Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Me… and Other Failures

I am trying to wrap up my day of seeing patients in the office, calling patients with test results (some good, and some life-alteringly bad). While trying to clear my desk so I can run home to spend time with my wife and our children who still live at home, Stephanie (one of our part-time secretaries who is studying to be a radiology technician), walks past my office crying. My partner, Dr. C, who is also trying to wrap up his day to get home to his wife and five kids, stops Stephanie to ask what’s wrong.
Stephanie flunked a major exam! She is beside herself with the swirling emotions of disappointment (at her grade), confusion (at how she could have scored so poorly), and regret (that she did not take time off work to study more).

Stephanie is shocked as Dr. C. and I admit how many tests we bombed and our numerous academic failures and professional disappointments in our years leading up to and including medical school, internship, residency, fellowship, and starting our practices. She seems shocked to hear the truth she expected - no one is perfect, not even those in the health care field. Doctors, nurses, therapists, assistants, and technicians are all human. We do our best every day, but not one of us is perfect.
Admittedly, we have to be incredibly careful to avoid mistakes and take the time to listen to every aspect of our patients’ concerns. But even when we do our best – we are not perfect. Those of us who choose careers in the field of medicine accept the tremendous responsibility that comes with patients trusting us with their lives and their health, but we can never forget that we are fallible human beings doing our best for the patients for whom we care. To be honest, we may bear responsibility for the health and physical lives of those for whom we are privileged to care, but think about priests and nuns – they are responsible for our eternal health, well-being and destiny, so how much more pressure they must bear.

As Dr. C. and I are explaining this to Stephanie, my son texts me that he just bombed a Biochemistry exam. He is tremendously upset with his performance, primarily because he also wants to enter the health care field. He worries that a poor Biochem grade will prevent him from becoming an excellent, proficient, well-trained physician. In retrospect, Dr. C. and I can assure him that not one of our medical school classmates was perfect. In fact, those who experienced failure but worked hard to become health care providers turned out to be the best clinicians. The greatest sign to me that he will be a great physician came in his response to me, “I will work as hard as I have to in order to become a physician; I have no doubt whatsoever as to the vocation God has planned for me, so I will do whatever it takes!”

Regardless of what road we are taking on our life’s journey, we are human. We must be ready and willing to accept the failures that make us human. My patients may not want to hear that Biochem was hard for me, too, back in the 1980s, but it was. They may not want to know that their doctor is human, fallible, or is even an imperfect sinner, but I am.

Dr. C. and I explained to Stephanie and to my son that failure and humility are not only a part of the medical field, they are necessary to make us good health care providers. The same thing holds true for those entering the religious life. As Blessed Father James Alberione so wisely taught those aspirants who believed they should be holy and religious at the outset: no one starts from perfection. We all must be patient in the journey to becoming the best we can be in this life and for eternity. Blessed Father Alberione explained that we all must traverse our journey and vocation "prudently, humbly beginning, but with small and daily steps ahead, everything progresses with healthy balance and one obtains merit before God and before men" (Opera Omnia III, 37). Overcoming failures is the surest way to becoming a better person. As my father always taught us, “the only true mistakes in life are the ones that you don’t learn from.”

All health care providers are willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary for the health and human dignity of every child, woman, and man. They also must accept that they are imperfect human beings. The next generation of religious and laity must understand and accept their imperfection. St. Paul reminds us “there is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

In a way, it is a relief to know we are not expected to be perfect. If more women and men studying to enter the health care field knew and accepted this fact that seems obvious to most, the rate of suicidal thoughts for fourth-year medical students would be less than the current rate of 9.4%. I can tell you that Stephanie and my son are going to be excellent health care providers in the future. As Blessed Father Alberione pointed out, they are starting with humble beginnings and advancing slowly. They will certainly experience failures and even make some mistakes as they study to become excellent clinicians, but like it or not, we all did. Our goal is not to start from perfection, but to arrive at that place where Christ calls us to be. I have no doubt that is exactly where Stephanie and my son will end up!


Jeffrey E. Mathews, MD, has been a Pauline Cooperator since October 11, 2009. He and his wife, Carolyn, live in St. Louis, MO, and are blessed with three sons and two daughters (two out of college, two in college, and one in high school). Dr. Mathews, a gastroenterologist, is trying really hard to improve his Spanish for his annual medical mission trip to Honduras.

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