My Medical Naiveté and He Who Laughs Last

Published: 11/22/2019 5:40:50 PM
Modified: 11/22/2019 5:40:38 PM

Suppose you’re going into the hospital for surgery. Maybe it’s day surgery, a hernia operation for example (I’ve had more than one of those), or maybe it’s something more serious. Whatever it is, you go in beforehand to meet with the doctor.

Those meetings are pretty routine, but suppose the doctor tells you, “I’ll be there for the important part but not the whole time. I’m handling another operation at the same time.”

What would you say? On the one hand, you remember what your (my) mother told you, “The doctor knows best,” and this experienced doctor comes well recommended. On the other hand, if you’re the patient the entire operation is “important.” What if something goes wrong and “your” doctor is off being someone else’s doctor?

Until a few years ago, I would have said, “Oh, no, they don’t do that.”

Such medical naiveté would have been misguided, as the Boston Globe revealed several years ago in a “Spotlight” report. None other than the chief of orthopedic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Kirkham Wood, came to work one August morning in 2012, ready to shuttle back and forth between two surgeries. It even has a name – “concurrent surgery” – which, as Dr. Wood later testified, is a way to make the most efficient use of his time and expertise.

His practice back then was by no means unique. The famous Texas heart surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey, handled multiple heart surgeries at once, moving from one open chest to another. How else could he do 60,000 surgeries in one lifetime?

Dr. Wood’s patients that day later said they didn’t know they were participating in “double-booked” surgeries. As bad luck would have it, one of the surgeries went wrong, leaving the patient paralyzed. That, of course, is one of the risks of spinal surgery, but still … one can’t help but wonder.

A prominent MGH surgeon named Dennis Burke, “a fierce traditionalist when it comes to medicine,” according to the Globe, blew the whistle. “If this results in my career at MGH ending, so be it,” he told the Globe.

And sure enough it did. The hospital fired him for violating its rules, also citing federal privacy law. The then-president of MGH stated publicly that there was “no basis to support Dr. Burke’s concerns” and wrote Dr. Burke that “your actions have been extraordinarily disruptive to the orthopedic surgery department.”

And that was the end of a distinguished 25-year career at the Massachusetts General Hospital. But it wasn’t the end of Dr. Burke’s career. He joined the staff at Beth Israel Deaconess in Milton, Massachusetts. He also hired a lawyer.

He is still affiliated with Beth Israel, operating on one patient at a time I’m sure.

But his lawsuit is over. Just a few days ago, MGH, now under different leadership, settled Dr. Burke’s claim by paying him $13 million (yes, $13,000,000!) and – get this – offering to take him back.

He is taking the money but not the job, thanks anyway. So, MGH has named him an “honorary” member of its medical staff and is naming a safety program, including an annual lecture, after him. Talk about “he who laughs last.”

As for me, if I ever find myself in one of those pre-surgery meetings, I intend to say “Doctor, I’m sorry to be disruptive, but if I have to be there the entire time, so do you.”

Joseph D. Steinfield lives in Keene and Jaffrey. He can be reached at joe@joesteinfield.com Copyright 2019.


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