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Posted: March 10, 2008

Practical Caregiving

Doctors Can Make Mistakes Too: A Lesson for All

With doctors, sometimes it’s what you don’t know that can kill you or seriously hurt you. I know that sounds alarming and it should but truer words were never spoken.

Just ask my friend, who I’ll refer to as Donna, and you’ll see what I mean. This actually happened, and it could have ended as a horror story if Donna didn’t take an active role and interest in what her treatment was to be:

Donna had shut her finger in a dresser drawer a couple times a few months ago. The fingernail changed shape, but it improved as it grew out. Still, a soft pocket of fluid developed between the fingernail and the joint. When Donna wrote with a pen or pencil, her finger would start hurting and continue to be sore. She decided she needed to do something to correct the problem (as well as be more careful when she closed dresser drawers!).

Donna went to her family physician, who referred her to an orthopedic specialist. The specialist walked into the room, looked at Donna's finger, and said he could take care of it. But he did not give her an explanation of what he would do. He told her that she needed a pre-op physical before he could do anything. Donna's original doctor told her the specialist would either drain it or remove the mucous cyst coming out of an arthritic joint, so she assumed that was what the specialist was talking about.

In the process of all this, someone told her she would be put to sleep when the doctor did it.

Donna went back to her family physician and asked for a pre-op physical. The doctor had someone take her blood pressure, as well as give her an EKG. After the EKG, the doctor returned to the exam room and said Donna's EKG showed a small abnormality and that she needed to be evaluated by a cardiologist. An appointment was made, but the EKG report was not sent to the cardiologist as it was supposed to be. The cardiologist got tired of waiting for the report to be faxed and did his own EKG.

Surprisingly, he said there was nothing at all wrong with Donna's heart a total contradiction of the first doctor. She could go ahead with plans to have that little cyst removed. He agreed with Donna that she probably did not need to be put to sleep for the procedure.

Donna called the specialist to make an appointment to have the cyst drained or removed. She told the person she spoke with on the phone that she did not want to be put to sleep. Donna pointed out that the procedure was minor and she wanted to be awake for it. The receptionist kept arguing about it, and then finally told Donna that a joint replacement was a serious procedure and that she could go suffer heart failure.

That just didn’t wash! Donna wasn’t having a joint replacement.

Donna was shocked and told the staffer that the doctor was not replacing her finger joint. The girl asked Donna what she thought the doctor was planning to do, and Donna told her what her family physician had said about the cyst.

This brought a lot of confusion, and the staffer said she would have to talk to the doctor. Meanwhile, Donna called her family physician who tried to straighten out the mess with the specialist’s office.

As a result, Donna was told that she would not have to be put to sleep, that the staffer had made an error in judgment, and that Donna could talk with the doctor about her concerns over what had happened and what procedure would take place.

But, guess what: the doctor and his office never called.

Donna went to a different specialist who removed the cyst and cleaned the arthritic joint while Donna was awake and even without the pre-op physical. Today, Donna is healing just fine but she’s much wiser than when this whole fiasco started.

There’s a lesson here for all of us, and that lesson is to stay on top of your medical situation, or that of your elderly loved one. Ask questions. Be involved. Act as though you are a "customer," which you are, and remember you are not in the presence of someone who can’t make mistakes because all of us do.

For Donna, this was almost a very hard lesson. I’m hoping it’s one you can head off. 

© 2008 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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Please send me your questions, comments and issues regarding the practical side of caregiving at ASKJEAN@caregivershome.com, and remember to take advantage of our professionals and experts in the Ask an Expert section of our website. You'll find it in the left column on our homepage.

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