The Consequences of Patient Harm: Betrayal, Heartbreak, and How to Heal –
Consciously, we often assume it is a thing to be earned. Generally, we see it as a gift bestowed upon others as we choose to do so. In reality, we are conditioned to trust until given a reason not to. A primary example of this conditioning resides in the way we behave within the realm of modern medicine. For the average western child, from a very young age, we are taught that the doctor knows what we need. That assumption is grown and nurtured with every check-up and every parental admonition to “listen to the doctor” and “be still” for injections and clinical evaluations.
Over time, we come to embrace the “truth” that the doctor always has our best interests in mind and knows what is best. We lose sight of the humanity of the practitioner and the tangible limitations of that humanity. Nobody tells us that 440,000 Americans each year experience a preventable adverse event while hospitalized that contributes to their death.
First, do no harm. With every visit to a physician, we trust that no harm will come to us in that place.
Often, the experience enforces that belief. So, what happens when it doesn’t? We have endowed this person, unrelated to us, who we see very briefly and know very little about; with a vast indisputable level of trust based simply upon the nature of a chosen profession. In what other place do we voluntarily lay down ownership of our bodies and entrust another human being with full reign over our wellness?
How then, do we feel when this divinely entrusted soul… fails? … Fails to achieve a standard of care that ensures our safety? Fails to take the steps and have the knowledge that we have come to assume are only natural to this professional?
Without trust, betrayal does not exist. The sense of betrayal is directly proportionate to the level of trust at the outset. When that trust is broken and the consequences of that break have a life-changing impact on the way we function in the world, our hearts are broken with it. The shock of finding that the individual we have endowed with indisputable faith has caused us harm swirls us around in a bizarre funnel of surprise and pain.
Victimhood looms large here.
As our world crumbles around us, as our beliefs must shift, we inevitably blame before we can see the choices and influences that brought us here. Ever-guarding what little bits we have left, we learn to hold our shrinking trust in a tight protective fist clenched closely against the fragments of our shattered hearts. When we remember how to breathe again, ever so slowly, we loosen our grip. Heart-shards shift. The light flickers in.
So, how exactly do we “remember how to breathe again?” Fortunately, our bodies remember those life-sustaining tiny breaths for us. Where there is breath, there is hope. Whether or not to expand that breath, however, is a matter of personal, conscious choice. In an injured state, blame is a waste of valuable, often limited, time and energy. Blame fills the cracks that hold the darkness. Bit by prickly bit, we must pluck it out and let it go.
Choices of the past cannot be undone. It is what it is and cannot be what it is not. It will require some dedication and hard choices within these new boundaries to make it what you would like it to be. Luckily, the opportunity is there. The most powerful moments begin in the recognition of what can be done right now. Resilience resides in self-advocacy and the ability to appreciate the small things.
Sovereignty over our bodies, minds, and spirits begins with owning our choices.
Did we roll along on the gurney with questions and doubts flipping through our minds, yet remain silent because we didn’t want to inconvenience anyone or upset the “flow” of the practice? Did we quietly accept that “this is the way we always do things” and keep rolling along? That kind of silence is a rigid teacher.
Choose your voice. Speak truthfully about the lessons. Ask the important questions. Pain and blessings, use your senses to evaluate what remains. Grief and pain are companions capable of witnessing grace and joy as they walk the path beside us. Let them. Assume nothing. Investigate. Don’t take it personally. Open up your fist to receive the gifts that couldn’t get in.
- Disclosure of Adverse Events in the United States and Canada: An Update, and a Proposed Framework for Improvement. J Public Health Res. 2013 Dec. 1; 2(3): e32, Published online 2013 Dec 1
- Patient Safety and Adverse Events, 2011 and 2014 Pamela L. Owens, Ph.D., Rhona Limcangco, Ph.D., Marguerite L. Barrett, M.S., Kevin C. Heslin, Ph.D., and Brian J. Moore, Ph.D.; February 2018
- How to Trust Your Doctor (a.k.a. “Any Medical Practioner”) After a Medical Injury Sheila L. Kalkbrenner The Art For Arachnoiditis Project 2016
- Be Your Own Advocate; Patient Rising Chantell Marcial Jan. 23, 2018
- The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz
- Simple Abundance A Daybook of Comfort and Joy Sarah Ban Breathnach 1995
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An empowered artist, creative wellness facilitator, arachnoiditis survivor, single parent, and U.S. Army Veteran; Sheila L. Kalkbrenner is creating art and equitable access to local creative things in Allegany County, NY.