Shared Suffering

Having experienced serious surgical mishaps by two different surgeons over a ten-month period of time, I have thought a lot about what would make injured patients feel better and punishment was not the answer.

I believe the harshest, direst experience on this earth is to suffer alone! Yet one of the greatest, most bonding experiences people can have is shared suffering. Consider what happens to most patients after a medical error:

Stage 1.  Provider Denial – Patient is alone in his pain and his fear of his final outcome.

Stage 2.  Provider Limited Admission – Patient is told that a bad outcome occurred but he is a one-in-a-million rare occurrence. Again the patient is led to believe that he is alone and extremely unlucky.

Stage 3.  Attorneys Get Involved – Now the wall of silence goes up and you are totally alone in trying to understand what really happened and how you can put your life back together.

After years of suffering through our incredibly brutal tort(ure) system I finally had the chance to talk to the surgeon. The most meaningful words he spoke were the descriptions of how badly he suffered also from the event we shared in that OR. Finally, I was not alone! Doctors and nurses must be allowed and encouraged to share their heartbreak with the patients that they accidentally injure. By doing this we can avoid lifetimes of guilt and bitterness and both can learn and heal.

Medical schools will teach that the greatest feeling on earth is to bring a patient back from the brink of death. I believe that the greatest experience a doctor can have is to be unconditionally forgiven by a patient who was seriously harmed.

Kerry O’Connell  9/9/2010

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About Kerry O'Connell

Kerry O'Connell is a civil construction project manager and a member of the Colorado Health Facility Acquired Infections Advisory Committee. A committed patient safety advocate, he calls for restoring empathy and compassion in health care. He became a Numerator in 2005.
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