Friday, May 2, 2014
What Does "I'm Sorry" Really Mean?
Is an apology OK if it’s from over 20 years ago? Is it OK if it comes through someone else? Is an apology always healing or meaningful or even necessary?
My friend Rachel, a critical care nurse, who is warm and gentle, passionate about patient safety and patient’s rights, asked me a few weeks ago if I had ever sat down and spoken to the doctor who did my son’s surgery. I told her I hadn’t but the truth is, the conversation I would have had with him has played out in my head over and over again. I spoke to him briefly immediately following my son’s death. He sounded concerned. But that could have been because he was nervous. I barely remember the conversation, but I was happy he’d called. My mother also spoke to him briefly. She remembers the conversation better.
Maybe if I had moved on, continuing my job at the post office instead of throwing myself into the world of patient safety, not knowing what happened to that doctor who was the last to see my son alive and said he was fine, wouldn’t matter. But after speaking to hundreds if not thousands of people who have lost loved ones over the years. I have become haunted, as I know others are too, by questions about what that doctor’s life has been like. Does he think of my son? Have any lives been saved because of him? Did his death ever lead this surgeon to pause and do things differently? I have been confident that I would never get an apology, but just knowing that his life has been affected still matters to me — yes, 24 years later.
I never “blamed” the doctor. I never felt he was the direct cause of my son’s death. After all, we saw four other physicians about my son’s bleeding in the week after his tonsillectomy. None of them picked up on the possibility of my son Michael bleeding to death, or on the infection that ravaged his young body. I always told people who asked that he was a good doctor and a fine surgeon, but something that I will never understand went terribly wrong.
Rachel asked me if she could call him and if so, would I be willing to talk to him. She told me, “I had this vision in my head of the two of you sitting down to say things that you may have both thought over the last 24 years.” I told her, “Of course.” In a perfect medical system, Rachel and I both agree, when things go wrong, patients, their families and the medical team should be able to have a conversation in order to learn what happened, to heal and make improvements. That didn’t happen for me and it’s still not happening for the millions of families affected by unplanned outcomes since Michael’s death. I sent the surgeon a book, Wall of Silence, about 10 years ago, in which my son’s story is described in detail. The doctor never responded. Earlier I wrote him a letter, to which he also never responded. In that letter I wanted him to know about Michael. I realized I would never have an answer to the question: does he ever think about what happened?
Rachel called me this week and casually began the conversation by telling me that she had spoken to the surgeon who did Michael’s surgery 24 years ago. She continued telling me about her conversation, which didn’t register. I had to ask her to go back and repeat it. I thought that call was something Rachel was thinking about but would never be able to pick up the phone to do.
Rachel said the surgeon sounded annoyed at her calling but he stayed on the phone for 25 minutes. She asked him if he would sit down and talk to me and he said “no.”
He explained to Rachel that the hospital directed him as to what to do, and he did it. He now has health issues of his own. The surgeon, now probably in his 60s, told Rachel that he has “hashed” this over in his head.
Rachel told him about my work helping others come to terms with their new lives after an unplanned outcome. The injury or death is actually just the beginning of the patient’s or family’s new life. For years I have been helping people dealing with the guilt of what could have been done differently when they placed their loved ones in the hands of those who caused injury or worse. I have spent time with families facing the trauma and heartache of a medical malpractice lawsuit, encouraging medical mediation, and working on fixing the system through educating patients and their families. Rachel told him I said he was a good doctor.
She explained to the doctor that she wants to work in a hospital where there isn’t blame and mistakes aren’t hidden.
The doctor wished me well, and told Rachel that he is sorry for what happened.
Now I have to wonder, did I finally get an apology? And why have I been saying for years that he is a good surgeon? Was it actually to protect me?