A Thorn in the Flesh

A Thorn in the Flesh

A Doctor Struggles to Survive a Malpractice Suit

By James A. Walker, M.D.

Christian Medical Society Journal, Fall 1988, Volume XIX, Number 3.

I worked in a lumber yard while in college, and a number of times I got slivers in my hands. The slivers were often so irritating that I would be consumed with the thought of removing them, and at times I would have to stop work to rid myself of the irritation. These expe­riences have made it easier for me to understand the Apostle Paul's statements in II Corinthians 12:7-10 regarding his thorn in the fle h. Whatever this' thorn' was, Paul found that it irritated and con urned him enough that he pled with the Lord three times that this thorn would be removed. For nearly two years now I have lived with a thorn in my flesh which the Lord has chosen not to remove­a medical malpractice suit. The case involves a woman I treated who con­tracted tetanus after a lawn mower injury to her hand. The patient told me she had received tetanus immuniza­tions many years before. Therefore, I gave her tetanus toxoid, but not tetanus immune globulin. As it turned out, she had not been previously immunized and there­fore developed tetanu . However, he now states she gave a history of not recalling whether or not she had previously received tetanu immunization.

The incident occurred over three years ago, and I received the legal documents notifying me that I was being sued a few days before Christ­mas, 1985. During these two years, the Lord has ministered to me through His Word, through Christian writers, and through music. Before going to court I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned, with the hope that it may help other Christian physicians encountering this modem-day "thorn in the flesh."

My initial response to the suit was disbelief. I have always sought to be thorough and provide good care for my patients. I have generally had good relationships with and received positive responses from the people who looked to me for their medical care. Even though I was aware of the increasing risk of a malpractice suit, I did not expect it to happen to me.

Facing a malprac­tice trial has been a difficult experience. I am not usually a nervous person, but soon after being served the papers, I developed a tic of my eye that lasted for several weeks. I was not really angry with the patient, because I recognized the suffering she went through during her ordeal. Yet I found myself thinking about a countersuit with her lawyer. I worried about what people would think of me when they found out I was being sued, and what effect the suit would have on my reputation and my practice. During the two years since the suit was filed, there has hardly been a day when in some way the suit has not occupied my thoughts. Like a thorn in the flesh it continued to be there, sometimes sharp and painful, at other times just irritating. But God has ministered to me. He has prevented me from developing hatred and bitterness toward either the patient or her lawyer and has also taught me several valuable lessons.

The first of these lessons is that my career belongs to God, and I must entrust it, as well as the outcome of this suit, to Him. During this time I was reading Gordon MacDonald's book, Ordering Your Private World.(1) The book contrasts King Saul and John the Baptist and their responses at the time when their identities and positions came under attack. 

MacDonald identifies Saul as a person who could not separate his role as king from his person. Therefore, Saul was destroyed when he realized he was losing his position.

John, on the other hand, under­stood that he was simply a steward of the position God gave him. MacDonald defines a steward when he writes, "The task of a steward is simply to properly manage something for the owner until the owner comes to take it back,"CIJ He goes on to commend John's attitude after the crowds abandoned him to follow Jesus. "John's view of stewardship presents us with an important contem­porary principle. For his crowds may be our careers, our assets, our natural and spiritual gifts, our health. Are these things owned, or merely man­aged in the name of the One who gave them?"(2)

I realize now that my practice and my reputation are a stewardship from the Lord. Since they are His, my role is simply to do my best to manage them. God has every right to remove these things from me if in His wisdom He feels that is best. As MacDonald states, "Whether I increase or decrease is His concern, not mine."(3) This is not only a comforting thought, but a very freeing one.

Another lesson that I have learned during this time is that my purpose is to glorify God. Matthew 5: 16 states, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (NAS). My natural tendency is to want people to see my good works and glorify me, and this tendency is often increased by the respect and gratitude I receive in my role as a physician. 

Not long after I found out about the suit, our pastor preached a sennon entitled, "No Pride at Church," based on I Corinthians 1:26-31. He pointed out that our only legitimate basis for boasting is what God has done. Yet we tend to boast in ourselves by putting the best construction on what we do and by comparing ourselves with others. I realized that God was using a malpractice suit to help me understand an important principle. My position in Christ is based, not on who I am or what I have accom­plished, but on what He has done for me. Therefore any glory that arises from my life, be channeled to God. After learning that I was being sued, the wife of my best friend during internship included this paraphrase of Colossians 1 :9b-12 in a letter she wrote to us: "We are asking God that you may be filled with such wisdom that you may understand His purpose. We also pray that your outward lives, which men see, may bring credit to your Master's name, and that you may bring joy to His heart by bearing genuine Christian fruit in all that you do, and that your knowledge of God may grow yet deeper. We pray that you will be strengthened from God's glorious power, so that you may be able to pass through any experience and endure it with joy. You will be able to thank the Father because you are privileged to share the lot of the·saints who are living in the light." As the trial approaches, I am trying to evaluate how my conduct in the courtroom and my communication with my patients about the trial can bring glory to my Lord. 

Finally, I have learned much about testing and adversity through this experience. Being sued is a desert experience, and during this time I have learned about God's goodness and sufficiency. Gordon MacDonald states, "Those under pressure seek God, because there is nothing else."(4) With the suit occupying my thoughts as I drove along the road one day, I saw some roadside graffiti which stated simply, "Trust Jesus." Nor­mally I wouldn't have given that phrase a second thought, but in the midst of a wilderness experience, that is all there is to do. In "My Little Tune," Joni Eareckson Tada sings, "I'm enfolded in Jesus' arms as I sit in this chair. Nothing will bother me. I'm safe in His care." As never before I have felt God's enfolding arms, and the reality of His presence has been a great blessing. The words of the hymn, "Day by Day," have also been a comfort to me because they point out God's special care in this time of testing.

Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Fat her' s wise bestowment,
I've no cause for worry or for fear.
He, whose heart is kind beyond all measure, Gives unto each day what He deems best,
Lovingly its part of pain and pleasure, Mingling toil with peace and rest. Every day the Lord Himself is near me,
With a special mercy for each hour; All my cares He fain would bear and cheer me,
He whose name is Counsellor and Power.
The protection of His child and treasure
Is a charge that on Himself He laid; "As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,"
This the pledge to me He made.

Another benefit of testing is expressed in James 1 :2-4. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith devel­ops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking any­thing" (NIV). God's purpose as He works with me through my life is to develop in me the character of Christ.

In order to accomplish this, God at times allows testings to help me grow to maturity in Christ. As I came to realize this fact, I also understood that God is less concerned with whether I win or lose this malpractice suit than with what I have learned from the experience.

My agenda in the flesh is to win this suit and exonerate my name so my reputation and practice are preserved. God's agenda is very different. He wants to see me grow in my faith and develop those character qualities which will allow me to be more like His Son and more usable in His kingdom. This message was im­pressed on me through the words of the song, "Whatever It Takes." 

Take the dearest things to me if that's how it must he
To draw me closer to Thee;
Let the disappointments come, lonely days without the sun,
If thro' sorrow more like You I'll become!
Take my houses and lands, change my dreams and my plans,
For I'm placing my whole life in Your hands;
For whatever it takes to draw closer to You, Lord,
That's what I'll be willing to do.

If I respond correctly to this situation, God can use it to enable me to be a more mature servant of His.

Given the choice, would I choose to go through a malpractice suit? Of course I wouldn't. Paul did not enjoy his thorn in the flesh either, and that is why he prayed three times that it would be removed from him. However, God refused to remove the thorn and told him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness" (NAS). Paul was able to submit to the Lord's will o that Christ's power would dwell in him. He concludes in II Corinthians 12:10, "Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with dif­ficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (NAS). 

I would not choose to be in­volved in a malpractice suit, but in His wisdom, God is allowing me to go through this experience. I have come to realize that I am a steward of Christ in my role as a physician, and my goal is to glorify Christ. Through this time of testing I have experienced the reality of God's presence in my life, and am seeking to allow God to develop in me the characteristics of a mature man of God. Re­cently, a friend and colleague also went through a malpractice suit. The Lord gave me Prov­erbs 19:21 & 23 to share with him, and I will take these two verses with me prevails .... The fear of the Lord leads to life: then one rests content, untouched by trouble" (NIV).


1. Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1984), p. 53.

2. Ibid., p. 54.

3. Ibid., p. 61.

4. Ibid., p. 112.

James A. Walker, M.D., is a family physician in Menomonie, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1973 and completed his family practice residency at Bethesda Lutheran Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. (1977).

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