We love talking up our great successes, but one prominent physician says it may be even more important to discuss our worst failures as well.
It is also good for the soul.
British doctor Henry Marsh is one of the top brain surgeons in the world. He has pioneered new techniques in neurosurgery, collaborated on ground-breaking work in the Ukraine and has been the subject of a BBC television series and an acclaimed documentary.
So one might expect his memoir, “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery,” to be filled with accounts of one smashing medical success after the other.
“I want people to understand that doctors are neither gods nor villains but fallible human beings,” he writes.
Haunting Regrets, Anyone?
Here is a blurb for “Do No Harm” from Amazon: “If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practiced by calm and detached surgeons, this gripping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candor, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets and the moments of black humor that characterize a brain surgeon’s life.”
Harrowing disasters, haunting regrets, black humor. These are not the things most professional are chomping at the bit to share publicly.
And yet, that was what Dr. Marsh felt compelled to write about. In a New Yorker article, he says he reached a point in his career where the memories of patients he had failed robbed him of sleep.
“The more I thought about the past,” he writes, “the more mistakes rose to the surface, like poisonous methane stirred up from a stagnant pond…. As I approach the end of my career I feel an increasing obligation to bear witness to past mistakes I have made.”
In the book he describes an incident where he was removing a massive tumor from a patient’s brain. After operating all day, he had extracted most of the malignancy. He says he knew he should have stopped at that point. But something – he calls it a desire to be able to say “I got it all” – made him keep going.
Tragically, he snipped a blood vessel the width of a pin. The resulting oxygen deprivation caused irreparable brain damage, and the patient never regained consciousness.
All My Worst Mistakes
Dr. Marsh has been practicing brutal honesty for some time now. Years ago he presented a continuing education lecture to colleagues titled “All My Worst Mistakes.” Needless to say, it did not go over well. He says when he finished the room was filled with stunned silence.
Keep in mind this is no hack doctor. This is a man who has saved countless lives. He has done great deeds. He has even been named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
And yet he possesses a measure of candor, humility and empathy that most of us can only aspire to.
From The New Yorker: “In writing ‘Do No Harm,’ Marsh has seemingly violated his code: he expresses many of the feelings that he’s worked very hard to keep hidden. But codes, by their nature, exclude the complexities of inner and moral life, and Marsh wants to understand himself—and wants us to know him—in the light of those complexities…. He can’t bear the thought of going numb. He is determined to feel as much as he can.”
Risk Man Caveat
It should go without saying that I am not suggesting you go out and start confessing all your professional mistakes. Better talk to your malpractice carrier before doing that.
But lawyers, like doctors, deal with real people and real lives. Sometimes the outcome is awesome. Sometimes it is awful.
Taking ownership of the full spectrum of our professional lives – the good, the bad and the ugly – is a way of staying true to our best selves.
- The English Surgeon http://www.pbs.org/pov/englishsurgeon/
- Your Life in Their Hands http://www.pbs.org/pov/englishsurgeon/video_brain_surgery.php
- Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Do-No-Harm-Stories-Surgery/dp/0297869876
- Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/anatomy-of-error
- Boswell Book Festival http://www.boswellbookfestival.co.uk/index.php/programme/sunday-10-may/item/dr-henry-marsh
- Lawyers Mutual http://www.lawyersmutualnc.com/
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney who has practiced North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.