The unfortunate truth is medical errors can happen to anyone, even health care providers themselves. Sadly, emergency doctor Jonathan Welch and his family experienced this first hand.
Welch was working in Boston when he received an unexpected call from an emergency doctor in Wisconsin, saying his mother was sick. Although Welch’s mother had been battling cancer, she was in stable condition until that morning.
She was taken to the E.R. with a high fever, rapid heartbeat, and extremely low white blood cell count. The chemotherapy treatment for his mother’s cancer had wiped out most of her white blood cells, essential for fighting infection, making her vulnerable to infections and unable to fight them off once entered in her system.
Simply put, Welch’s mother had a serious infection in her system, that couldn’t be fought off due to her lack of white blood cells. Welch had encountered this numerous times with cancer patients, it’s a commonly known condition, easily diagnosed, and has a standard procedure for treatment.
The first 24 hours of care are critical for patients in this condition, so Welch hopped on the first plane back to Wisconsin to see how the hospital was handling his mother’s treatment.
To Welch’s shock and disappointment, not only did the hospital not follow the proper treatment protocol but the hospital’s protocols in general were obstructive to his mother’s recovery. Her vital signs were severely diminishing; in fact, her numbers were half of what they were when she arrived at the hospital. Even trying to read her vital signs when Welch first arrived was difficult. The cardiac monitor that would provide this information was nowhere to be found. This is extremely dangerous, without that monitor doctors and nurses would be unable to read quick changes in her vital signs that would require immediate action.
After 16 hours of being in the hospital, she had still not received any treatment from the standard protocol. Welch demanded that his mother be moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), hoping that there the intensive-care specialist would start her treatment through an IV. Even after being moved to the ICU, Welch’s mother hadn’t received any treatment.
After asking the nurse about the treatment plan, she said that they do have the standard protocol, but his mother’s oncologist hadn’t ordered it. Welch was shocked. When a patient is moved to the ICU, it is the intensive-care specialist that decides the treatment plan. Apparently this hospital’s protocols are different. Furthermore, the oncologist hadn’t spoken to the intensive-care specialist.
Despite his medical knowledge of what needed to be done, Welch felt increasingly helpless. He didn’t want to be too demanding. He knew that it could result in less attention from the nurses.
It wasn’t until Welch began making plans to transfer his mother to another hospital that his mother’s oncologist allowed the intensive-care doctor to take control of the case and start her on the proper treatments. However, this came in 23 hours after she had been in the hospital. And too late.
Unfortunately, Welch’s mother did not make it.
Welch was left with the same feelings as every family member who has lost a loved one due to a preventable medical error – he was angry and frustrated at the staff involved. The oncologist for abandoning his mother, the intensive-care doctor and nurses for staying quiet when they knew the right treatment wasn’t being prescribed. But what to do?
Welch and his family just wanted an apology, an explanation for what happened, and the assurance that this would never happen again to anyone else. They shied away from a lawsuit, because it “wasn’t in line with [their] Midwestern-family mind-set.”
Instead, they wrote a letter to the hospital’s administrators with their concerns. They received very little in response to their letter. Only after reconsidering a lawsuit and calling the hospital’s administrator did Welch receive a slight admission of error. Eventually, some of the concerns voiced in his family’s letter were addressed, but not all. The most vital of which was the concern that intensive-care specialists couldn’t be in charge of new ICU patients’ treatment plans immediately.
And the apology? The hospital administrator apologized for not updating Welch and his family sooner, but a true apology for the pain caused from losing their mother never came.
Many families who have been severely injured or lost a loved one due to preventable medical errors such as this shy away from lawsuits for reasons similar to the Welch family. They think it will leave a bad taste in their mouth, they don’t want to ruin the career of the doctor who had been with them for several years, or they think it won’t help them with their grieving process.
But how else will you get the closure you need to move on? Like the Welch family, you want the hospital to admit that they made a mistake, you want them to apologize, and you want them to fix it so it will never happen to anyone else ever again.
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This article was based on Michael Welch’s article published in the Washington Post on January 1, 2013.