By MAYURA DESHPANDE
I once made a serious error. The patient had taken an overdose of paracetamol, but because I was single-handedly covering three inpatient acute psychiatric wards due to sickness of two other trainees which medical HR had been unable to cover, with a lot of agency nurses who did not know any of the patients well at all, and also because this patient frequently said she had taken overdoses when she had not, and declined to let me take bloods to test for paracetamol levels, I believed she was crying wolf. She collapsed several hours later, and died. I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, inadequacy, but also fear – was this the end of my career? I was a trainee psychiatrist at the time – and was immensely fortunate in that my supervising consultant was robust in his defence of me, supported me, whilst fronting the complaint from the patient’s family and attending the inquest. He had been covering two outpatient clinics himself while I was on the ward.
The patient was only 26 years old. Her parents were very angry with me, and not unreasonably so; at the time, it seemed to me that they wanted me to suffer. Twenty years later, I believe they wanted to understand how I made the decision I did. Eventually, the consultant arranged for me to meet the parents. They were very kind to me, all of them, I realise that now. I wasn’t able to give them the answers they wanted. I just cried and said I was sorry.
The mother sent the consultant a letter afterwards which he gave me when I was about to complete that training placement. I did not read it for many months. When I did, I cried. The mother described her daughter’s childhood, the family’s loss, and her own incomprehension that the NHS – which she and generations of her family had venerated as a great institution – could have failed her child. It said very little about me, certainly didn’t seek to blame me, but said a few times that she wanted justice for her daughter. It was an exploration of grief by a bereft mother.
I often think about the mother – I cannot recall the face of the 26 year old patient – but remember perfectly well the mother, who said very little, didn’t even cry, leaving her husband to talk incoherently about justice and a referral to the GMC and the police (they did not do any of these things). And I often ponder the nature of justice they wanted. This was well before the advent of Duty of Candour and rigorously completed serious incident investigations.
Did they get justice? The coroner returned a verdict of suicide, but failed to acknowledge the systemic problems of lack of staff, merely noting that there had a “gap in clinical assessment”. It was not untrue, yet I experienced it as unfair. The consultant reminded me that I was fortunate that the family had not made more fuss. So I let it be. Until the case of Dr Bawa-Garba.