I love listening to podcasts on my way to work, and I was most excited when the second season of Dr. Death started. If you didn’t listen to the first season, it was about Dr. C. Duntsch, a neurosurgeon in the Dallas area who should never have been operating on people. He even left his best friend paralyzed from the neck down due to a botched surgery.
The second season follows Dr. F. Fata, an oncologist working in Michigan. He decided to try to make a lot of money by ordering unnecessary tests, doing unnecessary procedures, diagnosing people with cancer that didn’t have it, and treating them with low doses of chemo that he could charge a lot of money for. Ultimately, of course, he was caught and sent to prison.
The final episode of the season discussed medical mistakes and the culture surrounding medicine that prevents a lot of mistakes from being acknowledged or reported. Dr. Duntsch was residency trained and kept getting moved along even though he was not procedurally proficient to be performing complex procedures. Several people tried to report Dr. Fata, but the state medical board ignored and did not do an investigation on the reports of gross medical malpractice.
One of the quotes from the episode was from a French surgeon, Dr. Pierre Lariche, who stated: “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures. Which made me stop and think about who might be buried in my cemetery.”
I can think of the “almost oops” where a patient might have gotten the wrong medication, nothing serious happened, and the right medication was then given. I can think of a patient for whom the nurse misunderstood my instructions and gave too much medication. Again, the error was discovered, and the patient did not suffer any serious consequences.
But I do know of a patient or two where I wonder if I inadvertently caused serious harm. Where even all these years later, I wonder about my clinical judgment at the time. I wonder if there was something else I could have, should have, or would have done. I think those patients are the ones whom we prove that even doctors are human and can make and learn from their mistakes. Maybe that’s why it’s called the “practice” of medicine.
Veronica Bonales is an emergency physician.