To Err is Human... Right?

How many of us have gone to the emergency room or our local hospital, expecting answers and, obviously, help, only to receive, after hours of agonizing wait, the label as a hypochondriac or given a (false) clean bill of health and sent home? Perhaps the illness you experienced was just a passing affliction. But what if it wasn’t? What if you were misdiagnosed, maltreated, or ignored completely? These types of occurrences happen more than you think, and they happen at your local hospital.

I can remember years and years of my mother in constant pain, pain that seemed to consume every day of her life. She had a sharp, nagging pain in her right side and visits to the E.R. only resulted in her being told to take fiber and go home. Angered, she obeyed, earning herself more pain because, in fact, the pain had been due to intestinal obstruction – something the fiber only worsened.

This case is minor compared to the errors she has fallen victim to over the years. When she was in active labor with me, her second child, she experienced contractions so agonizing they left her crying out for help. The door had carelessly been left closed, the help button used to summon a nurse broken, and no promised routine visit from anyone. My mother suffered alone for hours, and when a nurse finally did come by, they told her she was being a baby and to stop crying; it didn’t hurt that much. My mother was enraged, but the nurse left her alone once more. Meanwhile, the contractions worsened. Eventually, a passing anesthesiologist heard the cries for help coming from her room. He entered and went to check her machine. The device that measured the force of contractions was clogged. He corrected the problem, and, noticing the updated reading on her machine, threw a fit, “This woman should have had an epidural hours ago!”

Over a decade later, my mother had gone in to a different hospital to have blood work done prior to a scheduled operation. The nurse that was assigned to this task took the blood and simply slapped a Band-Aid on my mother’s arm. My mother, no newcomer to this procedure, questioned the sudden lack of clamping off the blood before its extraction. By applying pressure to the vessel with a band tied around the arm, the chance of bruising is fractioned. This is a method that even the intern nurses, still in training, know. This nurse, however, shrugged it off and left. The next day, my mother woke to a dark, ugly bruise a good four inches across. It looked as if someone had brutally beaten her. Later that week, when she appeared for her surgery, they questioned where she had gotten that nasty bruise. My mother replied, “It’s from when I got my blood taken earlier this week.” They were not happy at this negligence.

Still, the latest, most severe case of hospital error occurred just last month, when my mother underwent a second hernia repair surgery. Two days before her operation was scheduled, my mother began to have bouts of blurred vision, followed by blackouts. Frightened, she called her doctor, the one who would be operating on her that Friday. He told her to come to the emergency room right away. He said that it sounded like she may be having mini strokes and that they would most likely admit her for observation until her surgery. My father raced her to the hospital as directed, but upon arrival, another doctor told her it was just pain, and advised in a surly voice to simply to go home and sleep. There was no pain medication prescribed, and not even Tylenol was mentioned.

Tell me if this makes any sense to you, “You are in such pain that you are blacking out. It does not matter that your doctor, who knows your medical history, thinks you may be having mini strokes and need to be admitted. I am going to roll my eyes and send you off to bed.”
That Friday, the surgery was completed as planned, and with success. No expected complications occurred, and she was wheeled off into the recovery room. Before the operation, my mother was required to fill out a paper listing all her allergies. Let it be noted that my mother has serious, even potentially fatal reactions to almost all pain medications that hospitals regularly administer, and all their derivatives and synthetic forms. As she filled them out by name, she was told that it was not necessary to do so, that the doctors and nurses would know what they were. As she was still barely conscious, trying to come out of anesthesia, the nurse was preparing to administer a pain drug to her, and when my mother questioned what it was, the nurse wouldn’t reply. Eventually, she got an answer: Oxycodone, a derivative form of Codeine, which my mother is dangerously allergic to. My mother refused to take the pills, explaining that it was codeine and that she could not take it. The nurse argued, and refused my mother’s request that she fetch my father and have him back her up.

“Eat your crackers and take your pills, then I’ll go get him.”

My mother insisted, “You don’t understand, I’m allergic to this.”

“No, you’re not,” the nurse snapped, “I do this every day.”

When my mother requested a patient assistant and explained the tiff to her, the accused nurse denied it all.

This story continues as she returns home later that evening. She came home just minutes after my sister and I arrived home from school, and within an hour, my mother grew delirious and could not speak. She could only say, “Help me, help me.” An ambulance was called. Her blood pressure was just 67 over 42, and her pulse rate – they couldn’t even in one on the first attempt -- was dangerously low. She was dying, and no one knew why. Once she arrived at the hospital – the one she had just been released from not two hours before -- my father insisted on tests, including a CAT scan, x-rays, and blood work, looking for anything and everything that could have caused her sudden downfall. After her eventual recovery, there was no record of these tests ever being run.

This hospital offered its patients an online service that allowed them access to test results and medical records on their own personal accounts. Here, they could view results even before the doctor calls them. When my mother logged on to see if possibly her blood tests showed any sort of medicinal overdose that could have caused this near-death experience, there was no evidence that such a test was ever administered. My mother is convinced that whatever happened, they had flushed it out of her system and did not post the evidence that there was something to be flushed out. This would explain the extra time they held my mother at the hospital during this emergency visit, the extra bags of fluid distributed to her, and the odd color of her urine.

This is a scary thought. Why would the hospital try to hide an error, if there indeed was one, and if it was a bad reaction, shouldn’t the patient have the right to know for incidents in the future? Surveys show that 42 percent of people believe that they have personally experienced a medical mistake. Annually, 44,000 to 98,000 deaths occur from medical errors. Over 7,000 of these are due to errors in medicine distribution. One in every four Medicare patients hospitalized during the years 2000 to 2002 and experienced one of these safety incidents died.

When we are ill or injured, we rely on the medical staff of hospitals to ensure our safety. We count on them to provide peace of mind and take the problem out of our hands, to make everything “all better,” or to at least diagnose the problem. How can we trust them when so often, vital mistakes can be and are made? It has been said, “to err is human”, but can error be afforded when it is life or death?





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