Dr. Grey’s Story

My day started out well. I was going to the OR and I think that is the best part of my job. I was excising a spindle cell tumor that was in the tail of the parotid. Susan is a friend of mine, a nurse at the hospital where we were doing the procedure. She had taken care of both my children in the nursery when they were born.

The surgery took longer than I expected and the tumor was adjacent to the marginal mandibular branch of the facial nerve. However, I was able to remove the tumor and I thought, preserve the nerve. When I checked on her in the PACU she had an asymmetric smile. The nerve was clearly injured. My heart sunk to the floor. I talked to her family and told them about the nerve and my hope that this was a temporary condition.

The situation went from bad to worse. The extent of the paralysis extended over the next few days. She had intractable headaches and we both eventually realized she needed an eye patch. Her speech, swallowing and appearance were all affected. My worst nightmare had come to life. I had hurt someone that I cared about. I felt alone, shamed, lost confidence in my abilities and found no support at the hospital. Susan is a prominent figure at the hospital and despite the HIPAA regulations I would get questions about her case from the medical staff. Her friends and family were urging her to sue. This deepened our despair. I felt as if I were being judged by the entire hospital staff. Eventually, she got the specialty care that she needed to help with this injury and continues to improve, not without some accommodations.

Fortunately, Susan found MITSS. Here was an organization committed to helping us deal with this painful situation. They were able to give Susan support and reinforce the courage that she has shown thought this ordeal. She is committed to help others that are struggling with similar experiences and has shown a bravery and determination I find awe inspiring.

In spite of her injuries, she walks with a grace that someday I hope I can achieve.

Trauma Team

Patient, Anesthesiologist Allied

When Linda Kenney entered the hospital for a total ankle replacement four years ago, she was prepared for the discomfort and extended recuperation that a major orthopedic procedure would bring.

What she didn’t count on was a medical accident that nearly took her life even before she got to the operating room.

During a “block” or local anesthetic prior to surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the sedative somehow entered her bloodstream even though a doctor had taken all the proper precautions.

Kenney’s heart stopped, but she survived after heroic intervention by doctors and nurses.

The aftermath, however, left her emotionally battered and her family bitter.

Now the mother of three is hoping to aid victims of similar problems through a pioneering organization she founded that offers counseling and support groups.

And she’s doing so with the support of her anesthesiologist, whom she describes as the unseen victim of what she has come to call “medically induced trauma”.

“What this is about is helping people get better,” said Kenney, who has many traumas are not the fault of the physician or hospital.  “It’s not about lawsuits.”

Kenney last year founded Medically Induced Trauma Support Services, a nonprofit agency that helps patients and their families following unexpected complications due to medical treatment, whether caused by error or other circumstances.  The group has a board of directors and is about to start its first counseling sessions.

Kenney, a former hospital administrative secretary, felt confident when she entered the hospital in the fall of 1999.  She decided with the help of her doctor, Holliston anesthesiologist Rick Van Pelt, to have a local rather than general anesthetic.  But things went terribly wrong after Van Pelt noticed Kenney becoming very disorientated.

In minutes, she went into cardiac arrest.  Kenney was placed on a heart-lung machine for more than two hours and remained in the hospital for eight days.

But that didn’t mean Kenney wasn’t affected.

Kenney’s family was badly frightened by the close call, and she found herself becoming emotionally needy.

“Months after I’d be driving down the street and burst into tears,” she said.  “Everybody else has moved on.  I wondered if I was going crazy.”

Van Pelt, though he had done nothing wrong, also suffered. The doctor felt hostility from Kenney’s family and the near tragedy left him seeing his medical career in a new light.

“I felt as if a wall had gone up,” said Van Pelt, even though colleagues and hospital associates did their best to show support. “No physician likes to accept failure. There’s always a perception that if something goes wrong, you’ve failed.”

Making matters worse was what Kenney characterizes as the hospital’s reluctance to answer her questions – a reluctance she believes stemmed from a lawsuit.

“I had called up and naively asked for the names of the people who gave me CPR,” Kenney said. “I didn’t want to sue them, I wanted to thank them.” She never received the information.

The walls Kenney and Van Pelt felt began to tumble months after the incident when, with some trepidation, they talked for the first time on the phone.  Their conversation eventually led to a meeting during which Kenney spoke of her desire to help others.

Statistics regarding medical trauma are hard to quantify, but Kenney says such incidents are probably more common than most people think.

“Everybody knows someone, or has a friend who knows someone, who’s been affected,” she said. In fact, a Harvard study suggests that cases involving medical error alone may be responsible for as many as a million patient injuries each year.

Medically Induced Trauma Support Services is currently the only organization Kenney and Van Pelt know of that exists primarily to serve trauma victims. At Van Pelt’s suggestion, Brigham and Women’s agreed to provide referrals and host the group’s programs which include the services of a professional psychologist.

Both Kenney and Van Pelt say they believe the lack of counseling and recovery systems for victims of medical trauma is one of the unseen cracks in the American Healthcare system. Currently, Kenney says, mutual suspicion and the high stakes of potential malpractice claims make it difficult for health care providers and victims to get together. But that could change if MITSS’s program begins to show results.

If it does, there could be implications for both doctors and consumers.  Intervention on the MITSS model could reduce patient stress and help victims speed the healing process, Kenney says.  In turn, greater willingness health care providers to refer patients to such programs could provide a safety valve in cases that might otherwise wind up in court.