What I remember most about Mr J is his smile. He smiled through his deposition, through the trial, and even when he lost his case. It was more than a smile, really. It was a mischievous grin, especially fitting on a man who looked a bit like a leprechaun.  He was small in stature, big in personality–and he was an amputee. He’d had a surgery on his leg, the wound had become infected, and he had to have an amputation. He’d sued his surgeon for failing to diagnose the infection. These infection cases are frustrating for everyone involved. Patients want medicine to be perfect. So do doctors.  Medicine isn’t perfect, though, and infections happen in the absence of negligence.  That is what the jury had decided happened here. Throughout the course of the case, I never saw Mr J’s smile waver. I shouldn’t have expected any less. When I took his deposition he told me he had run a marathon, done long distance bike rides for charities, and refused any nurses to care for him in his home. He said his family called him “Superman”. He was surely in pain, but he didn’t appear to suffer.

The word patient comes from a Latin word meaning “I am suffering.” I’ve taken hundreds of patients’ depositions in my years defending medical malpractice cases. Some of those patients were obviously suffering. But others were thriving, growing, learning, teaching, and smiling. This weekend I am presenting at Stanford MedX, where patients are giving presentations on the same stages as doctors and researchers. The people who organize this event recognize that patients could be more than those who suffer. Patients could be the secret to the cure for cancer, ALS, MS, and autoimmune diseases. Healthcare is in constant flux, and many are looking for a disruptor, some superhero to sweep in and change everything. Meanwhile, patients are slowly, surely and patiently making change in their own lives. They’re helping researchers make discoveries. They’re sharing all they’ve learned. They might be suffering–but they’re also kicking ass.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” (Haruki Murakami)  I think for those in real pain, that probably depends on the day. But I know that we need to see patients as more than those who suffer. Doctors, especially, can benefit from this change in perspective. The Latin root of the word doctor is “to teach”.  I’ve also defended hundreds of doctors, and some are good teachers, while some need intense communication coaching just to get through their depositions. All doctors, though, should be students, learning from and with their patients. I’m obsessed with the power of potential, and I see vast potential in healthcare.  When patients and doctors put down their Latin roots and pick up some vulnerability, curiosity, imagination, and attention, the potential is endless. I’m excited to get to Stanford MedX this weekend.  I just may see some superheroes there….



5 thoughts on “Suffering Superheroes

  1. And I am obsessed with YOUR life! You get to participate and make a difference in the lives of so many! Doctors, lawyers, Indians Chief’s and patients! I absolutely agree there is a difference between having pain and being one who suffers. But here comes the can of worms that requires a whole other discussion, “pain meds” which when taken properly for a short duration as directed is man made best invention of all time and now medical providers have their hands tied and are not dispensing as they used to because of the abuse of a few, punishing those who do not abuse and who benefited extremely well with pain meds and therapy returning to full function. To be discussed at another time

    Mr J has the right attitude and smile that allowed him to Marathon and bike and go forward in life without a leg caused by an infection in a hospital bed which I agree with the jury was not the doctors fault just bad luck and always a warning to a patient upon admission when forms are signed that infections are possible but to the extention of amputation, hummm, real tough luck especially for a smiling leprechaun!

    Good luck teaching a doctor to be a student taking just a few minutes more hearing a patient rather than diving in “fixing” them would serve them both better because a physical issue is often connected to an emotional one and a moment with the doctor often can “fix” that too with a touch of an ear and an empathetic eye to eye!

    You already found a superheroes! Look in the mirror!

    Pat from Red Sox Nation

    1. You are SO right about the physical and emotional issues, best addressed with empathy, vulnerability and presence. And you are so good for my confidence before this presentation that has me a little nervous. My own private confidence coach! thank you!

    2. Well said, Pat. As a student nurse years ago, I met a few doctors who really lacked an understanding for their patients. It’s a shame though, since when we meet our doctor, we usually make a sigh of relief thinking, finally with my doctor, I will get better (even though we may be in pain-and bravo to Mr. J. for smiling through the loss of his leg, that takes serious spirit to keep smiling through that!). For me, patients & doctors are teachers. It’s a beautiful relationship when the care given has a strong positive outcome, in which case BOTH, are Superheroes. Together they can attack anything with strength, grace and “humility”. It’s heart-wrenching & unfortunate that Mr. J’s legal battle was lost. But thinking on his reaction through the whole ordeal, deep in his mind, he “probably” knew he was not going to win that battle either(just my thought). I will say, I do admire his tenacity for going the distance, even to the finish line that told him, the doctor was not negligent. I still see both as Superheroes since they are still fighting their own battles and living for another day. There is always potential for more with each new day! And yes, I agree with Pat>> Heather is also a “hero”-speaking at conferences giving testimony to the masses about the “battles” that she has witnessed (and my sense is that Heather’s cape would be yellow/gold-we just can’t see it: )) <<Awesomeness!

      1. Humility is key. Without it we can’t have vulnerability and then we will be done! And you know I love that there is always POTENTIAL for more…..

        1. Yes, Heather. The potential to learn, and to be a better person is always available to us. I learn from you when I can: )) Thank you!

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