Doctors Confess Their Fatal Mistakes | Reader's Digest

Doctors Confess Their Fatal Mistakes

Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists hold your life in their hands. Here, their shocking stories of what can go wrong—and what has to improve to keep us safe.

By Joe Kita from Reader's Digest | October 2010

“I Unknowingly Discharged a Patient Having a Stroke”
By Bryan E. Bledsoe, DO

I’ll never forget her—in fact, I still have dreams about the look on her children’s faces after she died. Her name was Claire,* and she came into the ER where I was working as an emergency physician. She had an old neck collar on upside down and was complaining of neck pain and a bad headache. She was about 60 years old, and I thought she might have had a mental handicap because she had difficulty describing her symptoms. Her son and daughter were with her, and they also seemed a bit slow.

*Name changed to protect privacy

This ER was always busy, and the administration had been pressuring us to move patients through more quickly. I examined Claire briefly and saw no worrisome signs. X-rays of her neck showed nothing wrong; I assumed she had slept wrong or pulled a muscle. So I discharged her with some pain medication and picked up the next chart in the bottomless stack.

The next morning we received a call from an ambulance transporting a female who had suffered cardiac arrest. She was brought into the resuscitation room, where we continued CPR. I didn’t recognize her at first, but then I noticed a familiar-looking son and daughter sobbing in the hallway. I looked at the lifeless patient and almost broke into tears myself. In my rush the day before, I hadn’t listened carefully to Claire’s complaint of severe headache. Now it seemed clear to me that I’d overlooked a symptom of an impending stroke.

We did everything we could, but I knew our efforts were hopeless. After I pronounced her dead I met her son and daughter in the small chapel near the emergency department. I started to explain—in way too technical terms—what happened. Then I paused, and tears came to my eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I wish I had ordered a CT scan yesterday. I must have missed something. I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Claire’s daughter replied. “We know you did your best. Mom said you were a good doctor.” I couldn’t stop my tears now. A few days later, I went to the funeral, where I sat with Claire’s children. Even thought 20 years have passed and I’m now a medical-school professor, I haven’t forgotten.

How to Fix the Problem

I try to impress upon physicians-in-training that medicine is more than using advanced technology to move an endless flow of patients. Every person in the exam room, regardless of social status, is a human with a family, and our duty is to act in that person’s best interest—not in the best interest of insurance companies and hospital administrators, the way I did.

We also need to erase the burden on the ER. Between 1997 and 2006, emergency department visits increased by 32 percent, while reimbursement to hospitals hasn’t kept up. We need more retail health clinics and urgent-care centers. And we need to educate people so they trust these new clinics and use them for all but the direst emergencies.

Until these things occur or other solutions are found, unfortunately what happened to Claire will happen again—and again.

Bryan E. Bledsoe, DO, is a clinical professor of emergency medicine at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Las Vegas.

  • Your Comments

    • Happy Place

      I like a National Healthcare System

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rod-Venger/747469101 Rod Venger

      These doctors are horrible and their confessions do not absolve them of anything. I pity the pharmacist that took the fall or his tech’s error, but he was the supervisor…as for the nurse, God protect us from nurse-managers. No person can be intimidated or threatened unless they allow themselves to be. Nurses are like wolves, pack animals looking to protect each other from outside forces. The alpha nurse, the manager, like all others before her, used to be just a normal, hard working nurse. Once tapped for management, they lose all their humanity, working not for the good of the patient but for the good of the system. No surprise that this one lines up with a union. The pack can never be wrong nor accused of being wrong for they have all the fangs. That’s convenient when it comes to laying blame for someone’s untimely death.

    • Change is slow

      While I appreciate this article, there are many flaws in the system, just mentioned a tad in this article that could have books written on them, such as the intern system…the voices say it needs to change, but those who made it through perpetuate it. Right now it is nearly impossible to change. Or that Geisner systems improperly implemented give a physician incentive to hide the source of re-admission, and that going to another facility doesn’t mean the truth will come out, as doctors protect each other as a means of protecting themselves. Its a deep rooted complex topic, and those with advocates fare better in terms of protecting themselves from mistakes, but fare worse in terms of the backlash from the medical community, not just during their immediate care but any care related or not, afterwards.

    • CTG

      Obama Care is the best thing any President has ever put in place. Try getting insurance with pre-existing conditions – it is IMPOSSIBLE! You either get totaly denied coverage or they place riders and still charge prices so high you cannot afford the coverage. You need to do your research or try walking in someone elses shoes when you cannot get medical help!

    • CTG

      Obama Care is the best thing any President has ever put in place. Try getting insurance with pre-existing conditions – it is IMPOSSIBLE! You either get totaly denied coverage or they place riders and still charge prices so high you cannot afford the coverage. You need to do your research or try walking in someone elses shoes when you cannot get medical help!

    • Davekyguy

      Wait till Obamacare cuts the Dr.s pay and starts rationing care.

      They are going to save money all right, just like they did when they stole 500 billion from Medicare.

      • Bill

        Nonsense. Pure dittohead rubbish. You’re statement are wrong and taken just as fox misrepresented the,m.

        “Obamacare” rationing healthcare? You mean like the current HMO’s do? Why do you think this country is moving towards a nationalized healthcare system? Because of the corrupt insurance providers!

        Turn off fox and raise your IQ.