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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I killed her: My first malpractice suit

I stared down at my name neatly typed next to the word "Defendant." And just below the heading: "Complaint: Wrongful Death Based on Medical Negligence."

Oh my God. Deceased. It was me. I killed her. That's how I heard about my first malpractice suit.

I was the new doctor in the group. I had joined fresh out of residency two years before. I was the first woman doctor in the clinic, and one of only a handful of women physicians in semi-rural Clackamas County.

My last note in Helen Simmons' chart [not her real name] was from last August, a visit for chest pain. I had first met her in my first year in the practice, in December of the year before she died. She had gone to the Emergency Room of the local community hospital with chest pain, and had been admitted overnight for observation by one of my senior partners. Covering for him, I met Helen the next day.

Her chest pain had not been a heart attack, according to blood tests overnight. Her pain was gone. But she was a time bomb, I realized. She had heart disease up and down her family tree, she smoked, and her blood pressure was high.

I told her I was glad she hadn't had a heart attack, but that I was worried she was going to, sooner or later. She could save her own life, I said, by quitting smoking and taking care of herself. She wasn't worried about all that. She wanted to go home and have Christmas with her family.

Her EKG (electrocardiogram) showed she may well have had a prior heart attack, not previously discovered, but that she had not had one just now. Heartburn was the more likely diagnosis, so I sent her home with a prescription for medicine to block stomach acid.

She had scheduled her two-week post-hospital visit with my partner, who had admitted her to the hospital. She told him her pain was better, and the way she described it fit the heartburn pattern. A special X-ray called a barium swallow confirmed acid irritation of the stomach, so my partner gave her another acid blocker prescription.

Two weeks later her time bomb went off. In mid-January she came to clinic with bad chest pain, and I sent her right up to the hospital. It was her first official heart attack. She had quit smoking a few days before. Trying to change her lifestyle, she had tried to exercise.

A few days later, the cardiologists reopened a cholesterol-plugged artery in her heart. After that she could exercise without chest pain and joined a health club. She lost some weight and stayed off tobacco. I saw her every month or two through the winter, spring and summer, congratulating her at every visit for her progress. She was 44.

She came in for a final visit in August, complaining of chest pain. It fit the pattern of stomach pain rather than heart pain. I ran an EKG on her at that last visit, and it was normal – normal for her, that is; it showed nothing new, and even some improvement. I switched her to an even stronger acid blocker. And I never saw her again.

Ten days after that last appointment with me, Helen had died in her sleep. What probably killed Helen was her heart suddenly jumping into a bad rhythm, that didn’t pump blood forward – sudden cardiac death. We don't have any good way of predicting whose damaged hearts are more likely to do that, or when. I couldn't have diagnosed, predicted, or prevented it.

At the trial, there were some surprises. Helen had quit smoking. But her family and friends hadn't, exposing her to secondhand smoke that can increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms. And in her last visit with me Helen had said she had been able to work out in the gym for hours without chest pain. But her daughter and a friend testified that Helen could only stay on those exercise machines a few minutes before she had to stop and rest until the chest pain went away.

She lied to me. She was playing a role, the role of a good patient. She was telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. Maybe she wanted to hear me congratulate her again on how well she was doing.

I didn't see through Helen's performance. That was the mistake I made. That was my negligence.

I "won" the case and went back to work. I say it was my first malpractice suit. There hasn't been a second – yet – but I don’t want to get overconfident.

Advice: Always tell the truth to doctors.

Browse for related stories in the index at the very bottom of this page, or read a patient-doctor miscommunication story.

Thanks to Dr. Merilee Karr for the source article in Creative Nonfiction, issue #33, 2007.

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