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 Didn’t Question a Doctor I Knew Was Wrong”
By Sunnie Bell, RN

I was the nurse in charge of the evening shift at a small hospital. I was enthusiastic and experienced—a top graduate of a prominent nursing school. I had come on duty at 3 p.m. and met 85-year-old Mrs. Owen,* who had been admitted by Dr. X, her long-time family physician, because she had a suspected bowel obstruction. She was alone.

*Name changed to protect privacy

Around 5:30, her condition worsened dramatically. She was in increasing pain, and I became convinced she needed emergency surgery—obstructions can be deadly. I called Dr. X at home immediately. He was a highly regarded doctor, and his photo was displayed in the lobby along with those of the hospital’s other physicians. I passed it every day on my way to work.

But despite my concern, Dr. X said surgery could wait until the morning. He told me to increase her pain medication, but the drugs didn’t help, nor did anything else I tried.

Over the next five hours, I called Dr. X three more times, asking that he come to see her or at least call in a consulting physician. I always got the same instructions delivered in an ever more irritated way. And because nurses never questioned doctors, I bit my lip and followed orders.

Toward the end of my shift, Mrs. Owen was so weakened by her pain she could barely speak. She motioned me over to her bed and whispered, “When is my doctor coming?”

“Soon,” I lied. That word has echoed in my head for quite some time.

Mrs. Owen died the next morning. Whether she had a heart attack, stroke, or ruptured colon, we’ll never know, because an autopsy was never ordered. Dr. X  completed the paperwork just as if he’d done everything right, and no one questioned him.

I could have, though. I could have submitted a report, carefully documented and supported by my supervising nurse. But I didn’t. Challenging a doctor may not get a nurse fired, but it’ll often get him or her publicly chastised, reassigned to a different floor, or moved to the graveyard shift. I’d seen it happen.

After Mrs. Owen died, I could no longer stand to look at Dr. X’s photo in the lobby. But this is more than a complaint against one man—bullying and disrespect occur every day in every hospital throughout America. Most of the time the behavior is petty and only hurts the workers involved, but sometimes, as I witnessed firsthand, it can take the life of an innocent person.

How to Fix the Problem

As nurses’ unions have been saying for many years, hospital patient-to-nurse ratios sometimes get too high to keep people safe. We don’t have a shortage of nurses, though, just a shortage of nurses who are willing to work under current hospital conditions. More respect will bring them back.

We also need whistle-blower protections to safeguard nurses who speak up for the safety of patients. If I had such assurances of protection and support, I wouldn’t have thought twice about challenging Dr. X.

Each nurse must take it upon herself or himself to stand up to and report physician intimidation and abuse. Nurses are not second-class citizens in the health care system. In fact, in the increasingly busy and sometimes heartless hospital world, we are the patient’s primary protector.

Sunnie Bell, RN, is a Certified Diabetes Educator and was National Diabetes Educator of the Year in 1995.

  • 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.