Yesterday was Father’s Day, 2014. I woke up before everyone else in my room. Rolling out of bed, I padded down the stairs and brewed a cup of much-needed coffee. Pouring my face over the steaming cup, I looked out my window to the inspiring landscape of endless white-capped mountains. This year marks the ninth Father’s Day that I have spent without my dad, but the mountains and my purpose this week made me feel as though he were standing there with me, sharing our cup of morning coffee, just as we used to.
After taking the gondola ride into Telluride, the students and faculty plunged into our work of expanding our knowledge in the field of patient safety. We watched a documentary outlining the tragic case of Lewis Blackman, a 15-year-old boy who died due to medication error, miscommunication, and assumptions made by his medical team. The film explored the errors in Lewis’s care that have become far too common in our medical system: the lack of communication between providers and families, the establishment of “tribes” within medicine who do not collaborate or communicate with one another, the lack of mindfulness of the providers, and the culture in which all of these errors were permitted to happen.
But what resonated with me the most were the feelings described by Lewis’s mother. She defined her experience as one of isolation and desperation. “We were like an island”, she said. There was no one there to listen to her concerns. Ironically, Lewis died as a result of being in the hospital, the one place where he could not get the medical care that he so desperately needed.
A pain hit my stomach as she said these words. My family also shared the feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and loss throughout my father’s stay in the hospital. After Lewis’s death, his mother was not contacted. Instead, she was sent materials about grieving and loss in the mail. After an egregious error occurred during my father’s medical care, a physician did not give us an apology, but a white rose by a nurse.
An interesting discussion arose after the film. Our faculty emphasized the need for physicians to partner with the families of the patients. This will create not only a team during the course of treatment, but will cultivate compassion, empathy, and trust in the case of a terrible event. I know that despite the growing number of “apology laws” that protect, and even mandate, physicians to apologize to families after catastrophic events, few physicians actually do apologize. This results in families feeling like the events were there fault. I can say from experience that this is a burden that you can carry with you for years to come.
As I got back to my room and put down my books this conversation mulled in my mind. The death of my father has given me the fuel to pursue medicine and patient safety as my career. It has instilled in me passion, energy, and determination. Yet the one thing that I have not found in the nine years since my father’s death is forgiveness. Although I do not hold any one doctor or nurse responsible for the detrimental outcome in my father’s care, I have not been able to forgive the team for what happened. I have not been able to go back to that hospital. And as I sat on my beautiful bed in the mountains, I realized that I also harbored another feeling: fear. Fear of becoming a physician who does not practice mindfulness, who does not partner with my patients, who does not apologize for my mistakes. I am afraid that despite my best intentions, I will only continue the vicious cycle. A fear that I will allow my patients to feel as though they are “on an island”.
I put away my computer and got into bed. Lying awake, I took in the gravity of the day. I am so grateful to be here at Telluride among students and faculty who share my passion in patient safety. I could not have imagined a more perfect way to spend Father’s Day.