Several weeks ago I had a late phone call from one of my colleagues at DoveLewis. I almost didn’t answer the phone as I was not on call and it was pretty late (for me anyway). But I picked it up and was mildly surprised to hear a teary voice on the other end. The caller apologized for the lateness of her call and explained that she was not currently at the hospital which added to my slightly groggy confusion.
My colleague went on to explain in a voice wracked with emotion that she was asking for my input on a case which had gone sideways on her earlier in the day. The patient had expired quite unexpectedly and it really shook her. I asked a few salient questions so I could understand the clinical presentation and progression and tried to put myself in her shoes. We spoke for maybe 15 minutes and I think I was able to support her both as a colleague and as a human. Not one of the people who work in this building takes the death of a patient lightly, no matter the situation. Even the most peaceful, timely, benevolent passing still hurts. When the patient’s death is unexpected, unexplained and untimely, the hurt can be magnified by our natural tendency to self-judge. What did I miss? What should I have done differently? Do I have any business treating these sick patients? What if you know that you made a poor decision and you are certain that it contributed to the patient’s demise? Human (medical) error is a toxic cocktail of emotions and can bring us to our knees.
This colleague is early in her career. She is a compassionate and knowledgeable doctor and she has the ability to learn and grow from her experience. From what I understood of this case, she committed no medical mistake, but that’s almost beside the point. My friend took this death personally and her patient care will be even better for it. Maybe when she talks about anesthetic risks with clients, her concerns will be that much more heartfelt and thus communicated even more clearly. Perhaps she will create a stronger team approach to monitoring patients during procedures. In any case, the loss of this patient has not broken my colleague.
When I hung up the phone that night, I was a mix of my own emotions. I felt awful that my colleague was going through that doubt and sadness. A tiny part of me felt selfishly glad that I wasn’t the one anguishing about decisions. However, the strongest feeling I had that night and that which stays with me weeks later, is the humble gratitude that she chose to call me with her worries. This colleague does not report to me. I have little power to make her job better or worse. And yet she dialed my number. Thank you, fellow veterinarian, for allowing me to share your distress and for trusting me with your feelings. I hope that I was able to ease your mind a little those several weeks ago.