This past week I escaped up to our cottage for a blissful day and a half of solitude. It is a three hour drive each way and I often enjoy passing the time by listening to audiobooks I borrow from the library. As a doctoral student (though on leave right now) I spend a lot of time reading required material and I often have little time to consume the murder mysteries and popular fiction I enjoy. So listening to books while driving is a wonderful opportunity to indulge my love of reading.
This week I had borrowed John Grisham’s Calico Joe from the library. Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know the gist of the story stop reading now.
Calico Joe is the story of a pitcher who deliberately hits a superstar rookie batter in the head with a fastball pitch. The pitch hits the batter’s eye and seriously injures the young hitter. An expected brilliant career ends abruptly. Reconciliation is a significant theme of the book and the book ends, thirty years later, with a meeting between the pitcher and the batter. I remember being envious of the characters of the book for that meeting.
You see, my son’s disabilities and medical issues are the result of medical malpractice. Granted the physician did not deliberately injure my son the way the pitcher injured the batter. But, like the batter in the story, a serious injury happened and led to not one, but at least two, radically changed and restricted lives.
And then today this article scrolled across my Facebook page. Briefly, it is an article about a physician who admitted to lying in a medical malpractice case to protect a colleague. The article got me thinking, once again, about malpractice and the ensuing response by the medical establishment. For the record, I don’t I believe that the physician in our case lied. It was the comment in the article about the fact that members of medical communities live with a powerful code of silence about medical mistakes that leapt off the page at me. Mistakes are not discussed, particularly with any patients involved. There is little opportunity to speak up, or speak to, patients who were involved in a medical mistake. While there is much discussion these days about the importance of dialogue and apology I genuinely wonder how often that happens in very serious (and, thus, expensive) cases of medical malpractice. It did not happen in our case.
Last week the daughter of the physician involved in my son’s birth served my husband cookies at a school function. We move in a small community. My husband was unfazed, but for a split-second it hit me. No one in the crowd would have noticed it. But I did.
I like to believe that I have long-since made peace with our particular situation and I have long-since forgiven the physician for his involvement in my son’s very severe injuries. For the record I, personally, don’t think the physician involved is incompetent. I think he made a mistake. He is human and not God ergo mistakes are inevitable. It was just too bad it was us in the room.
Our malpractice case concluded several years ago. It was awful and I say that even though, officially, we “won”. When it comes to our medical litigation I have never felt like a “winner”. In many ways I think we all just stumbled through a journey of losses. Living through litigation was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was more stressful than the stress of being an extreme caregiver, which is significant I might add. Much of my bitterness and disillusionment about the experience, though, is directed to the legal/insurance system rather than the medical system, or the particular physician.
But Calico Joe got me thinking, again, about apologies and reconciliation. I would have been (be) open to such a meeting, but in the midst of litigation such meetings are impossible. In the aftermath of litigation it seems that they just don’t happen. I am not sure why. Financial awards are not apologies. Funding is not reconciliation.
I think I would welcome such a meeting. I would like to hear an apology and to personally tell the physician that I am not angry at him, only sad that things happened the way they did for us, and for him. I cannot imagine living through a malpractice trial as a physician was any less difficult for him than it was for us. I would like to be able to see him at our children’s school without my heart stopping, even for that split-second, wondering if he saw me . I have considered writing to him via his office, but I am too afraid of the response, or lack thereof, I might get. Though there are times I wonder if he, too, might find such a meeting healing.
It is a tragedy that the powerful medical, insurance, and legal stakeholders make something as healing and human as an apology and reconciliation virtually impossible. I applaud physicians such as Dr. Lars Aanning who are speaking out, not only in cases where a physician made a mistake, but also about the code of silence that interferes with good, human care – both before a mistake, and after.