Marty and Gwen  Survivors

Marty and Gwen Survivors

Meet Marty and Gwen

Marty is a master carpenter who for years molded wood into the most magnificent heirloom furniture imaginable. He had a thriving architectural woodworking business and was always in demand. Gwen worked as a fund raiser and health policy advocate for a university health system.

In 2001, as Marty was turning 50, he was examined because he had some blood in his stool.  During his colonoscopy a polyp was found near the rectum and was removed.  In retrospect the polyp base had not been completely removed. He was told the polyp had cancer cells, but he was never scheduled for a follow-up colonoscopy. In the following seven years no one in whose care he was under ever recommended that he be seen every year.

In September 2005 Marty complained to his primary care physician that he had noticed blood in the rectal area. He was examined and told this was due to a hemorrhoid. Again in 2006 he noted blood on the toilet paper, and again he was told it was caused by a hemorrhoid. He trusted his physician, after all it was “not his place to question or quibble”. In mid-2007 he called the physician’s office complaining of globs of blood from the rectum and again was told it was just his hemorrhoid.

In July 2008 he was diagnosed with a malignant neoplasm of the rectum, stage IV cancer, meaning the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Marty was devastated. He had trusted his physicians. But he soon learned that he had not received the standard of care he deserved. Rectal bleeding should have been taken more seriously. An entire academic health center had failed him.

He was told by the first surgeon he saw that he had the worst colon cancer she had ever seen, and that he would be required to wear a colostomy bag for the remainder of his life. She demonstrated no empathy for his situation. Discouraged Marty thought about giving up, but Gwen would have not part of surrender. Through her connections they identified an outstanding surgeon, oncologist and radiation therapist. After extensive surgery,  high dose chemotherapy that resulted in the loss of sensation in Marty’s hands and feet, as well as extensive radiation that resulted in delayed wound healing requiring 14 months of dressing changes, Marty recovered. He is now cancer free.

Marty could have sat at home angry and depressed over what had happened to him. However, having grown up in the 60’s he remembered the words of Bob Dylan’s song The Times They Are-A Changing:  “Shake your windows. And rattle your walls”. And that is exactly what Marty has done. He met the the Chancellor of the Medical Center that had failed him in the hopes of preventing similar events from happening to others. He has spoken to healthcare providers (strike on this link to watch his eloquent presentation) describing in vivid detail both the worst and the best that our health systems have to offer.

Marty wants to be a force for change, and I hope that you will join Marty and me in our quest to reduce errors in our health care systems. The sharing of our stories can and will make a difference.

Lessons learned from Marty’s and Gwen’s experience:

  1. Problem – Marty was not provided with proper follow up instructions after his 2001 colonoscopy.
    Solution – All colonoscopy reports should include recommendations for follow up. In Marty’s case a colonoscopy should have been recommended within 3 years or earlier if he experienced rectal area pain, bleeding or anemia.
  2. Problem – His primary care physician ignored his complaints about rectal bleeding. She attributed blood on his toilet paper to a hemorrhoid, which she misdiagnosed. She made a common reasoning mistake. Her diagnosis became anchored and she was unwilling to change her diagnosis despite additional input from Marty. She failed to listen to the concerns of her patient.
    Solution – All physicians  must be aware and guard against anchoring their diagnoses. An expert diagnostician keeps an open mind, takes in new information, and changes his or her leading diagnosis accordingly. All clinicians should also consider the worst case scenario, and exclude the most dangerous diseases that could harm their patients.
  3. Problem – When Marty presented his complaints to the Chancellor of the Medical Center, the administration and physicians circled the wagons. They never apologized and claimed Marty’s illness was a complication that could not have been prevented. This forced Marty to take legal action increasing the settlement costs to the medical center and causing great emotional stress to Marty and Gwen.
    Solution – When an error occurs the caregiver and medical center administration should immediately acknowledge their error and sincerely apologize, describe the ways they will prevent similar errors from hurting patients in the future, and offer a fair monetary settlement for the harm they have caused.