They say that “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.” In sports, that was the battle cry of Vince Lombardi‘s Green Bay Packers football team in the 60’s. As a sports fan, I can relate to this motivational quote to push athletes to win at all costs. Just yesterday, in the Miss Universe beauty pageant, this “win at all cost” mindset was again highlighted by the dissenting opinion of some Filipinos regarding Shamcey Supsup’s 4th place finish. We are naturally inclined to to compete, and when we end up on the short end of the stick, there is a certain tendency to justify the underachievement. Hurt and frustration follow a loss, particularly when success seems to be within reach. When it comes to medical management, is this is also the case for physicians? Am I considered a failure if a patient dies under my watch?
When I was a young physician in training, I had this notion that I must keep all my patients alive at all costs. I could not let my patients die – it simply was not acceptable. If my patient dies, I would be subjected to a top-to-bottom scrutiny by my superiors. This created in me a feeling that the good doctors before me had superhuman abilities, for whatever I did, some patients still passed when I was on duty. Dealing with heart attacks, bleeding disorders, cancers, traumatic injuries – I had to rack my brains to find ways to prolong life. And so what I thought about all the time was to cover my tracks. I needed to make sure that I never committed any glaring mistakes in managing my patients. My perception back then was, in the medical profession, there was no room for error.
One book, however, helped me to accept failure as part of life. In Failing Forward by leadership expert John C. Maxwell, he mentioned a very important quote that had a significant impact on my future as a physician. According to Dr. Maxwell, “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” This meant that having patients die was inevitable, but what matters are the lessons that one takes away from the experience of managing a dying patient. From that point on, I learned to see tenets of wisdom in my errors. While I still exert maximum effort in ensuring the best care for my patients, I no longer kick myself for not saving a patient’s life.
It must be emphasized that in sports, losing pushes athletes to strive even harder. A Michael Jordan commercial on failure says that he missed so many shots in his career, but those misses pushed him to perfect his game. One thing that is noteworthy about Michael Jordan’s basketball career is that he was never considered a winner when he started. In fact, he was ridiculed by some basketball analysts for having a messianic complex. But he learned the concept of team effort, and eventually, at the end of his career, he learned to accept losing even though he hated it. People asked him why he came back as an aging playing after having initially retired – after all he retired as a champion. But he was just willing to go through the process again, win or lose, because he simply loved the game and its challenges.
In medicine, this is also the case. Patients die, no matter how much effort is exerted to prolong life. But it must not discourage physicians to continue to care, even when cure is no longer possible. Shamcey may have lost the Miss Universe title, but she earned so much respect for her reply during the crucial Q and A stage of the pageant. Even the year before, Venus Raj was considered a “failure” for her “Major, major” answer. Who would have thought that she would now have a regular newspaper column entitled “Major, major”. There is a point of wisdom here – as emphasized by Dr. Maxwell – that in the midst of mistakes and supposed errors in life, we can always rise up and shine even brighter through a positive mental attitude.
There are things that are out of our control. No matter how skilled and talented we are, adverse events happen. Perhaps what is important is our desire to keep doing the right thing – to keep doing what is best – and to let our Creator take care of the rest. After all, in the art of healing, winning the heart of a patient simply entails an unwavering effort to be the best physician you can be.