AS ELIZABETH MATEO was getting dressed the morning after April 28 back surgery at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Burlington County, N.J., her husband noticed a rose tattoo on her belly, just below her panty line.

They had never seen it before.

Had someone entered her room in the night and touched her down there, while she was still too sedated to know what was happening? Had she been sexually assaulted? If so, by whom? A nurse or orderly? A hospital intruder?

And why a rose tattoo? Was it some kind of sick calling card, the work of a serial molester?

Terrified, her husband called Mount Holly police, who arrived soon thereafter at Virtua, where they interviewed Mateo in her room. Hospital administrators also began their own investigation.

For more than two hours, Mateo, who is in her mid-30s, had no idea what had happened to her.

Two hours of not knowing if she'd need to be examined for rape, an exam she'd have to endure less than 24 hours after surgery so uncomfortable that she'd had to spend the night at Virtua, for pain management.

The mystery was solved when Mateo's husband spoke with Steven Kirsh-ner, the orthopedic surgeon who'd done the surgery. Kirshner said he'd put the tattoo there, after repairing Mateo's herniated disc. It was a temporary tattoo, the kind you rub on and wash off later.

He'd made the gesture in fun.

"Mr. Mateo was outraged," says Cherry Hill attorney Gregg Shivers, who is representing Elizabeth Mateo in a lawsuit filed last week that seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. "He said something to the effect of, 'How dare you touch my wife?' and slammed the phone down."

Virtua, which is not named in the suit, referred Mateo to another doctor for follow-up care.

The Mateos have not spoken with Kirshner since. Perhaps, if the lawsuit goes to trial, we'll get to hear directly from Kirshner what he was thinking that day.

For now, we have to rely on his lawyer, Robert Agre, to explain why Kirshner would do something so insensitive and creepy to a mother of three small children, to an area of her body nowhere near her surgical site.

Agre says that Kirshner is a wonderful doctor with a great sense of humor who is beloved at Virtua, by staff and patients alike.

Kirshner, he said, has placed fun, post-surgical tattoos on patients in the past, though Agre couldn't say how often, or on whom, or which body parts Kirshner had adorned.

Kirshner tattooed Mateo "as a way to celebrate with the patient the successful surgery. He in no way intended to offend her," said Agre, who didn't know why Kirshner chose Mateo's lower abdomen as place to start the party. "He thought it would make her chuckle and make her feel a little better."

If that's really what Kirshner thought, he's not a wonderful doctor. He's a moron.

There are few times when we feel more vulnerable than when we need to be hospitalized. Oftentimes, only a thin gown separates us from strangers who, by necessity, are familiar with some of the most intimate parts and functions of our bodies.

The best medical practitioners safeguard the trust we place in them to respect our privacy as best they can while doing what they must to get us well. They know that just because we're under anesthesia, we don't lose "the inviolability of the body," as John Banja, a professor at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, describes the state we'd protect if we were awake enough to do so.

"What this doctor did might have been in the spirit of fun," says Banja, "but he needs to become more empathic. What might be funny to him may not be to a lot of patients, especially regarding the intimate parts of our bodies."

Especially the parts the doc has no business being near.

"If this tattoo had been on Mrs. Mateo's hand, there would not be a lawsuit," says Shivers. "Instead, it was below her tan line, an area that she clearly wanted to keep private."

I don't know if a jury will award Mateo any damages, given that her tattoo is gone. But I have an idea of how she might teach the clueless Kirshner some empathy.

Mateo should invite him to her home, where she and a dozen friends would have him disrobe and lie on her dining-room table.

And then, surrounded by people he doesn't know, Mateo would rub a temporary tattoo of a snake on Kirshner's pelvic area.

If she's squeamish - who but Kirshner wouldn't be? - perhaps her husband would do it.

Afterward, they could celebrate a new relationship, based on the mutually humiliating experience of having their most intimate parts viewed by those with no business seeing them.

Kirshner might even get a good laugh out of the whole thing. I hear he has a fabulous sense of humor. *

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