Mistakes & Medicine: How to Prevent and Address Medical Errors

Making mistakes is a part of being human, but what happens when one is never given the opportunity to try (and occasionally fail) at life’s challenges? Shielding people may temporarily spare them from discomfort, but when does this act result in more harm than good? In Toni Morrison’s novel, Home, we see the aftermath of what happens when the constant protection of Cee, by her brother Frank, abruptly ends. A similar dilemma is not unfamiliar to countless medical students each year as they transition from the academic environment of medical school to the realities of residency. In both cases, I will discuss what happens when “protectors” are removed, how to learn from mistakes that have been made, and how to prevent them. Although in this post I liken Cee’s transition to independence to that of medical students, it is important to note that even though both parties share commonalities in their intelligence, motivation, and transition to more independent people, Cee and modern medical students also have very stark differences between their circumstances. In the novel Home, Cee is oppressed because of both her socioeconomic status and her skin color; she is in a vulnerable position not because of her personal qualities, but because of the systematic oppression of her society. There is no doubt that some people who practice medicine also endure these challenges today, but it needs to be noted that those who attend medical school have already achieved a level of social status and education that Cee did not have access to. To simply compare the two parties without acknowledging this difference would be unjust.

In the novel, Home, there is no question that Frank cares for his sister Cee, or that he will do anything in his power to protect her. Frank not only protects Cee from the harm of strangers through the novel, but also from the harm of her own family members by offering her comfort from their snide comments. However, in the story when Frank leaves to go fight in Korea, Cee is left alone and unable to navigate the complex field of decision making due to her lack of experience. Cee instils the same trust she did in her brother with others, but their intentions are not as altruistic. In the novel Cee marries the first man she meets, Prince, who proceeds to leave without a trace in her family automobile. Later, when Cee tries to start on a new leaf and work as an assistant to Dr. Beauregard Scott, she once again becomes a victim as he uses her as a subject for dangerous medical experimentation. Cee’s internal dialogue through the novel leaves no question that she is intelligent and goes to demonstrate that she simply has never been allowed to think, and act, for herself.

Every year medical students also face a transition that bears resemblance to what Cee experienced: they finally gain independence, the white coat, and title of “doctor” but are left responsible to make important decisions—and deal with the consequences. Medical school consists of two years of classroom education, two years of hands-on training and exposure to different practices, and finally the reward of their MD or DO license; at this point the students are now residents but remain low on the hospital hierarchy of doctors (VeryWellHealth). During this transition from student to physician, there is considerably less supervision compared to that of medical school. At this point in time, there is a speculated “July effect”: where an increase in medical errors occurs as medical students become residents . The extent of this effect is debatable, but it still comes to demonstrate the fact that errors will happen when new people become immersed in a profession, similarly to when Cee became fully immersed into the adult world.  

In the novel, when Cee fell ill from the experimentation of Dr. Beau, she was nursed to back health by women from her hometown (although “nursed” is a gentle term to describe what Cee endured); as Cee fought through the misery of infection and the pain of “sun smacking”, she came out of the situation as a stronger woman. Although it is brought to our attention that Cee can no longer bear children, she becomes independent and no longer wants (or needs) the constant help of her brother Frank; Cee becomes determined to make something of herself and grow despite her past mistakes. In medicine, errors are bound to happen as well. No matter how seldom this occurs, it is necessary to know how to deal with mistakes and grow from them as Cee did. When these mistakes happen, it is always advised to admit the mistake to patients; this not only may result in a lesser chance of a malpractice lawsuit, but also serves as a basis to build trust and respect (TheDO). Aside from this advice, mistakes should always be discussed with some sort of committee in order to improve training and policy so that these mistakes can be avoided in the future, thus making healthcare safer for everyone (TheDO).  

With something as high risk as medical procedures, or major decisions in your personal life, it is necessary to avoid making mistakes in the first place. The real question is how one can do this without being too sheltered by others. In the case of Home, the tough-love and straight forward guidance of the women in the community helped to lead Cee on her path to independence and growth. Sadly, this guidance almost came too late for Cee, as she was at the edge of death from the procedures Dr. Beau performed on her; regardless, Cee was still able to grow from what she experienced in the novel. An approach of tough love early on in Cee’s life by her brother Frank could have given her the support she needed, while still allowing her to make and learn from smaller mistakes. In the case of physicians, some medical schools have begun to take measures for future doctors to employ skills that are not as heavily practiced in medical school, such as breaking difficult news to patients in a low stake setting (ThePhiladelphiaInquirer). This mirrors the smaller, lower risk decisions that Cee would have benefited from making on her own during her journey to adulthood. It has also been noted that many medical schools previously did not have set standards of skills such as conducting physicals, dealing with emergencies, and obtaining informed consent (NYTimes). However, now many departments have begun to agree upon and set standards for medical students.  These sets of concise standards bear resemblance to the straight-forward direction and actions of the women in Cee’s community during her healing process.

In Home, it is noted that in Miss Ethel’s garden, “[u]nder her care beans curved, then straightened to advertise their readiness” (130); with practice and guidance both Cee and medical students will be able to grow as humans and advertise their maturity as well. For both parties, straight-forward standards and ample practice in low-risk settings are necessary to prevent dangerous, and sometimes fatal, mistakes. Cee made two very significant mistakes in Home, and one almost cost her life, but through her journey of healing she was able to become stronger and more independent. This narrative also allows readers to realize that with any task performed by humans, mistakes will happen. What is important is for people to own up to what has happened and work to improve themselves and prevent future missteps.  

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