SORRY DOCTOR, I PLAN TO SUE YOU!
It was the beginning of a new week and William was among the first patients to be seen for follow-up at the office.
William has been under my care for over ten years. When I first saw him in the hospital, he was gravely sick with diffuse inflammation of the pancreas. Being a social drinker, he denied excess use of alcohol. He was running a high temperature for weeks despite heavy doses of antibiotics. Intermittent abdominal pain also made him extremely uncomfortable. The ultrasound showed a large cystic mass in the pancreas which is known medically as a pseudocyst. He was quickly wasting away. With the cystic inflammation of pancreas, he began to lose functioning of the organ and developed diabetes due to inadequate production of insulin from the pancreas.
I still remembered we held regular conferences with the surgeons, with his family present, discussing the best plan of action. There was no easy answer. We could not simply remove the cyst without causing more damage to the pancreas. The chief surgeon made the comment that surgery would be the last resort. We all understood what he meant.
Then one Saturday evening, his condition suddenly deteriorated. His blood pressure dropped to dangerously low levels and he became delirious with spiking fever. The medical team had a quick impromptu meeting and we knew we had to rush him to the operating room and to take our chances. His family was notified and told about the gravity of the situation.
It was a difficult operation and he bled quite a bit. We had to give him blood transfusion during and after the surgery. He was kept in the intensive care unit postoperatively for close monitoring. The family was aware that all possible steps had been taken to save his life.
He surprised us by recovering at an above average speed. Though he continued to require antibiotics, parenteral nutrition, insulin and around the clock nursing care, he made steady progress. After spending a fortnight in the unit, he was moved to the regular medical ward.
During the recovery period, he and his family were most thankful for all the efforts we had put in to save his life. When he was finally ready to go home, he shook our hands and thanked us "for the extra miles" we had taken during the difficult period. His family told us that they would be forever grateful.
William continued to do well with the daily use of insulin and careful dieting. He came in for regular follow-up, often bringing some flowers or chocolate to express his gratitude.
"William, nice to see you again. Wow, we are soon coming to the 10th anniversary of your operation!" I glanced at his chart with a deep sense of satisfaction.
William did not look at me. He bowed down his head, with a letter in his hand.
"Is there something wrong?" I was puzzled.
"They just found out that I have hepatitis C..." he whispered.
"Who are they?" I asked.
He showed me the letter. It came from the Red Cross. They had been dong follow-up of all patients who received blood transfusion some years ago and found that William's blood test was positive for hepatitis C. He was devastated.
"They arranged a meeting for those of us that had been found positive. During the meeting, someone mentioned that we probably should take legal action against the hospital and all the doctors involved. Sorry doctor, I plan to sue you!"
I could not believe my ears.
"But we saved your life. Even if we had known then that the blood was contaminated, we would still have no choice but to use the blood products because your condition was so urgent. If a similar situation occurs again, we would take the same steps." I tried to reason with him. "What did your family say?"
"They are still grateful for what you people did but they are also favoring legal action."
"So you want to sue us for saving your life..." I was trying to grasping the meaning of our conversation.
He sadly left my office.
What a way to strat my new week!
Later, I discussed the situation with the surgeon involved. He was visibly upset. We both were advised to talk to our lawyers.
"The first step you should take is to inform William to find another doctor." That was the advice from my lawyer.
"Why? This must be your first court case. You should never take care of anyone suing you. Anything you do or prescribe will be viewed with suspicion."
"I would never do any harm to him..." was my reply.
They must have found me hopelessly naive.
When William found out from my secretary that I could no longer be his doctor, he was stunned.
"Can you not give me some time to think about the situation?" he requested.
"Not according to the lawyers."
"So what do I do without a doctor to take care of my condition?" he asked.
"Find someone else who is willing to take over your care and our office will forward your records to him" That is standard practice.
"Please give me some time to think over all these," he repeated his request.
Several days later, I received another letter from William's lawyer, stating that William had changed his mind and decided to withdraw any court action against myself and the surgeon. I was quite relieved. Quickly I notified my lawyer.
He sensed my elation but cautioned me not to let down all my guards yet.
"What do you mean?" I thought that the case would be closes and it would be business as usual. The lawyer again warned me not to resume care for William.
"Why not?" I was puzzled.
"He may change his mind again and sue you in the future still."
I knew I could never overrule such legal advice otherwise the malpractice insurance company would not back me up in court.
I have not seen William since. Recently, I found out from the newspaper that he was doing well in the business world, getting one promotion after another. I am happy for him.
The other day, just before a dinner meeting, someone said grace and included these words. "Lord, we thank you for the food before us. Make us truly thankful! Amen."
For William to be truly thankful, may be it should have included not to sue his doctors who saved his life.