When I was five I had my first surgery, to correct a bad case of lazy eye. In the waiting room beforehand, I badgered my mom constantly: “Could I die? People die in surgery, right? Is there any chance — I mean any chance — I could die?”
And my poor mom, finally at her wit’s end, admitted that yes, there was the very slimmest of chances.
From that moment forward, the soundtrack inside my head was a steady dirge of farewells. Goodbye, mother. Goodbye, father. Goodbye, florescent ceiling fixtures. I hardly knew ye.
And so on and so forth until I woke up after surgery and discovered that (a) I wasn’t dead, (b) I had no interest in the ice cream I had been promised, and (c) there was a frickin’ NEEDLE in my ARM!
Fast forward to today, when I found myself at East Emory Hospital. Not for anything special, just a routine test my doctor wanted me to have. After I cooled my heels for twenty minutes or so in the waiting room, a receptionist asked me over to a desk.
“Do you have a living will?” she asked.
“I need you to initial here, here, here, and sign here.”
I looked over the form she pushed across the desk, which basically stated that even though this was a routine procedure, I could die due to allergic reaction, infection, bleeding, equipment failure, supervillain attack, or maybe for no reason at all.
Not being quite the drama queen I was when I was five, I initialed, initialed, initialed, and signed with aplomb. But I had to wonder: at what point to informed consent forms become… uninformative?
Once again, I’ll repeat that this was a routine test. No scalpels were involved. My biggest worry was whether I’d get done early enough to snag myself a Bacon, Egg, & Cheese McGriddle, not whether Mark had enough insurance to pay off my casket. Yet here I was, staring down a big long disclaimer list that said I could die.
If you’re handed a big long disclaimer list that says you could die every time you walk into a hospital, don’t you just start to consider them par for the course? Don’t you stop reading them, and instead start judging the seriousness of your visit by other cues, like how solicitous the nurses are, or how many other people seem to be there for the same thing?
Don’t the forms, at this point, just protect the hospital from lawsuit instead of actually protecting the patient from unanticipated risk?
And is there any way this system could be better?
I gotta think that the answer to the last question is “Yes.” How to get there, I don’t really know, but I suppose it starts with personal responsibility — both for the medical professionals, and for the patient. Any way you slice it, I’m pretty sure of three things:
- No one in that waiting room expected me to actually read that form.
- A warning constantly repeated ceases to warn.
- Every year, lawyers make our lives a little bit worse.