Doctors are conditioned to deny

Several years ago, a colleague of mine did a procedure on my daughter. What was supposed to be routine has become a nightmare for her.  When he saw her post-op, he told her she was fine.  Because of this obfuscation, years went by before she really understood how damaged she was. By then, the statute of limitations had lapsed and she had no recourse.

Still seeking closure on this disaster, my daughter recently went to one of his peers who confirmed the extent of her injury and even called the initial physician to let him know what he had done. Despite this evidence, he refuses to admit he caused it. How does a physician get this deep into denial?

This doctor is a leading physician in the state and universally respected. Certainly, he has helped thousands of others. So why can’t he admit he has made such a serious mistake?

Somewhere in our careers, we lose touch with our emotions and our patient’s tribulations. We suppress our natural responses, deny our feelings, and unlearn how to say “sorry” when a patient is suffering.  We learn to lean heavily on denial. We see perfectly healthy people with catastrophic illness and compartmentalize it so we don’t have to worry it can happen to us. In the hope of treating disease, we cause tremendous suffering with medicines and surgeries that have horrendous side effects and complications. We employ denial to shield ourselves emotionally from the misery we cause, but it only tends to make us more callous. Our lab coats make us “different,”  enforce our denial and allow us to not identify too closely with our patients, lest we constantly be faced with the reality that we will all end up as patients with some lethal disease.

The constant threat medical malpractice creates more distance between our emotions and our patients. Rather than surrender to our compassion and acknowledge a patient’s misfortune, we remain silent for fear of implying our guilt.  For want of an “I’m sorry,” a lawsuit becomes more likely.

Having said that, I still don’t know how my daughter’s doctor could be so devoid of compassion and honesty that he could still deny he harmed her, especially when he knows the acknowledgment would give her some closure.  Somehow our generation of doctors has to be better.  We have to admit things go wrong and we contribute to patient suffering.  For our profession, for our patients, and for ourselves, we need to reject denial in favor of truth.  We need to face our patients sympathetically with honesty, not denial.

The author is an anonymous physician.

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