THE BLOG

Doctors Make Mistakes, Too

11/05/2012 05:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

In my book, World's Fair, as serialized on The Huffington Post, Chapter 2, entitled "Best EENT in Town," there is a passage that goes:

Whenever anyone asked, "Who is the best EENT doctor in Spartanburg?" they were told, "Dr. Stack." When they asked, "Who is the second best EENT doctor in Spartanburg?" they were told, "Dr. Stack drunk." That was my daddy.

The timing of my story is 1967 -- and my father, like other doctors at the time, was considered a demigod. Granted, doctors saved lives and helped the sick, as they do today, but did that truly make them sacrosanct? Since my father was an alcoholic, it was clear he saw patients while under the influence; and most likely operated while hung-over -- emergency operations were most likely performed while he was drunk. The operations were repeated over-and-over such that my father probably could have done them blindfolded. But that should not have excused his behavior.

The interesting thing to me at the time was how many people loved -- truly loved -- my father. To them he could do no wrong, while in our lives he had become a nightmare. And it wasn't only his patients, who I'm not sure he even saw as human -- yet he did have a wonderful bedside manner. The "powers that be" such as the AMA and the other doctors in the town also looked the other way -- perhaps because some, or maybe most, of them were like my father. They all knew he was a drunk and did nothing.

My father, like doctors today, had an "MD" notation on his car's license plates. This notation appeared to allow him to speed through our town's streets. He also used it when on the interstate, as when once we were on our way to a Duke University (his medical school) football game and he told me to lie down on the back seat and moan should a highway patrolman pull him over, so Daddy could tell the officer he was rushing me to the hospital. An interesting lesson to teach a child: Daddy was speeding, Daddy was a doctor, doctors can speed any time they want to.

I'd like to believe that today's medical profession has moved somewhat in the right direction as concerns how doctors are like you and me. Don't get me wrong. I have very dear friends who are doctors who worked hard to get to where they are. They studied for far more years than I, and suffered through horrendous internships (I believe they are called residencies today). Those with specializations had an even longer journey to travel. I have the utmost respect for them and their profession. Now that I am older I have a major illness and would be lost without their help and support. While I'd like to say I haven't seen among the younger generation of doctors the arrogance once taken for granted among those from my father's, and my, generation, I have had one disappointing encounter.

As I mentioned I have a major illness: Cancer. One of my dear doctor friends recommended a well known New York City cancer center as her dear friend is in charge of bone-marrow transplants there. I was grateful that she got me in -- and they have offered me fantastic help. It is also a teaching hospital which helps our future doctors learn from observation and treatment. It was one of these student doctors who verbally abused me for using email as a means to reach my primary oncologist at this hospital. "Who do you think you are?" he asked, glaring at me with menacing eyes as if I were a naughty child. "Don't you know he is too busy to get emails from people like you? How dare you? Never email him again!" he demanded of me.

I was in shock. How dare I? People like me? What did he mean? And what kind of bedside manner is this from a doctor -- from anyone for that matter? Does he view his patients as peons? I couldn't believe a doctor today would speak with a patient in such a rude manner. Of course I complained to my primary oncologist, but at the time he supported the student doctor and asked me not to email him but to call his nurse. Email is the primary mode of communication today -- and doctors refuse to use it. It seems odd to me that they would care so little about their patients that they would refuse to hear from them except within a small boxy room where they are lord and master and the patient is the pathetic pariah. It should be noted that within a few days I received a call at home from my primary oncologist who apologized for these interactions. I reiterated how angry I was at being treated like a child by the student doctor, and my primary oncologist agreed that the matter was handled inappropriately both by himself and the student.

Today that student doctor is now a full member of the staff of the cancer center to which I go. I see him each time I am there -- he doesn't speak to or smile at me. I suppose he learned, as did I while pretending to be in pain on the back seat of my father's car, that it was okay for a doctor to be treated differently from the rest of us. What a mistake...

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