Matters Column

Surgery morning: It's good to see a doctor in the house

August 1, 2014
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Three weeks ago it hit me that, when being wheeled down a hallway toward surgery, you sure as hell hope your surgeon isn't worrying about lawsuits. 

In other words, while the doctor who will replace your right hip is making sure he's got the pieces of your new porcelain hip ready, firing up the bone saw, and arranging your post-surgery sutures, you're glad there's no lawyer pounding on the operating table. Or, for that matter, delaying the work in any way.

You simply hope for a good outcome.

This all started last December when I took my 59-year-old hip for a walk. It ached, but I attributed that to a very cold Michigan winter.

Numerous heat patches later, I visited non-doctor therapists who opined that my back was "referring" pain toward my hip. By February, a real doctor said, "No, I think it really is your hip that is the problem." He also had good news: An X-ray suggested I didn't appear to be a candidate for hip surgery.

March through May were the cortisone months. I got shots, but I didn't get better. In mid-June, "Dr. H" — the H stands for "Hip" — suggested an MRI. When I emerged from my coffin-like MRI tube, it was clear that my right hip needed replacing.  

Only three Monday mornings ago, I lay flat on my back staring at the IV in my right hand as Dr. H entered my room before surgery. Boy, was I ever rooting for him. I said I'd been told the procedure might take less than an hour, to which he responded, "Your surgery will last just as long as it needs to last in order to see that you get a very good result here."

Wow. A patient could hardly ask for a better response. In the operating room, another doctor said something about a catheter, and I blinked. Then a nurse looked down at me and said, "William, you're awake now. Your surgery is over."

The procedure took about 55 minutes, and I slept through it. Keeping in mind that I am a commercial trial lawyer who doesn't handle medical cases and not a doctor, I think that Dr. H cut me open about 10 inches, removed the “ball” part of my right thigh bone, and then “cored out” some of what was left so that a new porcelain ball could be “tapped” into what remained of my femur. Next came improvements to my hip socket, the arranged marriage of the new ball and the new socket, and the closing of the surgery site — a process that looks like it must have involved a good-sized stapler.

Again, I'm ball parking this, as I was asleep at the time.

The process could not have gone better. I must have been treated very well during surgery. I certainly was treated well afterward by an all-star Metro Health Hospital nursing staff. 

With the understanding that I still wish the foregoing had happened to someone else, I am today pleased with my outcome. Geez, were those doctors and nurses good.

Looking back over the last seven months of seeing various health professionals, about the only other thing I reflect on is the many times somebody said something to me along the lines of: “I need to ask you this next set of questions because you're a lawyer,” or, “The next thing we need to do is something we do so that we're not second-guessed by lawyers, who often make our jobs harder than they ought to be.”

To be clear, the comments I paraphrase above, all made prior to the morning of my surgery, came from caring professionals who often seemed to be kidding. I have nothing but praise for those who helped me. 

But the comments got me thinking about the roles of doctors and lawyers, the degree to which they are often seen to be at odds with one another, and the endless debate over whether one profession helps or hurts the other. That's a debate of little interest on the morning when you are personally being rolled into a brightly lit operating room.

Those who would keep lawyers out of surgeries and doctors out of courtrooms note the challenges inherent in the practice of medicine and — perhaps more important to me — the idea that medicine often advances through creative solutions. Certainly no one would ever want to worry that a creative idea that might advance a cure would be so subject to second-guessing as to discourage it from being undertaken. 

There is difficulty inherent in delivering skillful and safe medical procedures and the thought is that legislation such as tort reform, with its caps on damage claims and tightened thresholds for making claims, may not serve an individual patient but may serve thousands of patients in the long run.

On the other hand, who among us enjoys the privilege of not having to answer for our mistakes? Aren't we all subject to scrutiny as people who drive down roads, make commitments, enter contracts and promise to serve one another?  

Put one more way: If our sons and daughters were the victims of another's error — of any type — would we not want answers? 

Depending on the needs of our neighbor, perhaps both professions can see themselves as helpers and healers.

By the way, my other hip might be going bad. It doesn't hurt like the replaced one did, and I'm no expert, but — since even before my surgery — I've sensed that my left hip may be heading in my right hip's wrong direction.

And should my left hip continue to hurt? Guess who currently has no plans to see a lawyer for pain relief.

Bill Rohn is a trial partner and former Trial Practice Group chairman in the law firm of Varnum LLP. He focuses his litigation practice on commercial, construction, employment and product liability matters. He can be reached at werohn@varnumlaw.com

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