Dr. C. E. Tommey was one of the senior surgeons of The Surgical Clinic of South Arkansas and had been in practice in El Dorado with Dr, David Yocum for almost twenty years when I joined the clinic in 1974. Dr. Bill Scurlock had joined the clinic about four years earlier than me. I learned a great deal of surgical techniques and practice management skills from these wonderful men. All three were men of extraordinary character and had faithfully served the people of south Arkansas with their surgical skills. There were several other trained surgeons in the area who were in solo practices, but their volume of work was nowhere near that of The Surgical Clinic which had a referral area extending out approximately seventy miles.
A scrub nurse while operating with him once asked Dr. Tommey the question, “How do you keep from making mistakes in the operating room?”, to which he immediately answered, “By experience.” She continued, “How do you gain experience?, to which he said, “By making mistakes!” I assisted Dr. Tommey and he assisted me on hundreds of cases over the thirty years of practice together, and I don’t remember any surgical mistake he ever made in my presence.
As in life when some mistakes are made in the operating room, there are no life-endangering consequences. However other mistakes can be extremely costly, and unfortunately some can lead to the death of the patient. It is one of the unspoken fears of any conscientious surgeon to make a deadly mistake.
Early in my practice life I made a costly surgical error which had the potential of a major law suit, but through this painful experience I learned the immense and life-changing lesson of forgiveness.
Andy Jameison (fictitious name) was a prominent El Dorado businessman who developed a serious and life-threatening intra-abdominal infection. He was referred to me by his primary care physician, and an emergency operation was scheduled. Because Mr. Jameison was a large man, I asked one of my surgical partners to assist in what I knew was going to be a physically and emotionally demanding procedure. Despite being a long procedure it went well and Mr. Jameison began the long process of recovery and return to work. Over the following three to four weeks he was gaining strength but had a persistent area of pain deep in his abdominal cavity. I kept reassuring him it would improve, but it did not. Finally an x-ray was made of the painful area, and it was immediately discovered I had made a serious error in the procedure, and Mr. Jameison needed an immediate re-operation. He was admitted to the hospital for an operation the next morning. At this point he knew the problem and what was required to correct it.
In terms of medical malpractice litigation the error I made fit into the legal category of Res ipsa loquitor, which is interpreted as “The thing speaks for itself”. These cases are always settled for the plaintiff against the doctor. It was not so much I was dreading a medical malpractice suit, but I felt badly for Mr. Jameison having to go through another operation to correct an error which I alone had made. I dreaded the pre-op visit I would have to make the evening prior to the operation.
As I entered his hospital room Andy was alone, sitting up in bed reading a magazine, and when I came into the room, he cheerfully said, “Hi Doc. Come on in and have a seat.” I said, “Andy, I am so sorry this happened, and I caused you this problem.” Almost his exact words were, “Oh Doc, don’t worry about it at all. I’m just glad we found out the cause, and it can be corrected!” I didn’t respond, but he continued, “I know you feel badly about this, but I don’t want you to give it another thought”. He reached over to his night stand and gave me a small book entitled The Greatest Thing In The World by Henry Drummond. Andy had written a brief note to me in the fly-leaf of the book. He said, “This book has meant a lot to me in times when I have been in distress, and I think you’ll enjoy it.” As I reached over to take the book from his hand I tearfully said, “Andy, you’ll never know how much this means to me in your forgiving me for this situation. I will never forget it.”
The operation the next morning fully corrected the problem, and Andy healed quickly with no further complications. He was able to return to work within six weeks. His hospital bill and surgical fees for the second procedure were fully forgiven. As a result of this incident the hospital instituted a new operating room policy which prevented future problems of this nature.
Andy could have significantly altered my future surgical practice had he been vindictive in his attitude toward me. Instead he chose to forgive me for my error. He taught me, my immediate family and everyone associated with this event, the immense and life- changing value of forgiving those who have harmed you. What I didn’t know about Andy’s forgiveness until much later was he told his family the night before the second operation, “If I don’t make it through this procedure, I don’t want any of you bringing legal action against Dr. Moore. He saved my life with the first operation.”
Andy Jameison is in glory now and his earthly lesson continues to live in my heart. How could I ever fail to forgive anyone who hurt me in any way when I have been forgiven so much? (Matt. 18: 21-35)