Minor Complications Can Kill

By Dov Michaeli

Posted 11/22/11 on The Doctor Weighs In

Incredulous Dov

When I was in my medical training I was astonished one day, when I made my morning rounds, to meet G, a research mentor and dear friend, walking down the corridor dressed in a hospital gown. He was diagnosed having acoustic neuroma, a benign growth on his acoustic nerve.

G opted to get his surgery done at a New York medical center, where a well-known surgeon specializing in acoustic neuroma surgery was based.

Everybody who knew him at the school was rooting for him. On the day of surgery we were glued to the phone, waiting for news. When he didn’t wake up in the usual time, we were anxious. The staff at the NY hospital assured us that this is a minor deviation from the expected post-anesthesia course. As the “minor deviation” lasted longer and longer we got agitated. We harangued them, we pleaded to no avail. After all, we were challenging the expert’s expertise, which in the surgical world of those days was unacceptable, if not outright unprofessional. By the time the expert relented and re-opened the surgical field it was too late. Interestingly, the “minor complication” was known only to us, those who followed the surgery and its aftermath minute-by-minute. The rest of the molecular biology world was treated to the customary “minor complications” charade.

When Andy Rooney died of the same trivial-sounding cause, it awakened bitter thoughts about some surgeons and their arrogant attitude toward us, the 99%. So when I received a link from my friend Michael Millenson to Pat Mastors’s blog via KevinMD.com, it struck a chord. And the piece was so Andy Rooney I thought our readers should not be deprived of the pleasure, and the thought-provoking musings.


A few more minutes with Andy Rooney

by Pat Mastors | in Patient |

“I died last week, just a month after I said goodbye to you all from this very desk. I had a long and happy life – well, as happy as a cranky old guy could ever be. 92. Not bad. And gotta say, seeing my Margie, and Walter, and all my old friends again is great.

But then I read what killed me: ‘serious complications following minor surgery.’

Now what the heck is that?

Nobody gets run over by a ‘serious complication.’ You don’t hear about a guy getting shot in the chest with a ‘serious complication.’ Sure, I didn’t expect to live forever (well, maybe only a little bit), but I was sorta going for passing out some Saturday night into my strip steak at that great restaurant on Broadway. Maybe nodding off in my favorite chair, dreaming of reeling in a 40-pound striper. You know, not waking up. This whole ‘death by complication’ thing is just so, I don’t know … vague and annoying.

Here’s something else that bothers me. This note I got a few days ago from a lady who says she’s a fan. She talked to a reporter at a national newspaper the other day. Asked the reporter, basically, what kind of complication ‘’did me in’? The reporter said ‘No idea what killed him. Unless someone dies unusually young, we don’t deal with the cause of death.’

Now I know reporters have lots to do. I was one myself before they started paying me to just say what I think. But I guess what this reporter means is, if I was 29 instead of 92, they mighta thought it was worth asking why I went in for minor surgery and died of ‘serious complications.’

Remember a guy named John Murtha? A Congressman. Democrat from Pennsylvania. He made it to 77, a real spring chicken next to me. We were talking about this the other day, and guess what he told me? He went in the hospital last year to get his gallbladder taken out. A tiny incision, they said. Laparascopic surgery. Only he died, too. The reason, you guessed it: ‘complications of surgery.’ The docs looked really sad about it but they wouldn’t give out any details. They said they couldn’t, because of family privacy, and federal privacy laws. But you know, people talk. Someone on the inside came out with it: ‘they hit his intestines.’

John figures it’s better that people know what happened. Maybe it’ll help docs figure out a way not to hit intestines when they do that surgery next time. Now what’s wrong with that?

I know what you’re thinking. That Andy Rooney – something’s always bugging him. Well, I guess it’s like my mom told me a zillion years ago, when she asked me at dinner if I knew anything about how the window in the garage got broken. I said no because I didn’t want to admit I’d been throwing a baseball with Tommy McNamara, and I guess my aim was really off. She looked at me with that look moms have … the one that makes you squirm and try to change the subject and finally offer to do the dishes if only she’ll stop looking at you like that. She said ‘Andy, just tell the truth.’

So … do me a favor. Something killed me. And it would be good to know what. You don’t have to squirm, or do the dishes. Just tell folks what happened.”

Pat Mastors is President and CEO of Pear Health LLC.  She lost her father in 2006 from “complications of surgery.”

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