COLUMN: Our health system must seek out its flaws

The doctors said the surgery went about as well as could have been expected. Two months later she was dead.

COLUMN: Our health system must seek out its flaws

Five years ago this January, my aunt died. She was 52 and had been diagnosed with cancer just a few months prior.

With no kids of her own, she was essentially a third parent to my brother and me. Her death racked my family, leaving huge wounds that haven’t yet healed and probably never will.

In that, my family is hardly alone.

At the time, we were not entirely satisfied with the system’s care for my aunt. (She was treated in Vernon, by a hospital administered by Interior Health, not Fraser Health.) As recent stories illustrate too well, disenchantment with the medical system is hardly rare.

But the last week has also caused me to re-evaluate – and try to remember – a decision I made shortly after my aunt’s death in Vernon.

In November, I clutched my aunt’s hand at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver before she entered surgery.

“I don’t want to die,” she said.

The doctors later said the surgery went about as well as could have been expected. Two months later she was dead.

Later, I would hear family members question why the surgery didn’t occur sooner. Specifics problems were mentioned. There were papers. A desk. Waiting.

In January, in the days following that night when my aunt died before my eyes, I didn’t want to think of any of that. Although I considered filing a complaint of some kind, in some venue, I declined. I shunted my misgivings to the side and tried to carry on.

I’ve thought back to that time over the past week while listening to those unhappy with various aspects of emergency room treatment. Some have filed complaints. Others haven’t, preferring to talk to the media rather than the system they have lost trust in.

I wonder how many people have remained silent over the years, either because talking about it is too painful, or because of lingering distrust of the health care system’s ability to compassionately hear their story.

I am one of them, I realize. And there is no shame in it. But it’s also the case that health officials can only fix the problems they know about.

Mistakes will happen in any profession. Health care workers – including doctors, but also nurses and others who deal with patients – face extraordinary pressure and no one is perfect. And sometimes, everything goes right, a decision is made based on the odds, and a patient still dies. The odds, after all, were never in my aunt’s favour.

We need to understand the imperfect nature of all workers, and build safeguards and capacity. Doctors will never be able to save everyone, but risks and delays can be minimized.

To do so, it’s vital that problems be brought to the surface.

Families and surviving patients need to feel complaints are welcomed and needed, and that by raising issues they may prevent another family’s heartbreak. That’s a message that needs to come both from administrators and the Fraser Health brass, but also from individual doctors and other health care professionals.

And it needs to be shouted. I’ve been covering health care for some time. I’ve yet to see a news release or public relations push for more information about patients’ concerns.

We need a system that not only accepts criticism, but actively seeks it out.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at the Abbotsford News.