A 12-year-old girl and her grandma walked into the clinic. The receptionist handed them a clipboard with a short form to fill out and told them to take a seat in the waiting room until called by the nurse. When it was their turn, Laura opened the door that led into the doctor’s office and invited them in. The doctor’s office side of the clinic is divided in two, the first section where the nurse takes the patient’s personal and medical information, the second section where they see the doctor. Grandma told Laura why she had brought her granddaughter to the clinic. The girl had a wound on her calf that was a little longer than a handbreadth. It looked like a large water droplet tipped over on its side. Grandma told Laura that she had been applying a cream to the wound that another doctor had prescribed, but it wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse. Even a cursory look made it clear to Laura that this was a deep, infected burn wound. Many times burn wounds in children are a sign of negligence on the part of the primary care giver. Turned out to be negligence alright, but this time not on the part of a family member or care giver.
The girl’s turn came to see the doctor. Laura, the grandma, and the girl, went over to the other side of the doctor’s office and sat down with the doctor working that day. Grandma tried to explain the whole story. Sometimes you can only shake your head and sigh.
The girl was born with a heart defect, and when the family found a sponsor to pay for heart surgery, she was finally able to have the operation she needed. That surgery had taken place just a few weeks ago. From what Laura understood, following surgery, the doctors informed the family that everything had gone well, but they failed to mention one thing, something the girl’s mother noticed soon after the surgery but before the girl had been discharged from the hospital. The girl had a burn on her calf. Now where could that have come from?
The family asked the doctor about it. Only after asking did they learn what had happened during surgery. The doctor said that some medical instrument or other had fallen on the girl’s leg and burned her. (It was probably an electric cauterizer.) Of course, at this point the doctor profusely apologized and quickly began treating the burn wound, right? If only. Nope, instead, the doctor had the audacity to say that that’s why the family had signed an informed consent form before surgery—as if this had been some unforeseen act of God—and there was therefore nothing he could do. Oh, and as a nice little bonus, he said that when the surgical instrument fell, it broke, and that meant the family was responsible for paying for it. Yup. True story.
[Big, heavy sigh.]
In the weeks after the initial burn, the wound got really infected. From the looks of it, it was safe to assume that the infection had reached down into the deeper layers of the muscle. Proper treatment would require debridement, the surgical removal of damaged tissue. Grandma said she didn’t know if she could take the girl back to the hospital because she had multiple other grandchildren at home while Mom was in Russia. Laura and the doctor explained to her that if she didn’t take care of the infection, it would more than likely spread to the rest of the body and become very serious, to the point of death. (Recently there was a story in the news about a girl dying from an infection she got after the improper treatment of an open fracture on her leg. Oh, and she died only after they’d amputated the leg.) They also told Grandma that such behavior on the part of the surgical team was unacceptable and that they should be held responsible. They suggested she file a complaint with the Ministry of Health since there have been recent attempts at reform there, but Grandma wasn’t so sure.
In the end, Laura has no idea how the story turned out. Grandma didn’t give an address and said she didn’t have a phone number, and after she and her granddaughter left that day, Laura hasn’t seen them since. She’s tried to look for them in the village, but with no success. That means, of course, there’s been no opportunity for follow up.
[Another big, heavy sigh.]
Amid a number of possible conclusions we might be able to make from this story, one thing is for sure. Our actions on both an individual and professional level have consequences, good and bad, and often it’s the most vulnerable among whom we live and work that are most deeply affected. We tremble beneath the responsibility and beg for grace to do good in all we do.