When faced with illness or injury, the prospect of one’s condition being made worse due to hospitalization is not necessarily foremost in a patient’s mind.
However medical errors made by health care workers are something that happens far too frequently.
It’s estimated that 40,000 patients in Canada die every year as a result of medical error, wrote Sir Liam Donaldson of the World Health Organization’s Envoy for Patient Safety, in his introduction to the book After the Error, by Susan McIver and Robin Wyndham.
Next week, both McIver and Wyndham will read from their book at the Harbourfront library on Sept. 13, and be joined by local resident Rhonda Nixon, whose story is featured in After the Error.
For 10 years, McIver served as a B.C. coroner, an experience that informed her first book, Medical Nightmares: The Human Face of Errors, published in 2001.
“It was during that time that I saw things happen that shouldn’t happen,” said McIver. “But it’s the role of the coroner to be very neutral, and to find fact and not fault. However, I saw these things, and since I’ve always been interested in writing, I decided to do the first book.”
It was one of the first books of its kind, that not only explored the problem of medical errors, but looked at it from the patient’s perspective.
“An example would be a surgeon not listening, and the wife of the deceased had asked the surgeon to examine her husband in the stomach area and he didn’t do it, he continued on another area and the not listening part led to the man’s death,” said McIver.
After the initial book, McIver went on to other pursuits, and it wasn’t until 2010 that a mutual acquaintance introduced her to Nixon, a Parksville resident.
It was Nixon’s compelling story that then served to rekindle her interest in medical errors.
Following an episode of pancreatitis in early 2005, by May of that year, Nixon was admitted to Nanaimo Regional General Hospital to have her gallbladder removed.
After experiencing spasms and burning pain down her right side, according to After the Error, it was decided that Nixon should have a procedure to examine the ducts that drained her gallbladder, liver and pancreas.
During the procedure, her surgeon — the same one that removed her gallbladder — performed a sphincterotomy.
Upon waking, Nixon said the doctor told her he may have nicked her bowel during the surgery — a claim he later denied — and as a result she had to stay overnight for observation.
It was from there that Nixon’s nightmare began.
She spent 10 days in the Intensive Care Unit fighting a combination of near-fatal complications that left her fighting for her life, though neither Nixon or her husband were informed of what was actually happening.
It later emerged that she had suffered a perforated bile duct.
“Nobody ever explained it to me, in the hospital or out of the hospital, the symptoms I was having, nobody explained anything to me,” said Nixon in November of 2007, in an interview with the Nanaimo Daily News.
It was that story, “‘Routine’ surgery causes injury”, that eventually broke through the lack of full disclosure of Nixon’s medical records, after repeated requests to the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Following the story, VIHA president Howard Waldner wrote a letter of apology to the paper’s editor.
“I had been sent home to die and he apologizes indirectly through a letter to the editor,” said Nixon in After the Error. “His letter was written for the public, not me.”
However, through it all Nixon maintains that she never intended to sue VIHA, and simply wanted to use her story as a cautionary tale to educate patients about risks and help prevent further errors from occurring.
This was an area in which she was united with McIver, and in 2009 she organized the Empowered Patient Conference: Including the Patient in Patient Safety, which was held in Nanaimo during Canadian Patient Safety Week, and was attended by over 175 delegates.
Following the conference, Nixon met McIver and asked her to join the board of the EPC. There have been some improvements to the care system, for example in the implementation of the B.C. Patient Safety Learning System, but Nixon has expressed concern that health authorities are slow to implement changes.
McIver has seen some strides made since the publication of her second book, most notably in the election of Oakville MP Terence Young, who was featured in her story Special Recognition.
“It is the story of his daughter Vanessa, who dropped dead in front of him from a cardiac arrythmia due to a prescription drug reaction,” said McIver. “He (ran for office) so that he would be able to influence legislation around prescription drugs.”
On June 14, former health minister Leona Aglukkaq, along with Young, announced the launch of a plain language labelling initiative aimed at improving the safety of drugs by making drug labels and safety information easier to read and understand.
“That is a direct result — Terence was the driving force behind that. That is a result of his daughter’s death and his becoming a politician, and what he’s been able to accomplish,” said McIver.
That was the aim of her latest book, she added, to not only influence change but also to inform readers that these errors continue to devastate lives.
As for patients, her advice is simple: Take someone with you when you get diagnosed, and if possible, become aware of all the information on your own condition prior to hospitalization.
McIver, Wyndham and Nixon will all be present for the reading at the Harbourfront library on Sept. 13, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. A discussion will follow.
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