Being human and making mistakes

We all make mistakes. That is just part of being human. How we move forward after making those mistakes, that becomes part of who we are.

I think I’ve made it clear in previous posts that I’m not the biggest fan of my surgeon. It wasn’t always that way, however. The first few times I met him I was impressed by his bedside manner. You often hear about surgeons being arrogant and impatient, but he seemed to break the mold.

Post-op was a different story. Without going into all the details, the doctor I met before my surgery had disappeared. At my follow-up appointment, he brushed off all of my concerns, didn’t answer my questions, and made quick and inaccurate judgments about me. He didn’t treat me like a surgical patient and instead wrote me off as a psychiatric case. Wow, did I have the wrong impression of him! Patient and caring? No way. This guy was rude, unprofessional and ignorant.

I was devastated. In just a few short minutes it seemed as if he had invalidated everything I had been through over the last four and a half years and I was filled with self doubt. In the end, this self-doubt proved to be a positive thing because once I moved through it, I moved on to self-affirmation. My surgeon didn’t even know me. Most of the time we had spent together involved me under anesthetic. He didn’t know how invested I was in improving my health and he didn’t know how resilient I had become. I decided not to give him the power to make me doubt myself and instead he became the ‘bad guy.’

My doctors were surprised I had had such a negative experience with him as they knew him to be a great surgeon and good man. The great surgeon part I could not deny, but as far as I was concerned, he was just arrogant. My family doctor felt that he was a good enough doctor and a good enough person that once he realized his mistake, he would change his opinion of me. She also said she would try to call him and straighten things up. I politely listened but I wasn’t holding my breath.

At my follow-up appointment last week, my surgeon caught me off guard again. He had done a complete 180 degree turn! This doctor asked me how I was doing, took time to answer my questions and made a conscious effort to make sure I didn’t feel rushed. Even though this was how he had been when I first met him, my last impression of him was so strong in my mind that his behavior seemed to be out of character. I assumed my family doctor had ended up calling him and gave her all the credit for his nice demeanor, not him.

Well, as I found out yesterday, she never talked to him. My surgeon apparently realized on his own that he had misjudged me and changed his behavior accordingly. He even sent her a note saying he was surprised how much better I looked and was pleased with how I was improving. Did he come right out and apologize for mistreating me? No, but because he showed me respect and went out of his way to make my appointment a positive one, I know that he acknowledged his mistake.

My first response was a bit hostile and I thought “well yeah he better be nice to me!” but then I put my guard down and really thought about it. Owning up to our mistakes is hard! When we mistreat someone and feel bad about it later, the easiest thing to do is to just avoid that person or make our interactions with them as brief and civil as possible. Another option is to stubbornly dig our heels in and maintain that we were justified in our initial actions. These are human responses. And honestly, I think it might be even harder for surgeons to admit they were wrong because they have such a respected job and are seen somewhat as gods, not humans, in their work. But they are humans, so they do make mistakes. My surgeon had the courage to face his.

Who am I to judge him for misjudging me? How can I hold that against him when I have been the one to make snap judgments before?

In fact, I did the exact same thing not too long ago.

Between my two hospital stays earlier this year, I became very familiar with the nursing staff on the general surgery ward. There was one nurse who had never been assigned to me, but who I had seen around a lot. I will be honest and say that I thought she was a bit ditzy and didn’t really know what was going on. The morning I was to be discharged, she was my nurse, and I am so glad she was! I watched her juggle all her patients’ needs with efficiency and poise. I also watched her assist several patients through potentially awkward and embarrassing situations without hurting their pride or damaging their dignity. After seeing her in action, I realized that my initial judgment of her was way off! I am so grateful I got to witness her at work so that I had a chance to realize my mistake and change my mind.

And I recall this experience now as a reminder of how easy it is to craft an image of someone without knowing all the facts, without getting to know them first, and without even realizing that we’re doing it. I wasn’t rude towards that nurse like my surgeon was to me, but I made a mistake in judgment just like he did.

Making mistakes is the easy part. Recognizing these mistakes, admitting to them, learning from them, and changing our behavior moving forward, that’s the hard part. That’s the part that builds character and that’s the part that earns respect. Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes courage to fix them. At the same time, it takes courage to forgive other people for their mistakes and let them move forward. It’s okay to change our minds and it’s okay to give second chances.

My surgeon made a mistake in the way he judged me, but then he realized it and re-framed his opinion. If he can change his attitude towards me, why can’t I do the same to him? Is he my favourite doctor now? No. Was the way he treated me okay? No. Am I always going to be a little wary before going to see him? Probably.

But I respect that he came around.

I always respected him as a surgeon, but now I respect him as a person, too.

5 thoughts on “Being human and making mistakes

  1. I am so glad you posted about this topic. As patients, it is so easy to feel concerned if our doctor or specialist isn’t always the smoothest with bedside manner. When we remember that they are human beings with different strengths and weaknesses, it helps us to understand that various medical roles require different skills. For example, I would vote surgical skill as a priority over bedside manner for a surgeon anyday. I have had an excellent surgeon but he seemed a little shy in the consultations which could easily be misjudged as aloof or uncaring. One day I saw him in the audience at a concert although he was far away. At the next appointment, I took charge and broke the ice with a comment about the concert and we had a little bit of small talk about music. After that he wasn’t aloof any more.We had broken the shyness barrier.
    Another time, I had a horrendous appointment with another specialist. This one had been very kind to me and my family in the past and was highly regarded by his peers but on this occasion he came across as abrupt, judgmental and I felt like he hadn’t listened to me or understood my issues. I was in tears shortly after leaving that appointment. I was so upset that I wrote a letter explaining what he did and said, and how I felt as a result. We had a meeting and are now on the right footing again. He was horrified to learn that his behaviour had upset me and very apologetic.
    He said he had learned something but also I had learned that we are all human and even our doctors have an “off” day sometimes. Most of our healthcare professionals are in the job because they care about people and want to help people. It helps to remember that and open honest communication can sort out many issues.

    • I love how you mentioned doctors having “off days” because I have definitely noticed this. My family doctor has been following me since I was just a baby and after so much time together in the last few years I can tell when she is just having an off day and I have learned to not take it personally because I know next time I see her I’ll feel her incredible support and hope again. Kudos to you for sticking up for yourself and initiating communication with your doc when you felt misunderstood – it’s definitely not an easy thing to do!

  2. Hi ms. Catherine,

    You may not remember me but I am Maya and Sophia Tharp’s mom, you taught them both ballet. I just found about your blog and read your most recent entry. I am so sorry to hear that you have been suffering for so long. After reading just the one entry, i am positive that you have the strength, perseverance and courage to see you through triumphantly. I am going to continue to read your blog and will be cheering for you. Don’t hesitate to express how you feel, you are a gifted writer. I too enjoy writing since the voice or words we use to express ourselves become uncluttered and alive in a different way. Thank you for sharing. Take good care of yourself. Warmest regards, Monica

    • Hi Monica – I absolutely remember you and your girls (although I never actually knew your first name!). Thank you so much for your comments! I am so touched not only that you read the post, but also that you took the time to share those kind words with me. I’m always happy to have an extra cheerleader! Hope you and the girls are doing well 🙂

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