on five years probation. During probation, Iyengar underwent psychological evaluation and received education courses with such titles as "Harassment and Discrimination: Men and Women Communicating Effectively at Work."

He served three years and 10 months of the probation, from March 1, 1995, to Jan. 4, 1999.

In 1998, the surgeon told Judge Stewart A. Judson, "I promise that I will not allow these things to occur again, the things that almost put an end to my life, my practice and my family."

Iyengar's current five-year probation forbids him from supervising physician assistants. He is also prohibited from commenting on the appearance of colleagues or their dating practices, as well as "touching, hugging or kissing any colleague ... except for a formal handshake."

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