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Lawyer Meets Doctor

In 1996, my wife, Georgette, started experiencing severe headaches. At the time, she was pregnant. She went to her doctor and after an examination was told there was a growth behind her left eardrum. Her doctor referred her to Dr. Peter Smith, a specialist in St. Louis, and told her that she needed to see him as soon as possible.

Two weeks later, Georgette and I met with Dr. Smith. Prior to her appointment, she had an MRI. When we met with Dr. Smith, he had the results of the MRI in front of him. After he examined her ear with some high-tech equipment, he explained to us that Georgette had a paraganglioma tumor attached to her left eardrum.

He explained to us that the tumor needed to be removed. The surgical procedure that he recommended required that he cut along the crease of her left ear where the skin was attached to her skull. He then had to pull the ear away from her skull and cut away the tumor. He said that he thought that her eardrum could be repaired after the tumor was removed, but he warned us that there was a possibility that she could permanently lose her hearing in her left ear.

I had come to the appointment with a legal pad, and I took detailed notes while the doctor answered my questions. I asked so many questions that at one point he blurted out, “What’s with all the questions? You’re either a Type A personality or a lawyer. Which one is it?”

I calmly responded, “I’m a Type A personality, Doc.” He shot back, “No, you’re a lawyer. I can pick out a lawyer from a mile away.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “I am a lawyer, but I’ve always asked a lot of questions. My mom told me that the first word I learned was ‘Why?’ She said that after that I drove her nuts, because all I did was follow her around the house and ask her questions. You don’t need to feel threatened by my questions. I happen to be a man who loves his wife and only wants what’s best for her.”

The doctor was fine after that. He knew I was sincere. At that time, Georgette was pregnant with our seventh child, and some of my questions had to do with the fact that the operation could not be performed until after our baby was born.

To make a long story short, Dr. Smith performed the surgery two months after the arrival of our new baby girl (Teresa). Although Georgette lost her hearing in her left ear for several weeks, and lost her balance and was unable to walk on her own for several days, she eventually recovered from the surgery. Today, her hearing is better than mine is.

Twelve years prior to her ear surgery, Georgette almost died because of an infection that developed after her appendix ruptured. It took her doctors three days to conclude that her appendix might have ruptured. By then, she had developed a massive abdominal infection, commonly known as peritonitis.

Georgette’s appendix was successfully removed by a surgeon, but he failed to insert a drainage tube after the surgery to ensure that blood and other fluids would be drained away from the area where the appendix was removed. Within 10 days of the surgery, Georgette was again hospitalized because she was experiencing severe pain in her abdomen.

She was in the hospital for three days while her doctors tried to figure out what should be done. On the third day, her surgeon told us that he might have to do exploratory surgery to see what was going on inside her. There was no way I was going to let him cut into her again. I checked her out of the hospital, arranged for a babysitter for our three young children, and drove her from Peoria, Illinois, to Rochester, Minnesota.

When we arrived in Rochester, I took her straight to the emergency room of St. Mary’s Hospital, which was affiliated with the Mayo Clinic. She was admitted into the hospital, and the following morning, a team of four doctors from Mayo Clinic was assigned to take care of her.

After numerous tests, the team of doctors met with us and said that they didn’t think that another surgery was necessary. They concluded that Georgette had an abdominal infection that could be taken care of with medication. We were able to return home from Mayo Clinic four days after we had arrived at St. Mary’s emergency room. By then, the pain in Georgette’s abdomen was beginning to subside. After a couple more weeks, she was pain-free.

It was at that time that I came to the conclusion that we could no longer rely on our doctors to manage our care. We had no other choice but to proactively manage our own care. Until then, I was under the mistaken belief that our doctors had our best interests at heart and would do whatever they could to make sure that we received the care that we needed. I was wrong.

The surgeon and the other doctors who had treated Georgette for her ruptured appendix were too busy to give her the attention she needed. They had failed to take the time to perform a thorough history, order the correct tests, properly follow up on the tests that they had ordered, and properly diagnose her condition in a timely manner.

Each of her doctors had what the famous trial lawyer Gerry Spence once called a “bathtub memory.” After they were with my wife, whatever facts they gathered from their questions and testing were immediately drained from their memories — like water from a bathtub — when they walked out of her room to attend to the next patient.

The doctors at Mayo Clinic were different from our local doctors, primarily because they were salaried employees of the clinic. They had no financial incentive to rush from one patient to another. They didn’t earn more money if they saw more patients, so they were willing to spend whatever time was necessary to properly diagnose Georgette’s medical condition.

After the Mayo Clinic experience, I started going to all Georgette’s non-routine medical appointments with her. If I was going to be responsible for helping manage her medical care, I had to be able to ask questions, take notes, and research whatever condition she had so we could both understand and act upon what the doctors were recommending.

For several years now, I’ve been telling all my new personal injury clients that it is absolutely critical that they proactively manage their own medical care. I share with them some of my own experiences to drive home the point that their doctors are simply too busy and too disengaged to properly manage the care they need.

Whenever I have a client who has a serious medical condition, I always encourage the client’s spouse to attend all the client’s medical appointments so the spouse can ask questions and take notes. I believe this is necessary because a husband and wife almost always have qualities and traits that complement the other’s; therefore, as a team, they do a much better job of managing the care of the one who is suffering from a medical condition.

As our medical care system continues to collapse in our country, the need to proactively manage your own care is more important than ever.

So why am I taking the time to explain all this to you? The first reason is because the information I’ve provided will ultimately be of great benefit to you and your family. The second reason is because it’s important that we realize that in addition to managing our own medical care, we must also be willing to take personal responsibility for proactively managing our own spiritual development.

I’ll address that topic next week.

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2 Responses to “Lawyer Meets Doctor”

  1. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Dear Harry and Georgette –
    Your history of needing to manage medical care for your family made me grateful that Georgette was taken care of at Mayo’s, and that you have always cared for one another.
    No time for more now, but know that I love you both! Sister Roberta

  2. Jeanne Smith Says:

    It saddens me to learn of the inappropriate care georgette received for her abdominal pain. I suggest that what is needed is partnership of patients with their doctors. Doctors must be responsible for giving their time and application of their education and experience, and responsible to give direction, advice and direct care for patients’ best interests within the highest morals. Patients need to be responsible to be honest, up front with doctors, follow the agreed upon plan or let doc know if they can’t. Docs can’t be 100% responsible for outcomes because people aren’t robots. You are correct, though; people are responsible for their own lives and decisions.
    It’s like I tell some of my patients, “I’m your doctor, not your mother. I can tell you what I think needs to be done and why; and help you do it. But I can’t make you. Your life is yours; I’m just a helper (servant). But I won’t do or help you do what I believe is wrong.”

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