When patients die, who’s to blame?

I was a farm boy from Iowa. While I was serving in Korea as a rifleman, I realized that I was eligible for the G.I. Bill, and decided that I would become a doctor.

After completing medical training, I was assigned as a temporary substitute for another doctor in a clinic that provided medical care for boys that had hemophilia.  The position developed into a full time appointment.

Hemophilia was a great medical disorder to treat as a physician.  The doctor could relieve suffering, prevent disability and prolong life with a new medicine that became available. It was like a magic medicine.  A guiding principle was to avoid causing harm to patients.

The magic new medicine unknowingly harbored lethal viruses: hepatitis and HIV. A new disease, AIDS emerged as aresult of infection from polluted medicine.   The patients that I treated developed liver disease, including cancer of the liver and AIDS. Ninety patients that I cared for died.

I felt devastated.  I felt guilty of causing harm. To the families they left behind to mourn, I had to say that I am sorry for causing harm.  The journey through the life of a boy I cared for from nine months of age–until he died at age 17 years–is recounted in Dr. Guilt?.  Some of the other persons he met are also described in this account.

When patients die, who's to blame?

Why I wrote this book:

AIDS could have been prevented in hemophilia. The families that lost a son or husband or brother or father blame the drug companies that made the medicine. They maintain that the drug companies sacrificed safety for profitability.  But the final responsibility of prescribing medicine rests with the doctor, not the drug company that made the medicine.

This book describes hemophilia, and the origin of AIDS. It discusses capitalism and free marketing in a society without cost controls.  Accountability for the deaths from AIDS is discussed.  It stresses the need for critical thinking and consideration for the hazards of medical treatment compared with the benefits. Sometimes when good events occur, bad things happen.

The impact of human activities is not always apparent at the time of their occurrence.   But most of all this book was written to tell the families that as a doctor, I and all the other doctors are sorry for causing harm.  We told the persons in this book to take the medicine and they would be relieved of suffering and live to become old men. Instead, they died from the medicine. If we were not guilty, we were certainly wrong.

After the patients died, I had bad dreams for several years.  I dreamed about those guys who died. Writing this book has helped me to overcome my sense of guilt.  But the persons who died were innocent.  Their story needs to be told so that they are not forgotten and the conditions that allowed this terrible tragedy to occur are never repeated.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s