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February 23, 2013 at 7:06 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Being Human: It's OK to Make Mistakes

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author


This past week, I rose early for a busy day. I hurried in a workout, scarfed some breakfast, and was out the door to see two newborns at two different hospitals. Rounds complete, I circled back home before a day at the office to take my youngest to daycare. Out of the car and approaching the house, my wife and daughter emerged from the front door. The first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “Your fly is down!” I felt a wave of dread, thinking over all the encounters I had already that morning. Later on, after a day of making diagnoses, decisions, and writing prescriptions, I reflected: Why do we create constant expectations of untarnished perfection for ourselves (and others)? We are human, after all. Mistakes and blunders are a part of this process.  Right?
Some might think that the sentiment of accepting mistakes and blunders is odd coming from a doctor. Should I be less human than others just because I'm a physician? True, many decisions I make involve the well-being of others.

Losing Our Humanity?

I enjoy teaching medical students in the small group setting. We cover hypothetical cases of common medical scenarios. While we cover the heart attacks, pneumonias, and cancers that they will someday treat, we also cover medical errors within the cases. These students do a fine job analyzing the root cause of the problem and the mistakes made. Outside of the vacuum of the hypothetical, however, they are asked to perform a concise case presentation of the patients to me and their peers in an unassuming venue. Time and again, these students speak with trepidation and end up reading the material off the case pages or cue cards. They sacrifice fear of making a mistake for the ability to make a connection, a fine example of missing the forest amidst the trees. In doing so, they also miss the opportunity to paint a picture of the unique individual who is their patient. They further miss the important issues “between the lines,” such as, how sick is this patient?
I see similar issues among others in society. Recently, the media was abuzz about politician Marco Rubio’s on-camera sip of water out of a bottle as he gave the official response to the president’s state of the union address. The New Yorker reported that Rubio was, “…physically clumsy to such a magnificent degree that it smudged out the actual meaning of everything he had said before and everything he would say after.”  Really, this is sad that we cannot forgive him for being a human being, having flaws, and lacking polish. Such expectations and behaviors are the reasons we now have teleprompters. These devices steal the focal point of a speaker’s eyes, and the attention from those the speaker means to reach. In a sense, teleprompters are like lip syncing, in my opinion. Segue to the music industry.

No Harm, No Foul

Compare your experience listening to a CD at home and sitting in a great seat at a concert, hearing the artist live. After a musician records their music in the studio, the technicians go to work, removing all the blemishes and missteps. The product is a polished work... inhuman if you really think about it. At a concert, there is commentary, perhaps a few missed notes, and, most importantly, a connection when done right. The mistakes are OK. 
Back to doctors - all will make mistakes. While some make less than others, this is but one quality characterizing a fine physician. The matter of importance in this regard is how the error is handled - with truth, humility, and dignity. And beyond being robotic, connecting with patients and others involved in the care of his or her patients is of paramount importance in distinguishing the best physicians.
On the matter of my zipper, I laughed. In this error, I can at least find humor. I will walk into the two babies’ two week well visits in my office with my fly secured and share the humility and a laugh with my patients. Hopefully, the relationships will be strengthened. And hopefully this story won't become one of the first recorded moments sealed in the history of these children's baby books.
I encourage you to live deliberately and fearlessly with regard to potential for error or revealing your human side. Cry in a movie; reveal your true self to others; say how you feel.  Above all, connect with others who cross your life’s path.
Live healthy and well, JVW.


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