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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do No Harm

When I need medical treatment, I go to a hospital. Once they save my life, I get out before they kill me. I have been doing this since my first hospital admission.

I do not actually remember the experience; I was less than two years old at the time. My parents told and retold the details so often it feels as if I can remember that day.

When my father told the story it was with pride. It was like the story Dad told about purchasing one guaranteed-to-be-spill-proof baby dish after another, only to watch me overcome the newest foil. He seemed pleased by his daughter’s ability to solve problems. He saw it as a sign of intelligence. I have no memory of ever sitting in a highchair spilling pureed vegetables onto the floor for entertainment.

When my mother told the story of my first hospitalization it was tainted with remorse.

When I tell the story, the lesson is about the failure of hospitals to live up to the Hippocratic oath.
This is my version. As a toddler, I loved taking a bath. The Ivory soap floating on the surface of the water was like a wonderful toy. It had a pungent smell and it made bubbles as my mother lathered my hair. I wiggled as she scrubbed my back with the washcloth. But one night, I slipped and hit the bridge of my nose on the edge of the porcelain bathtub. It seemed unimportant at first.

By the next morning, a deep blue sac appeared under my tongue. It hurt when I tried to eat or drink. My mother was already aware that I bruised easily, although I had not yet been diagnosed with a bleeding disorder.

The Emergency Room physician put his fingers on the pressure points under my chin and squeezed hard. My mother protested and he threatened to have her removed from the room. The technique did not work. Instead of stopping the internal bleeding, it created red welts around my tiny neck. If the doctor regretted accusing the terrified woman facing him of being a “hysterical mother,” he never said.

I received a whole blood transfusion and was admitted to the pediatric ward for observation. The charge nurse assured my mother that the hospital crib would confine even an energetic child. If the nurse felt sorry for ignoring my mother’s misgivings, she never said.

Visiting hours ended. By the time my mother reached the elevator door, she turned to see me tottering down the hallway behind her. I had climbed to the top of the metal bars and shimmied down to the polished linoleum floor below. I wanted to go home… before they killed me.