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Trisha Torrey

A Doctor's Apology, An Intensely Moving Experience

By February 11, 2008

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Some of you have read my misdiagnosis story -- the story of my journey into patient empowerment, and why I am your guide here at About.com.

If you've read it, then you know what a difficult experience it was, and how angry I was when it was over. But it's also what changed my life and my career -- both good things -- and because I believe everything happens for a reason, I hold no grudges nor animosity toward the doctors who caused that horrendous experience.

Among the dozen doctors who erred during my misdiagnosis odyssey, there was one, the director of the hematopathology lab that misdiagnosed me, who was very forthcoming after my misdiagnosis was confirmed. He took time with me on the phone, exchanged email with me -- and in general, helped me understand how it could have happened. It didn't make it better, but it certainly made it more understandable.

Fast forward to today, 3-1/2 years later, and an experience that has rattled me, moved me, and which is important to share with you. Today, for the first time, I met that hematopathologist, the man who was partially responsible, but was willing to explain. I attended a program which included him as a panelist, and afterwards I introduced myself.

We shook hands, we even hugged -- and he proceeded to tell me about all the changes they have made in his lab, based on the procedure holes uncovered during my diagnosis. I was floored. He thanked me for my post-misdiagnosis follow up that exposed the problems. He invited me to visit the lab. And then.... he apologized.

If you've ever been misdiagnosed, have been the victim of a medical error, have lost a loved one due to a medical mistake, or been harmed by the system in any way, you will understand what happened next.

I wept, all the way home.

It's like this huge elephant has exited the room, a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. You choose your cliché. The emotion is overwhelming.

And yes - there's a lesson here, too. The idea of a doctor apologizing to a patient was unheard of as few as 5 years ago. I first came upon the concept shortly after my misdiagnosis was resolved, through a piece run by CBS news. I promptly printed it off and mailed it to the doctors involved in my misdiagnosis. Then in 2007, CBS aired still another piece that talks about the physician's relief once the apology is made.

Since then, the idea has taken off. Now 29 states have enacted legislation that allows for doctors to apologize, shielding them from legal problems for doing so. There is even a program called Sorry Works that teaches doctors just how to apologize to patients.

I hope you never need to hear those words, "I'm sorry" from a medical provider. But if you have been hurt by a doctor or another practitioner, or if the system has otherwise wronged you, know how important it will be to hear that apology from him/her.

Intensely moving barely begins to touch it. The sense of relief is almost overwhelming.

You'll be advised to have a full box of tissues handy. You'll need them.

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