It was 9 o’clock at night when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but decided to answer it anyway. It was my doctor.
“Chase, I got your labs back and you have a critically low level. I spoke with someone at the hospital, I think I know what is happening, but I need you to go to the pharmacy right now and get a medicine.” She explained further and as I listened electric currents ran through my thighs until I could barely feel my legs.
“I’m so sorry, Chase. I missed it. It was low the last time we did your labs 9 months ago, and I missed it.”
In disbelief, I continued to listen as she instructed me about the next steps I was to take and prepared me for what was to come the next day.
“If you notice any changes overnight, go straight to the ED.”
My chest tingled and I could barely breathe. My mind struggled to comprehend what was happening. I looked at my husband sitting close by on the couch. He looked concerned. I tuned back in and heard her say: “Is your husband there? Can I talk to him?”
“Yes,” is all I could manage, and I handed him the phone. I sat while he listened and asked his questions. My breathing came back under my control, my legs felt wiry, and restlessness set in. “I have to get out of here,” I thought. “I have to go and pick up this medicine.”
I am sitting across from a PGY3 resident I have been treating since his intern year, as part of his treatment plan for managing a chronic mental illness that began in medical school. Earlier in the day, I received an urgent message from him requesting an emergency appointment.
Within a few minutes of sitting down, the story from his weekend call shift tumbled out of him. His speech became pressured, and his eyes welled with tears as he recounted in detail the steps he had taken to care for a very sick patient overnight.
“I missed it.” The dam broke and he sat sobbing in front of me, his body trembling.
I sat silently across from him. Willing him to breathe.
In time, his breathing came back under his control, and he slowly regained his composure. He continued: “I got the imaging, and I missed a bleed.”
Failure and shame
I can recall memorable moments from my training when I came to understand that what I initially perceived to be a mistake was instead part of the work. An example from our practice involves a patient whom I was comanaging with her primary care provider (PCP). She was not doing well following a critical work event. When I met with her after the event, she admitted having thoughts of suicide, refused a voluntary inpatient admission, and would not have met criteria for an involuntary admission. My hands were tied.
Together we created a plan to keep her safe, which included paging her PCP after hours if needed. I told her PCP before leaving that night that he might hear from her and that if she reached out, she would require hospitalization.
I arrived at work the following day, and her PCP shared with me that our patient had overdosed on medication, paged him, and was admitted to the unit.
He seemed forlorn.
I was both relieved by the news and confused by his reaction. I had hoped that she would choose a higher level of care than what we could provide her as an outpatient. I said: “This is good. She followed the plan.”
Her overdose was, of course, not part of the plan. She was struggling with several internal conflicts, including having mixed feelings about coming into the hospital; but, when the critical moment happened and she was faced with a decision to call for help or possibly die, she chose to call her PCP and have him paged as we had talked about.
I looked at her PCP. “You helped get her to where she needed to be.”
In the years of working side by side with medically trained colleagues, I have time and again needed to reframe for them that what they perceive to be a “failure” or a “crisis” is often a catalyst for change. The patient I comanaged with the PCP was a highly skilled caregiver and, as such, had been having a hard time asking for help. The hospitalization that her PCP facilitated allowed her to receive the care she needed and created an opportunity for family and friends to show up for her. Their support fed her, and she only made gains from that point on.
My training had taught me that respecting a patient’s autonomy was of the utmost importance. This instills confidence in patients as the authority in their lives. For a clinician to do this, a certain amount of helplessness must be tolerated. As I became better at identifying these moments of helplessness, feelings of failure and shame transformed.
Sitting across from the PGY3 resident who I had met with weekly for the past 3 years, I thought about his error.
I thought about my phone call 4 nights earlier. My doctor was called at home by a lab technician, who never met their patients but was simply following protocol and alerted my doctor to the worsening number that she should have been aware of 9 months earlier.
Just like my doctor’s lapse of attention, my patient’s error was not a moment of helplessness to be tolerated. These were mistakes, and there was no way around it.
“People make mistakes.” I said simply.
We sat silently for a time.
I don’t remember who broke the silence. The conversation that followed was centered on our humanity and our capability for both compassion and fallibility. Afterward, I wondered who my doctor confided in and hoped she had a similar conversation.
Dr. Levesque is a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hanover, N.H., where she also serves on the Committee for a Respectful Learning Environment.
A version of this article first appeared on.