Archive for the ‘Medical Mistakes’ Category

For Those Who Are Not Heard, Part 2


Doctors often do not listen to patients who have FTD, and will tell them that they do not have FTD.  They know so little about the wide variety of symptoms associated with FTD disorders, and how these symptoms and underlying diseases overlap.  This same phenomenon extends to the rest of the medical community:  those of us with illnesses, and even our caregivers, are not heard.

There is still much unknown about FTD and related disorders.  It is only this year that the leading researchers are starting to agree on which signs to look at and the basic measurements that they need to take, to enable them to start sharing and comparing the knowledge and data that they have each been collecting separately.

Further down the research food chain, doctors grab the more common stereotypes, and apply those typical symptoms as inflexible requirements for a diagnosis.  Many people who have FTD do not show “typical symptoms”, and so these doctors refuse to order MRI’s and PET scans, or the neuropsychological testing, that could confirm these presenile neurodegenative diseases in the early stages.  I was told by one self-proclaimed expert that if you don’t have emotional blunting, you can’t have FTD, despite physical evidence on an MRI of unilateral frontotemporal atrophy.

There is no cure for FTD and related disorders but neuroprotective medications do help to slow the damage from these diseases.  There are certain medications that people with these disorders that should not be on, certain medications that make their symptoms worse.

I understand that doctors are taught to sound confident and authoritative in talking to patients.  The idea is that the patient will be comforted to feel that the doctor knows his stuff.  The problem is that a doctor’s confidence in his knowledge needs to be based on fact, not fancy.  Missing a diagnosis of FTD adds years of uncertainty and unnecessary misery to patients and their families, over and above the depredations of the diseases.  And there are few things as disheartening to me as the aggressive ignorance of a doctor confidently and authoritatively asserting falsehoods.

Would it really be so hard just to listen?  To preserve some modicum of scientific humility?

Or maybe this humility is the means by which we can distinguish between the truly knowledgeable researchers and the lesser lights.

My words about this disease that is taking my life — robbing me of my grandchildren, and the world of the art that I want to create — come straight from my heart.  But there are so few who have the heart to listen.

A long time ago in December, I went to a bar, to listen to the words of a poet who was blind and hard of hearing.  He had another poet recite his poems.  All of his friends had promised to be there to listen to him.  This was a major event in his life.  He had never before revealed his poetry, what was in his heart, to anyone.

So the lights were dimmed and a blue light enveloped an attractive woman who sat next to the poet.  Her voice was like velvet and his simple poems about love flowed out of her mouth.   I was drawn into the poetry, my heart beating with the rhythm of his verse.

Then I felt a cold breeze periodically slip past my shoulders.  I looked around the room.  People were quietly getting up from their seats, stealing out like thieves into the night, slowing robbing the room of its humanity.  Then I remembered that another friend of ours, a poet who read his poetry every week at this time was reading his work  just down the street.  This section of town was known for the bars where poets read and people listened to live music.

After fifteen minutes, there were only five people there, the audience was the manager of the bar, a new female friend of the poet’s and me.  The female poet kept reading his poems and occasionally, she would address “the crowd.”  My poet friend continued to grin from ear to ear.  I wondered if he had known that anyone had left.  Then I thought perhaps he was better off not knowing.

I knew that if I walked down the street, most of the missing audience would be there.  I imagined myself chiding them for their transgression.  But, I decided, why waste my time in a verbal attack on fools, when a man was sharing his soul with us here.

About ten minutes before the session ended, his “friends” began to file back in as quietly as they had left.  Then she of the velvet voice said, “Before I read a final poem, I want to thank all of Bill’s friends for coming here tonight to listen to Bill’s poetry.  She rattled off their names one by one and they each squirmed a little in their seats or made some facial gesture, to acknowledged in a social way that they had been caught.

Then the poem was over and they all gathered around him to tell him how his poetry had touched their hearts.  I parted quickly not wanting to hear their gushing lies.

Alas for us who suffer these deadly diseases, there is no narrator in this life to name the names of those who will not hear.

Should Physicians tell Patients about Medical Mistakes?


Today I read an article in Medscape regarding the issue of whether or not a physician should tell their patients if they make a mistake in the medical care of the patient.  You can read the article here.

I have suffered greatly because of physicians’ medical errors.

The first time, was in 1991. I had a D&C for a miscarriage.  After the procedure I continued to have bleeding and began to develop severe abdominal pain.  I informed my physician and the office said to make a follow up appointment.  I had the D&C where I lived and it was far away from my work place, so a secretary at my office got me in to see her doctor at the medical school clinic.  Over a course of three weeks, I saw five physicians.  None of them could figure out what was wrong with me. One of the doctors, did a pregnancy test.  She asked me if my stools were dark and I told her they were.  My pregnancy test was still highly positive.  She brought up the possibility of a tubal pregnancy but after consulting with the head of surgery she told me that wasn’t a possibility.

My last clinic appointment was with the head of surgery.  He examined me and reviewed my case and concluded that I was a post-partum neurotic.  He gave me a Demerol shot and advised me to go home.  Fortunately, a urologist I had seen was there and he said he thought something was wrong with me.  He said he was going to admit me to the hospital and he sent me down to GYN for a sonogram.

After they performed the sono, the doctor pulled out a huge, long needle.  I asked what they were going to do.  I was informed that they saw pus on my sono so they were going to extract it via my vaginal canal.

After they began the procedure, the physician turned towards the intern and told him to page the surgeon stat for emergency surgery.  He told me I had massive bleeding in my abdominal cavity.

They rushed me into emergency surgery.  I remember the doctors running down the halls pushing my gurney to the OR, all in slow motion.  A nurse told me I might not survive.  Fortunately, a top specialist in fallopian tube repair was on call.  I had a ruptured tubal pregnancy, not post-partum neurosis.  The specialist successfully repaired the tube.

After surgery, the urologist came in to apologize to me.  He told me that I had a tubal pregnancy.  All the doctors assumed because I had a D&C that I couldn’t have a tubal pregnancy.  The surgeon who repaired my tube had been a professor of the doctor who did my D&C.  He called the doctor and asked him the results of the D&C pathology report.  It showed no fetal cells.  Physicians are routinely supposed to read pathology reports after surgery, but the physician said it had been misfiled.  The doctor who repaired my fallopian tube told my original physician to call me immediately and apologize to me, which he did.

Fortunately, everything turned out okay.  I had a baby boy two years later.  Obviously this happened because of slightly unusual circumstances, tubal pregnancy, but there was gross physician error involved.

Did I feel better that the physician apologized.  Yes I did.  I still was angry that none of the other physicians, especially the head of surgery, did not come to see me after surgery and apologize.  Did I consider suing?  It crossed my mind but since I was in the medical profession I knew that there was no case because there was no loss of organs.

The second incident occurred in 1997.  I was having right sided abdominal pain.  I consulted a GYN and she told she would do surgery to remove abdominal adhesions.  She did a laprascopy but found massive adhesions. Without informing me or my husband or obtaining a surgical consult, she converted the surgery to a laparotomy. When she was trying to remove adhesions, she accidentally injured three nerves in my abdominal area.

After surgery I had trouble walking and severe abdominal pain.  She told me both symptoms would pass and sent me home.  For two weeks I difficulty walking and severe pain.  I saw her for a follow up visit.  She told me the surgery went well and that she thought I had a psychosomatic disorder that caused my pain.  She explained to me stress can do things to the body and put me on antidepressants.

I tried to see her again but she refused to see me.

I suffered with this pain for years and over the years it got much worse.  No one could figure out what was wrong with me.  I ended up seeing a pain management doctor for treatment of my symptoms.

In 2003, we moved and I saw a pain specialist who was a neurologist. He did some testing and told me I had reflex sympathetic dystrophy which is a chronic pain syndrome. He said after reviewing my records, my disorder had likely developed after a complication in the abdominal adhesion surgery.  I obtained my medical records. We discovered what she had done. Did I file a lawsuit? It was too late to pursue any legal recourse.  Was I upset?  Tremendously so.  It has affected my whole life.  I am tortured every day by severe pain.

Do I think that physicians should tell patients when they made an error in their treatment?  Of course. When you as a customer pay for services you expect to be informed if any errors occurred in the performance of your service.  What do you do when your accountant makes an error in your tax return, your mechanic doesn’t fix your car as he or see promised, or an appliance you were sold doesn’t work?  You complain to the appropriate people and expect an apology and an assurance that the problem with be fixed if possible.  If the service provider is unable to fix the problem, you expect some compensation.

So why do so many physicians not tell their patient about medical mistakes?  I think because as medical students, physicians come to understand that telling patients about your mistakes just isn’t the thing that doctors should do.  They should be seen by their patients as a person with superior knowledge in the medical field so the patient will be able to trust them.   Also, their medical malpractice insurance is ridiculously high and they are afraid that they will be taken to the cleaners in court.

First of all, almost all medical malpractice claims are settled out of court.  I have done quality peer review of patient cases with physicians.  Most people who find out that a medical mistake in their care end up not suing.  They may threaten to sue but often change their mind when they find out how difficult the process to recover any damages may be.

The attitude of the physician as the great healer, keeper of medical knowledge, and the condescending “protective” relationship of the doctor to the patient should have been thrown out years ago.  Today’s medical consumer is much more likely to want to know what is going on with their care and they also have more tools to research their illness via the Internet.  Doctors say that medical information on the Internet is incomplete and full of errors.  That is true, but a large part of the population of people are educated, especially the baby boomer generation.  They are use to obtaining and receiving information where and when they want it.  And half of the doctors look up medical information on Wikipedia!

So, as the baby boomers mature into their elder years, I believe the consumer movement in health care will explode with thousands of people seeking information about their medical histories and care.  It will probably change the practice of medicine.

I think the role of the doctor today should be that of patient advocate.  The doctor should be a team member in providing good medical care for the patient. He or she should encourage their patients to become informed and welcome their efforts to find out information regarding their condition.  If the doctor is able to communicate with the patient about their knowledge and continues to encourage good communication between the patient and the doctor, it is reasonable to assume that misunderstandings that lead to threats of lawsuits will decrease tremendously.

Many physicians say that they will not tell their patient about any mistakes they may have made in their patients medical care.  Consumer trends and new governmental reform may force them to reveal more information. They should get used to providing information to their patients.