WHY WE NEED A STRONG CIVIL JUSTICE SYSTEM
My name is Molly Akers. My story begins in December of 2004 when I was diagnosed with a rare neck cancer. As if being diagnosed with cancer isn’t scary enough, I was also then falsely diagnosed with breast cancer and had an unnecessary mastectomy due to a mislabeling in the pathology lab. Yes, one of my biopsy slides was switched with those of a woman who did have breast cancer. She was given my negative diagnosis, and I received her positive one. Life is a combination of experience and perspective, and back in 2005, I was clueless as to how important it was to protect our rights when a medical error happens. But I quickly learned how vital of an issue this is.
In May of 2005, shortly after I finished my chemo I traveled to Springfield to address lawmakers regarding legislation on medical mistakes. I remember being told I was in for a “crash course in civics” that day, and I knew something “big” was about to happen. I realized there was a lot to discuss, and I was going to be asked a lot of questions about what happened to me. I remember answering the “what” but not the “how” – how much my life would be affected and “how” much legislation on medical mistakes would mean to me. I had not lived through the “how” yet. I was still dealing with getting better at that point. There was so much more to come.
See, to many it’s a concept and a debate, but to us it’s our lives and it’s personal. We are the faces behind what is debated here. If I would have known then what I know now, there is so much I would have been able to say back in May of 2005 to further illustrate how unfair it is to simply label patients as being “careless and to blame” for so many of the problems in health care. More importantly, it is inhuman and cold to describe what happened to us as “frivolous.” What if you were me or your daughter was me? How would you feel then? But, when horrible things happen to us, we cannot get hung up on the “why” things happen.
For me, I wish then I would have known how many unnecessary surgeries I would have to fix the mistake or the number of hours I would spend in physical therapy. I wish I would have been able to see how terrified my then 3- and 5-year-old children would be seeing me in pain while watching their father wash my hair or help me out of bed. I wish I would have known how scared my mother was the day we were called into the hospital to be told I did not have breast cancer. We both thought I was being called in to be told to get my affairs in order – that I only had weeks to live. I wish I would have known my husband used to break down at a friend’s house because he did not want me to see him cry. As if the physical and emotional hurdles were not enough. There was so much more I didn’t know back in 2005 that was getting ready to slap me in the face. I had no idea.
I wish I would have known how hurtful it was going to be listening to the hospital’s attorney make me feel like I did something wrong, that I was okay all because I “looked” normal. He had no idea how much rehab I had done … how painful it was … everything I’d been through on top of what I needed to do to beat my real cancer. That alone is horrible. He didn’t know that I looked “okay” because I had to in order to get through a day. Being tougher than your injuries is what saves us. There is no room for fear when trying to survive a nightmare. But, they cannot see that in a one-hour deposition. It’s impossible.
I had no idea how much I was going to be treated like I did something wrong. I didn’t. In fact, I was the person holding my sobbing doctor’s hand when she told me about the mistake, and I remember asking her if she was ok. Never mind that they kept thinking for days I had two different cancers and that I was getting called in to see her that day to tell me I was going to die while the hospital got themselves organized. What about me? I was terrified.
I did not know how sad and scared I would be listening to one of my long-time doctors look at me like he’d never seen me before while he was testifying that my life expectancy wasn’t that of normal person, and therefore the true “value” of it should be taken into consideration. Ten years later, despite that testimony that my life expectancy wasn’t ten years, I am still here! I beat my real cancer and if you were to ask my children, they greatly value my life and there is nothing frivolous about how many times they had to see me with stitches all over my chest. I will never forget the first time I saw myself in the mirror after my mastectomy, and the fact that I had to hold my crying daughter and console her when she saw that too is something I will never forget. There is nothing frivolous about that.
I could go on and on about how my medical mistake changed my life. It’s affected my life in some way every day, and still does 10 years later. In fact, I had to have another surgery in November of 2014 because my implant rotated and it was very painful. I’ve actually lost count on how many corrective breast surgeries I’ve had, and that number that will continue rising the rest of my life because breast reconstruction is not a quick fix. Definitely not frivolous.
Many times, we are so busy trying to get better and deal with how our lives have changed, we do not have the time and energy to fight this fight, too. There are only so many things a person can do in a day. I’m here to remind the people whose lives are forever changed by a medical mistake that they matter and what happened to them matters, and that automatically telling someone what the value of their medical mistake, I mean nightmare, is cold and wrong.
I could have chosen to be cold and wrong with what happened to me, but I decided I couldn’t and wouldn’t allow for people in my shoes to be punished for something that happened to them. I’m not crying “victim,” in fact quite the opposite. I actually spend my days working for a surgeon who rebuilds women’s breast after cancer because I understand how awful losing a breast is. There’s nothing frivolous about that too. I’ve chosen to still dedicate my time and life to this cause because I believe so whole heartedly in it.
There are so many different roles we play in life, but we are all patients at some point. Maneuvering through the medical world can be very confusing and scary at times, I know. So, I believe being a smart patient and actively involved in our care is a must. But I also believe that we the smart patients deserve smart medicine and to be treated like we matter and that sometimes things go incredibly wrong. Placing all the ownership on us patients is unfair and the belief that restricting our rights is the best way to limit costs for all of us is unreasonable and hurtful.
And yes, there is a lot of great medicine and people working in the medical field. In fact, I have some of them who have not only been horrified at what happened to me but also how I was treated. They did not blame me, but instead have seen what happened to me and made changes in dealing with theirpatients. In fact, the head of a pathology department in a hospital near Cincinnati changed their hospital’s protocol as a result of what happened to me in order to have the safest process possible. But, unfortunately, as many necessary steps ensure our safety, medical mistakes do happen, and, God forbid, when something goes wrong, all of us – we the patients – matter and deserve to be treated so.
I realize there are a lot of statistics and rhetoric and needed reform, but taking away all of our rights is not the “magic” answer. I hope others never have to learn the hard way like we did, but if they do, I’d imagine they would want their rights protected.
Patients matter. We all matter.