- Cullman, Alabama


January 3, 2013

COMMENTARY: A Doctor Sees a Hospital Fail His Mother


'Do you want to sue?'

In the midst of grieving and preparing for my mother's funeral, I was also lost in a haze of disbelief. Why had so many things gone wrong?

When I discussed my mother's case with my Boston colleagues, they were incredulous. "Do you want to sue?" they asked. I felt angry and abandoned by my mother's oncologist, the emergency physician and the nurses who remained quiet when the right treatment wasn't used. But as the weeks progressed, any thought of a lawsuit didn't sit well. The prospect of lengthy legal proceedings seemed counterproductive. And I came to believe that suing the hospital and doctors would interfere with our family's accepting my mother's death and the normal grieving process.

As a doctor in a high-risk field, I also considered how destructive a malpractice suit could be. If we sued, my mother's oncologist would be a central figure in the case, as the debacle fell squarely in his lap. He was imperfect, but he'd treated my mother's cancer, both 14 years ago when it first appeared and during her recent recurrence, and she'd respected him. He was nearing retirement, and a lawsuit would be a terrible way to end his career. I didn't want to do that to him, even though he'd never explained his inaction. A lawsuit just wasn't in line with our Midwestern-family mind-set.

An explanation or an apology

Mostly, we wanted the hospital to provide an explanation for what happened. And we wanted an apology. Additionally, because the hospital had wasted opportunities to save my mother, we wanted assurances that it would never do that to anyone again.

"If you want to improve quality," a colleague suggested, "why don't you write a letter?" Send it to the hospital's administrators, he suggested, describing my mother's experience and suggesting specific ideas for improving how systemic infections were treated.

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