Suffering Superheroes

We are all patients--what does that mean?

What I remember most about Mr J is his smile. He smiled through his deposition, through the trial, and even when he lost his case. It was more than a smile, really. It was a mischievous grin, especially fitting on a man who looked a bit like a leprechaun. He was small in stature, big in personality–and he was an amputee. He’d had a surgery on his leg, the wound had become infected, and he had to have an amputation. He’d sued his surgeon for failing to diagnose the infection. These infection cases are frustrating for everyone involved. Patients want medicine to be perfect. So do doctors. Medicine isn’t perfect, though, and infections happen in the absence of negligence. That is what the jury had decided happened here. Throughout the course of the case, I never saw Mr J’s smile waver. I shouldn’t have expected any less. When I took his deposition he told me he had run a marathon, done long distance bike rides for charities, and refused any nurses to care for him in his home. He said his family called him “Superman”. He was surely in pain, but he didn’t appear to suffer.

The word patient comes from a Latin word meaning “I am suffering.” I’ve taken hundreds of patients’ depositions in my years defending medical malpractice cases. Some of those patients were obviously suffering. But others were thriving, growing, learning, teaching, and smiling. This weekend I am presenting at Stanford MedX, where patients are giving presentations on the same stages as doctors and researchers. The people who organize this event recognize that patients could be more than those who suffer. Patients could be the secret to the cure for cancer, ALS, MS, and autoimmune diseases. Healthcare is in constant flux, and many are looking for a disruptor, some superhero to sweep in and change everything. Meanwhile, patients are slowly, surely and patiently making change in their own lives. They’re helping researchers make discoveries. They’re sharing all they’ve learned. They might be suffering–but they’re also kicking ass.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” (Haruki Murakami) I think for those in real pain, that probably depends on the day. But I know that we need to see patients as more than those who suffer. Doctors, especially, can benefit from this change in perspective. The Latin root of the word doctor is “to teach”. I’ve also defended hundreds of doctors, and some are good teachers, while some need intense communication coaching just to get through their depositions. All doctors, though, should be students, learning from and with their patients. I’m obsessed with the power of potential, and I see vast potential in healthcare. When patients and doctors put down their Latin roots and pick up some vulnerability, curiosity, imagination, and attention, the potential is endless. I’m excited to get to Stanford MedX this weekend. I just may see some superheroes there….

Originally published at

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