For the last eight months, mainly since my butchered port surgery people have asked me:
Why don’t you sue?
I have to laugh a little because that phrase always brings me back to elementary school. Growing up in a town like Boca Raton it was not uncommon to hear the phrase “Yeah, well, I’m gonna sue!” Generally from a bunch of ten-year-olds who’s parents taught them that this was an appropriate response to being called a bugger-head.
While words might not be quite enough to stir legal action in most cases, there was certainly been a lot of pressure on me in the past to sue for medical mishaps. And I haven’t sued.
I did sue someone once. A few years back Happy’s groomer sliced both his ears open and caused him a lot of pain and a miserable night in the emergency vet hospital and a bill for about $800. I paid the money to file a case in small claims court. I went through several court dates that kept getting cancelled and reset and finally when our day came the groomer came with a lawyer who caught us out on a technicality (filed in the wrong county.) I had the option to refile and pay another fee and wait another several months for our date in court—and frankly, it just wasn’t worth my time.
I mean that in the most literal sense. Happy’s pain and suffering caused more pain and suffering for me than anything else I’d experienced through the course of my own disease. I wanted to ruin the woman who hurt him. Not pursuing the case in court spiked rage that was almost overwhelming. But court wasn’t the resolution. Warning every single person I met from that point onwards was going to have to be enough.
Recently Happy was attacked by a pitbull and is now in a cone of shame with stitches all over him, on a butt load of medication—and the dog who attacked him wasn’t wearing a collar or a leash. The owner did not give a flying fuck about Happy’s injuries but I was so fired up I spent three hours talking to police and animal control. The owner got fined $1100 (or something close to it) on the spot. But that was a violation against the county. The violation against my dog’s right not to have to endure unnecessary pain from a crazy, careless bitch? Yeah, that’s going to be a satisfying date in court with my two witness statements, my vet bill and testimony, my graphic pictures of his injuries and the ten mugshots of the dog owner from all of her previous arrests.
So if I’m willing to go through the trouble of suing a neighbor–why won’t I sue a doctor when he abandons my case or gives me a prescription with a dangerous interaction without checking my file or operates poorly leaving me with complications and permanent scarring?
It’s not that simple.
See, unlike your more common criminal offense, medical malpractice is not so cut and dry. Of course after that surgery I went to a lawyer and I spoke to them about my options! Who wouldn’t have? What I learned was disheartening to say the least.
The truth was that nothing short of an amputated limb generally wins in malpractice cases. Pain and suffering? That’s not a real thing. Patients are not awarded money for pain and suffering when they’re suffering complications of a surgery. Especially when the pain and suffering is so hard to prove is the result of an inadequate surgeon.
Still my case was strong and I’ve already had to have three corrective surgeries and another one is scheduled for this week. There will be another one after that with a plastic surgeon.
I thought maybe I would try my case in court.
And then I got the letter from my insurance company.
It was great, they thought, that I was thinking of suing my surgeon. And it would be even better when, if I somehow managed to win the case, they could swoop in and take all the money from the settlement.
After all, they paid a lot more for that surgery than I did.
But what about the other patients? What about protecting them from the same madman who hurt you?
Guess what? If I sue my doctor, he can still practice medicine. He’s not going to lose his license over a botched surgery.
“There are thousands of physicians sued successfully every year without ending in the loss of their licenses or practices. Although your doctor will have to spend some time defending the suit, throughout the process he will most likely still be able to see his patients and conduct his life as normal. Furthermore, after the conclusion of the suit, he will most likely go back to treating his patients – albeit, hopefully, more carefully this time.”
“While an investigation against your doctor could lead to the revocation of his license, such action is rare. Only in the most extreme cases, where the Board feels that your doctor is a threat to the well-being of his patients, will his or her license be revoked. The Board could decide to take lesser action such as limiting his license, issuing a censure and reprimand, or require him or her to attend training.” (Source)
Doctors won’t slap the headlines of their failures on their website. They won’t let you know before they’re assigned your general surgery at the hospital. Here’s what does happen:
Doctors will talk. With his colleagues. With the hospitals. You may be 100% right in taking your case to court—but that doesn’t mean you’re safe from being labeled a litigious patient. And when your case is complicated enough already—how do you think that bodes for you when it comes to bringing on a new member of your medical team?
And as someone with a complicated case, I can’t afford to be blacklisted by the doctors in my state. This isn’t like getting a bad haircut and leaving a raging Yelp review. This is real shit. Like life or death, career ending shit.
Let’s talk about the transfer of medical records. When you have a complicated case you have tons of medical records. Several hundred pages at least. I know for a fact that the records that I’ve requested from some of my physicians are incomplete at times. But when another doctor requests records, you do not have rights to those records. You can request records from each doctor separately. But if a neurologist requests records from a PCP he is transferring ownership to the other doctor. Not to you. And he can most definitely pick and chose what goes into your hands and what goes into theirs.
Not every doctor is “out to get you” and altering your medical records. But it does happen. And while I wish I were in a situation where I wasn’t vulnerable to shitty doctors—I am.
It’s kind of like when I write down all my medications and a nurse says, “how are you allergic to all of these?”
Because I’ve gone through more medication trials than most people. The more you experience, the more bad experiences you have. The more great ones you’ll have too. The more inconsequential ones you’ll have. If you manage to live long enough with a rare disease you will come across the kind of crap most healthy people will never have to encounter.
And frankly, I’m just trying to get through my days moving forward. If I devoted any more time to revenge or punishment for the mistakes that have been made in my care—well, I could start my suing the state of Florida for not having PIDD on the Newborn Screening Panel in 1990. I could sue my pediatricians for never having thought to test me for the disease. I could sue the gastroenterologist for not knowing that I had abdominal adhesions.
On the days that I don’t spend in the hospital or recovering or trying to catch up on work and friendships and life—I could squeeze in a few court dates a month. I could stop paying all of my bills and just hand my paychecks over to a lawyer. I could portion a sizable chunk of my emotional reserves to the incredible amount of anxiety and stress and rage that it takes to pursue a life of things that haven’t been “fair.”
If I feel like I need a therapist just to deal with the stress of going to court for how unfair life has been to my dog—I can’t imagine what kind of toll it would take on me psychologically to fight new battles in court.
And as much as I have hated feeling helpless — if I have learned anything so far in this life it’s that people don’t change because your hate wills them to— people change because they learn better.
So I have redirected my energy on these matters to working on my book. I’ve put my heart and soul, frustrations and helplessness into creating something that can truly help the patient community.
I can’t spend my spoons weeding out the “bad doctors” in this country.
I can only try to teach them better.