When Doctors Fail


Our Wednesday evening drives have become a little bit of a deep question asking time. I’m not sure what prompts my six year old boy to go to that deep thinking place when he plops down into his booster seat. He buckles in. I start driving, typically music is playing. And he begins to stare out the window.

Then, I hear, “Mommy, what happens when doctors fail?”

I generally hear the question the first time, but I kind of don’t believe it. So, I turn the volume down and ask him, “what did you say, buddy?”

Perhaps, like his mother, when his body is forced to physically stop moving, his mind goes into busy “insightful” mode. He overwhelms me with these questions that are so spontaneous, challenging and amazing all at the same time.

“What happens when doctors fail?”

Yep. I heard it. I try to quickly think of why he may be asking this, what he wants to learn, etc. All in about 30 seconds because now his brothers have chimed in with their own thoughts. He’s urging them, “it’s my turn to talk.” Wait, more like, “IT’s MYYY TURN TO TALK!”  I have implemented a “turn to talk” system in the van, especially. When questions are getting hurled at you from behind, it’s dangerous. You have got to get organized.

I start my often long, yet honest and developmentally friendly answer. “Doctors are people. People make mistakes. Doctors aren’t God. Sometimes, doctors try their very best to help someone, but they still fail. Our bodies are really complicated….”And I think I said some other stuff. But, again, not enough.

“But what happens to PEOPLE when the doctors fail?” He asks, in more of an exclaimatory tone.

“People can die.” There I said it. The “D” word. And I continue on. “Sometimes, if someone’s body is hurt really badly or really sick or even old, like Grandma Fritz’s, it can be really hard for doctors to fix it. Even if they try their hardest. Grandma’s heart has been working for a long time, it’s getting tired.”

“Yeah, like a thousand days.” He responds.

Even more than that, I say. “Like 93 years. Do you know how many days that is? Thousands and thousands and thousands of days. Her heart has been working hard all of the days she’s been alive. And it’s never stopped. And even if the doctors tried to fix her heart, they couldn’t fix it.”

I even talk to them about my own body. And how I have gone to doctors in a lot of different states who have tried to fix mine, but a lot of doctors have failed. Even the best ones couldn’t fix the part of mine that was broken. Even though they tried their hardest.

“But you didn’t die.” His twin brother chimes in.

“You’re right. ” Pretty stinking wise little six year olds.

I’m feeling pretty good about the fact that I have provided living proof that doctors can fail and yet, you still can live. I knew all of those failed surgeries would come in handy. Teachable moments. Just wasn’t sure when. And here it is. I have thrown myself into the road. I created a diversion. We have taken a sharp U-turn away from a death conversation. We have enough of them. We are almost to our destination. And for the hundredth time, I wish I had a hidden recorder in the van. But of course, then these conversations may not happen.

We get to where we are going. Julian says, “So, they always try their hardest?”

I am hoping that he has not watched some medical show or consulted some other source. And that he is just summarizing our conversation.

I say, “Yes. Doctors always try their very best to help people get better. They try their hardest.”

I’m pretty sure he heard me as he was jumping out of the car onto my parents driveway, greeted by a dog entourage. Unbuckled and now physically revved and raring to go. After all, he has been in the car for 15 long minutes. I take a moment and then say, again, out loud, outside, as if I am convincing myself now, “they always try their hardest.” I hope.

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