The Day I Learned Not to Trust Doctors

When I entered medicine I believed I was entering a field comprised of noble professionals committed to taking care of others. I did not expect to encounter doctors who would put personal convenience before the needs of a patient. When I did, I did not handle it well.

I remember well when I first learned that not all doctors put the patient first. It was 1991 and I was an intern working on the OB floor. It was a Saturday and I was responsible for managing the residency program patients who were in labor. There was an experienced obstetrician supervising me, there to observe and provide guidance and to be available should a c-section be necessary.

I had been managing the care of a young woman whose labor had not been progressing well. There had been no significant change for a few hours and we were debating giving up and performing a c-section. The decision was made for us when the woman developed a significant fever and the fetal monitor showed early signs of distress. I went to the charge nurse to make arrangements for the surgery and was told that we could not go to the operating room, that a doctor had scheduled a c-section for another patient who had presented in early labor with the baby in breech position. As both patients “needed” surgery and the other doctor had asked first she told me that I would have to get the other doctor to agree to being “bumped” if I wanted to take my patient back to the operating room.

I asked a few questions about the woman with the breech baby and learned that she was in very early labor. Her cervix was only dilated 1-2 cm, which meant that there was no urgency in performing her surgery. As it was clear to me that my patient’s need for surgery was more pressing I sought out the other OB for what I assumed would be a simple and collegial conversation. I was wrong.

When I presented him with the details of the cases, he replied, “You will have to wait. My patient is breech and in labor!”

“She 1 cm and contracting irregularly! Why not get her an epidural, keep her comfortable, and wait the hour until our case is done? There is no risk to your patient but there is risk to ours!” I was incredulous.

He repeated his same assertion. I was dumbfounded. I was just an intern, but I was a good intern who was knowledgeable in the management of labor. This was not even a close call. It was a no-brainer. Good medical care demanded that he allow our case to proceed. I went to the charge nurse and asked her to tell him that he had to wait. She refused. She might have agreed with my position but in a debate between an attending and an intern she knew who was going to win. It wasn’t me.

I was overcome with anxiety. A million agonizing thoughts and questions were racing through my mind. Was I supposed to just give up? How could I? I was supposed to advocate for my patients, to fight for there care. But how could I fight when I had no power? The obstinate obstetrician was an established member of the medical staff and a faculty member in the residency program. What would happen if I pushed back to hard?

I decided that personal consequences were irrelevant. It was about my patient and her baby. I went back to the resistant obstetrician to again plead her case. I asked him for details about his patient and why should could not wait. He got angry and told me I was out of line. I wish I could say that I took it well. I didn’t. I told him in no uncertain terms (and with significantly elevated volume) that he was willfully and knowingly putting my patient at risk and that if anything happened to her it would be on him. Defeated but realizing I had done all I could I went back to check on my patient.

I walked away disillusioned. I had honestly believed that the other doctor would do what was right. I later learned that his recalcitrance was based on the fact that he had family plans that would have been disrupted if he waited. Knowing that a patient was put at risk out of convenience was unfathomable to me. I had looked up to this doctor before, had sought his counsel and learned from him. My trust and confidence were permanently damaged. The fact that my patient was not ultimately harmed by the delay did little to ease my frustration.

My frustration increased a few days later when I was called in to the office of the Residency Director. He sat me down to lecture me on my impertinence, telling me how inappropriate it was for an intern to challenge an attending physician. In typical Barrett fashion I did not back down. I apologized for my tone but made it clear that regardless of my standing or level of training I would always put the patient first.

As we talked, I realized that he didn’t really disagree with me. He knew that the attending was in the wrong. He also knew how the world worked. In order to run a residency program he needed faculty, and the only source of faculty he had was the medical staff at the hospital where we were located. Not all of them were noble and excellent but they were all we had. He admired my convictions but wanted me to understand the need to carefully choose my battles.

It was a difficult lesson for me to accept and it is one with which I continue to struggle. I have lost many battles that I should have known to be futile, died on too many hills trying to do what I believed to be the right thing for my patients. I have also saved lives by speaking out. I have learned that most doctors are good people but we are still people, with all the selfishness and inconsistencies personhood brings.  The learning process that began 24 years ago on that OB floor continues to shape me. Although I use less anger and volume one thing that has not changed is my commitment to doing the right thing.

- Bart

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