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Faces Of Medical Error: The Story Of Michael Skolnik

I was very sad and quite angry after watching a powerful video this weekend entitled “The Faces of Medical Error: From Tears to Transparency.” It’s the story of Michael Skolnik. His mother, Patty, gave me the video when I met her recently. Michael had what may have been unnecessary brain surgery in 2001 and died three years later.

The Skolniks worked on this video as part of an educational campaign on medical error, and they created an organization now named Citizens for Patient Safety. Here’s a trailer to the video:

You can also watch a Today Show segment that profiled the Skolniks from a few years ago:

While much of the message is about medical errors and malpractice, the Skolniks also promote a message of the “critical need for shared decision-making.” In fact, I met Patty at a shared decision-making conference.

If you haven’t heard Michael Skolnik’s story, you should. And if you’re like me, you’ll need a tissue box close by for the sadness, and something else to help with the ensuing anger.

Thanks to Patty Skolnik for sharing the story and the video with me.

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

Liposuction-Related Death And Finding A Safe Doctor

From the Chicago Tribune:

A 35-year-old woman who wanted to resculpt herself for the new year with liposuction and a buttocks enhancement is dead from apparent complications of plastic surgery, her husband and lawyer said Thursday. Miami customer service representative Lidvian Zelaya died Monday, hours after the operation began at Strax Rejuvenation and Aesthetics Institute, a busy cosmetic surgery practice in Lauderhill. Zelaya went to Strax to have fat suctioned from her back and belly, and to have the material injected into her backside, family representatives said. She chose Strax because she got a good deal. Aronfeld said the operation was to be done by Dr. Roger L. Gordon. He was disciplined by the state in connection with two plastic surgery deaths in 2004.

This is getting ridiculous. Liposuction deaths have been frequent in the media as of late. And this surgeon, Roger L. Gordon, M.D., is a real, board-certified plastic surgeon as per the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS).

Then again, plastic surgery IS surgery and therefore has risk associated with it. Was this an unfortunate accident or something else? How can a potential patient choose well to limit the risk of cosmetic surgery? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Truth in Cosmetic Surgery*

False Positives In Medical Tests: How They Can Kill Patients

I’ve written in the past that more medicine and tests do not necessarily reflect better care.

There is no test that is 100 percent specific or sensitive. That means tests may be positive, when, in fact, there is no disease (“false positive”), or tests may be negative in the presence of disease (“false negative”).

It’s the latter that often gets the most media attention, often trumpeted as missed diagnoses. But false positives can be just as dangerous. Consider this frightening case report from the Archives of Internal Medicine:

A 52-year-old woman presented to a community hospital with atypical chest pain. Her low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein levels were not elevated. She underwent cardiac computed tomography angiography, which showed both calcified and noncalcified coronary plaques in several locations. Her physicians subsequently performed coronary angiography, which was complicated by dissection of the left main coronary artery, requiring emergency coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Her subsequent clinical course was complicated, but eventually she required orthotropic heart transplantation for refractory heart failure. This case illustrates the hazards of the inappropriate use of cardiac computed tomography angiography in low-risk patients and emphasizes the need for restraint in applying this new technology to the evaluation of patients with atypical chest pain. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

My First Day As A Doctor

This post is a “Dr. Val classic” – first published in early 2007.


Internship, for those of you who may not know, is the first year of residency training.  It is the first time
that a doctor, fresh out of medical school, has responsibility for patient care.  The intern prescribes medications, performs procedures, writes notes that are part of the medical record, and generally learns the art of medicine under the careful watch of more senior physicians.

Internship is a frightening time for all of us.  We’ve studied medicine for 4 years, memorized ungodly amounts of largely irrelevant material, played “doctor” in third and fourth year clerkships, but never before have lives actually been put in our hands.  We know the expression, “never get sick in July” because that’s when all the well-intentioned, but generally incompetent new interns start caring for patients. And so, we tremble as we begin the new stage in our careers – applying our medical knowledge to real life situations, and praying that we don’t kill anybody.

I’ll never forget my first day of internship.  I must have drawn the short straw, because not only was I assigned to the busiest, sickest ward in my hospital (the HIV and infectious disease unit), but I was on call that day (so I’d be working for 24 hours straight) with the most hated resident in the program (he had a reputation for treating interns poorly and being arrogant to the nurses).  As I reviewed my patient list, I noticed that the sign out sheet (the paper “baton” of information handed to you by the last intern who cared for the patients – meant to give you a synopsis of what they needed) was supremely unhelpful.  Chicken scratch with diagnoses and little check boxes of “to do’s” for me.  I was really nervous.

So I began to round on my patients – introducing myself to each of them, letting them know that I was their new doctor.  I figured that even if I couldn’t completely understand the sign out notes, at least by eye-balling them I’d have an idea of whether or not they were in imminent danger of coding or some other awful thing that I figured they’d be trying to do.

My third patient (of 15) was a thin, elderly Hispanic man, Mr. Santos.  He smiled at me when I came
in the door – the kind of lecherous smile that a certain type of man gives to all women of child bearing age.  I ignored it and introduced myself in a professional manner and began to check his vital signs.  I was listening to his heart, and I honestly couldn’t hear much of anything.  There was a weird, very distant beat – something I wouldn’t expect for such a thin chest.  The man himself looked awful, but I really wasn’t sure why – he just seemed really, really ill.

My pager was going off mercilessly all night.  I wondered if this was how the nurses got to know the characters of their new interns – to test them by paging them for anything under the sun, tempting us to tip our hand if we had tendencies to be impatient or disrespectful.  But in the midst of all the “we need you to sign this Tylenol order” pages, there came a concerning one: “Hey, Mr. Santos doesn’t look good.  Better get up here.”

My heart raced as I rushed to his bedside.  Yup, he sure didn’t look too good.  He was breathing heavily, and had some kind of fearful expression on his face.  I didn’t really know what to do, so I decided to call the resident in charge (much as I was loathe to do so, since I knew he would humiliate me for bothering

The resident appeared in a froth – “Why are you paging me?  What’s wrong with the patient?  Why do you need me here?  This better be good!”

“Um… Mr. Santos doesn’t look too good.” I said, frightened to death.

“What do you mean ‘he doesn’t look too good?’  Can you be a little bit more specific” he said, sarcasm dripping from his tongue.

“Well, I can’t hear his heart and he’s breathing hard.”

“I see,” said the resident, rolling his eyes.  He marched off towards the patient’s room, certain to make an example of me and this case.

I trotted along behind him, hoping I hadn’t been wrong in paging him – trying to remember the ACLS
protocol from 2 weeks prior.

The resident drew back the curtain around the man’s bed with one grand sweep of the arm.  “Mr. Santos,
how are you doing?” he shouted, as if the man were deaf.

The man was staring at the wall, taking in deep, labored breaths of air.  I saw that the resident immediately realized that this was serious, and he placed his stethoscope on the man’s chest.

I approached on the other side of the bed and held his hand.  “Mr. Santos, I’m back, remember me?”  He smiled and looked me straight in the eye.

He replied, “Angel.” (in Spanish)  Then he let out a deep breath and all was silent.

The resident shook the man, “Mr. Santos?  Mr. Santos?!”  There was no response.

“Should I call a code?” I asked sheepishly.

“Nope, he’s DNR,” said the resident.

I was flabbergasted.

“Yep, you just killed your first patient.  Welcome to intern year.”

As I thought about his cruel accusation, I was comforted by the fact that at least, as Mr. Santos released his final breath, he thought he had seen an angel.  Maybe my presence with him that night did something good… even though I was only a lowly intern.

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