“Yes, Today is Your Lucky Day”

As we at the Academy for Emerging Leaders in Patient Safety (AELPS) prepare for our 13th year of Patient Safety Summer Camps for future healthcare leaders, I always reflect on a personal story I share the first day of each session to kick-off our week of work together. The story captures many of the reasons we have a preventable medical harm crisis today, such as: fear, devastation, lack of transparency, refusing to learn and improve from mistakes, lack of embedded human factors. The story also serves to show our young learners that we all are human and we all make mistakes, and helps set up a learning environment where they feel safe in sharing their own personal stories. Those who have only worked in healthcare a short time will have seen, or been involved in, an event that harmed a patient. For those that have followed our blog through the years, you have read some of these personal stories…mistakes that even harmed our own family members. I thought I would share my story with all of you.

Many years ago, I was involved in a medical error as a resident – a wrong-sided hernia repair that unfortunately harmed one of our patients. As the anesthesiologist, my job was to bring the patient into the operating room, put the required monitors on so I could make sure he was safe during the procedure, and then administer the general anesthetic that would keep him unconscious during his right-sided hernia surgery. I did that successfully and was focused on my job but, like others in the operating room, I didn’t notice that the senior surgical resident had taken the scalpel and made the surgical incision on the patient’s left side by mistake. Two minutes later the attending surgeon who had been detained with a question from another surgeon, came into the operating room, looked at the patient on the operating table and asked, “I thought this was a right-side hernia repair?” When the surgical resident realized her mistake, she passed out…the impact making a medical error can have on us as caregivers.

The surgeon closed the incision on the left side and then proceeded to fix the hernia on the right side. The patient now had two surgical bandages on their abdomen: one to cover the hernia repair, the other to cover our mistake. I dreaded having to see the patient in an hour and explain my part in the medical error that harmed him. I had never been involved in a medical error before, and was very nervous about the anger he might feel towards me and our team. When I went to meet the patient in the recovery room, I noticed he had a big smile on his face. This struck me as very odd. Before I could say anything, he looked at me and said, “Today is my lucky day”. I was dumbstruck. He continued, “Yes, today is my lucky day because under anesthesia my surgeon told me he discovered I had two hernias, one on each side, and was able to repair both at one time so I don’t have to miss another day of work to get the second one repaired”. It then hit me. The plan was to lie to the patient and cover up our mistake. I didn’t know what to say or how to react. After a very long pause, I responded, “Yes, today is your lucky day,” and I signed the patient out.

Not only were my six words to the patient “Yes, today is your lucky day” morally and ethically wrong, our lack of honesty and transparency kept us from learning how to prevent others from suffering similar harm. As a result, wrong-sided surgeries continued to occur far too frequently.

In defining professionalism in healthcare we use words like altruism, honor, integrity, respect, caring, compassion, and accountability to name a few. In telling my patient “Yes, today is your lucky day”, I violated every one of those principles we take an oath on when becoming a caregiver.

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