Last week I returned home from a protracted period of time at our cottage to a stack of mail. I spent several minutes sorting junk mail from mail that required my immediate attention. One letter was from our local hospital. I absently wondered if Matthew had an upcoming clinic that I had forgotten about as I ripped open the envelope. The opening lines asked me to think of a traumatic health event and to consider where I would turn for help. Perhaps my loved one had a heart attack, or a child was in the hospital? In the second paragraph the author of the letter introduced himself. He was the hospital’s chief of staff. He was also the physician found negligent in my son’s birth and the cause of Matthew’s catastrophic injuries and subsequent multiple disabilities.
I am not a particularly emotional person. I have done multiple “tours of duty” in the N/ICU and have had more end-of-life conversations that I wish to remember. I am not someone who dissolves into tears as a rule, even during stressful moments. But as I read the opening few lines of the above letter I started shaking. I dropped the letter and walked out of the room. By the time my husband arrived home from work I was inconsolable. It seems that the combination of asking me to imagine a stressful health event followed by the introduction of the doctor who caused that event overwhelmed me and dragged me back to events that I generally prefer to forget.
There is no doubt that my caregiving journey has been exhausting and overwhelming and serves as the foundation and impetus for much of the work and writing I do these days. But it is the legal journey that our family traversed over the first 13 years of Matthew’s life that has been, by far, the most traumatic experience of my life. I don’t often talk about it beyond acknowledging that it happened. Since the lawsuit is so important to my journey of forgiveness it might be worth sharing a bit of our story.
For reasons I won’t go into it was fairly clear early on that Matthew’s injuries were caused by a medical error. A lawsuit was filed shortly after Matthew’s birth, but it would be over a decade before our family finally appeared in court. I had been warned that a trial would be unbelievably awful but nothing prepared me for the experience. I spent three months in a courtroom watching an elaborate and expensive chess game where the pawns were my son, my body, my life, our life’s savings and financial security, my parenting, and at times even my marriage.
I was the first witness called to the stand and spent a week there, most of it under cross examination. When “under cross” one is in effect sequestered which means that under no circumstances can anyone discuss the trial, or its events, with the individual on the stand. You could ask me if I wanted milk in my coffee, but not much beyond that. After the first day “under cross” I cried the whole way home from the courtroom. No one could speak to me. My husband held my hand and said nothing. I have never felt more alone. Never.
During a trial it is understood that experts are “fair game” and will be questioned aggressively. Mothers are generally treated with kid gloves. Lawyers simply don’t score points with a judge or jury when harassing the mother of a profoundly disabled child. However, even the judge later described my cross-examination by opposing counsel as “vigorous”. During cross-examination everything about my story was aggressively critiqued and challenged by the doctor’s lawyer. My parenting, my body, my birth experience, my memory, my decisions, my advocacy for my son – EVERYTHING. I was made to feel that I was inadequate. I was made to feel that I somehow could have single-handedly altered the events of my son’s birth, that the events were my fault – that somehow I was supposed to leap up out of the stirrups and rip the forceps from the physician’s hands before he prolapsed my son’s umbilical cord. I was painted as a gold-digger who was pursuing a lawsuit not for the benefit of her profoundly disabled child, but for her own gain. I was portrayed as someone who was magnifying the disabilities and needs of her very complex child for self-serving purposes. Once I was no longer sequestered I learned that our legal team could not understand why I was pursued so assertively. And fortunately the judge found my evidence credible rather than the suggestions of the opposing counsel. To this day I take some satisfaction that my story prevailed despite a lawyer’s vigorous attempts to paint me as a person I was not. Forgiving the lawyer who cross-examined me required the most work. And while I forgive her, I don’t think I could be in the same room as her to this day.
But it seemed that my cross-examination was only the beginning of the trauma. I then spent the next three months hearing lawyers critique my body, my childbirth experience, my parenting, and many of my life decisions dispassionately – completely ignoring that the material for their exhaustive debate was my life story, and that I was in the room. My pelvic architecture was critiqued. My injuries sustained during childbirth were itemized in a detached manner. A group of men spent considerable time talking about things like my episiotomy and how I might have felt about the damage to my body – all while I was in the room and unable to speak for myself. I have never felt more powerless and voiceless. We won the lawsuit, but the matter was appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. We won there as well. The doctor, our hospital’s current chief of staff, was found negligent. We were front page news for a day. By this point I had spent some time working with a counsellor to forgive the physician involved in our story, but the lawsuit unraveled most of that work. I learned that forgiveness is an ongoing effort.
So last week, as I read the form letter asking me to remember a traumatic event I was sprinted back to these events – of my son on life support, of years of isolated caregiving and sleep-deprivation, of sitting in a court room feeling mauled by both the legal and medical systems of our province – and I lost it.
But yet I refuse to be victimized by these events. I have long understood the importance of forgiveness and I do not want the baggage associated with hate and anger. I spent years working through my feelings about what happened. Forgiveness for the physician was easier than forgiveness for the lawyers. That was probably the hardest work I have undertaken in my life and requires work to this day. I can accept the fact that a physician made a mistake. He has never said he was sorry for what happened, and I do not expect an apology, but I accept that he was human and made a mistake. I will admit that forgiveness for the lawyers representing the doctor was much harder work since their abuse of me felt much more intentional.
In the aftermath of the letter last week I spent a few short hours being returned to a place of hurt and anger. I was enraged that the physician has been allowed to carry on with his life unrepentant and even rewarded. He is now chief of staff while I continue to struggle with the demands of caregiving and with ongoing doctoral work – an academic journey (granted in a different discipline) that I started long before the events of Matthew’s birth over 20 years ago. My life has felt like a journey of stutter-steps, and at times I have been made to feel a failure because I did not have the ability to juggle the many weighty demands tossed in my direction. As I read the letter I was angry that, once again, I must rise above the fray and be gracious, even superhuman, while other people in the story have been allowed to be fallible and human, and have been rewarded despite their foibles. Forgiveness has not been gracious or easy. It has been very, very hard work and an often an act of blind faith. But yet I get up every day and forgive the lawyers and doctor who had the power to change my son’s life, and my life, irretrievably. I forgive the lawyer who spent considerable effort attempting to paint me as selfish, naive, hysterical, and incompetent. I wish I could say that this forgiveness comes from a place of compassion and grace, but that wouldn’t be true. For me forgiveness began with rage. Forgiveness was, and has been, an act of resistance – an act of utter defiance. By forgiving the parties involved I deny them any further power to write my story. With forgiveness I reclaim my life narrative and reclaim my voice and my power. With forgiveness I deny my role as a victim and claim the title of survivor. Forgiveness means that I have the final word.