One of my friends, an intern, is struggling with the belief that they killed their patient.

I’ve thought that more than once, and in cold reflection I believe it to be true in at least one and two halves. That is, one I’m personally responsible for, and about two others I’m definitely responsible for significant failings. There were several other times that I felt very guilty about for a week, but as time passes I think my responsibility is less weighty in those. I haven’t written about them before because, in close temporal proximity, I was too upset to write, and I didn’t want any time correlation for the lawyers to find.

The one patient that I think of particularly, I personally failed to notice something, and that thing being overlooked led to another thing, and the complications of that other thing led to the patient dying. So it’s not like I directly administered an overdose. But it seems reasonably certain that if I hadn’t overlooked that particular thing, the patient would have been much more likely to survive. Also there were several other doctors, both residents and attendings, from my own and other services, who also had cause to notice that particular thing and act on it, and none of them did, either. But it was my patient, on my service; so I can’t decrease my own fault by saying that others, who were not as directly responsible, although more senior, made the same mistake. It comes down to, my lack of attention led to the patient’s death.

The other times are similar: I didn’t do anything – I didn’t cut a major artery, or cause a laparoscopic injury – I’m sure those are down the road – but I failed to pay close enough attention, or to pay attention soon enough, and then the patient died. If I had done a better job – if I had done well the job that I was supposed to be doing – it probably wouldn’t have ended the way it did.

I don’t know what to tell my friend, though. There’s no way around it. Sometimes I’ve tried to reason with interns (because they’re the ones to whom it happens for the first time; for the rest of us, the feeling of guilt is familiar and feared) and tell them, in this case it wasn’t their fault. But inevitably there comes a time, probably before six months are out, when there is no honest way to reason out of it: it really is my fault – your fault – our fault.

I can’t remember now how I dealt with those times. By not thinking about it, I suppose. I considered the facts enough to realize what I had done, maybe asked a senior resident what they thought about it, and then I closed a door in my mind. I think the phrase is from King Lear: “That way madness lies.” Now, one part of me knows I’ve killed people, and the rest of me is for all practical purposes unaware of that fact. It takes time, though, to get that door closed, and to keep it closed. And so for a week or two, it’s quite miserable. M&M helps a little, to have it out in the open. The attendings’ conclusion, surprisingly enough, has rarely been as harsh as my own. After all, only I know exactly when I knew certain things, and exactly what conclusions I drew from them, and whether I could have taken certain actions sooner than I did. The final picture, in public, is always a bit blurry; the blame never settles very definitely. Inside my own mind, though, I know that I failed – and it will happen again, no matter how carefulĀ I am; it will happen again. . .

It’s hard to watch interns learning that.

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