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Failure Matters

July 27, 2021

“But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7, NIV).

I was driving back from a satellite clinic when her daughter called. “The ambulance is taking my mom to the emergency room. She’s really sick.” Before I reached the hospital, my patient died of septic shock. This wasn’t supposed to be. I had never seen a patient die with the treatment I had given her. Later that day I combed through the chart to see if I had made mistakes. I could find none, but I asked Risk Management to send the chart out for peer review. I loved this patient and her daughter. I know of nothing I did wrong, but somehow either the decision I had made to treat her, or the way in which it was carried out, or the underlying disease itself was responsible for her death. Three days later, I am awake at night, grieving over her daughter’s great sadness.

What we do matters, especially when it touches that which we define ourselves to be.

We pour out our lives to help patients overcome serious problems. Those for whom we care are human beings whom God has formed in His image. He has placed them in our hands as caretakers to prevent the biology of their lives from disrupting the fulfillment of their lives planned by God.

But our patients may do poorly, and for many reasons. Most often, they fail in health as the result of bad disease in spite of good care. We are responsible for that good care through study, hard work, long hours and sometimes real sacrifice. This is the path God chose us to follow, and we should follow it well or move on to another occupation.

Sometimes our patients do poorly because of our mistakes, either in judgment or performance. This happens to all of us if we practice long enough. These mistakes may come because of system failures, or personal failures, or mistakes by others that we have compounded. We are human and fallible, and we will fail. Our goal should be to never fail by doing the things that prevent that failure, but we will fail, hopefully rarely.

How we handle that failure demonstrates either a true picture of Christ-followers to the world, or a distorted picture that turns people away from the Christ we follow. Do our hearts break for the patient and their family, or primarily spasm in fear for ourselves? Are we honest, compassionate and sacrificial with our response in public? Do we pray with fellow Christians for the patient and their family? Do we acknowledge our fallibility before God and seek His mercy? Do we recommit to excellence and to the things necessary to accomplish that excellence again?

Do we seek within our failings to glorify God, as paradoxical as that might sound?

God wants to be glorified in our failures—though this is only possible through His Spirit working in us. On the Sabbath after Jesus died, the whole world, including those who loved Him most, perceived Him to be a failure. His actions had broken the hearts of those who followed Him, just as their actions had broken His. And from that Sabbath of His failures, Easter would dawn.

I am not Jesus, but I know He died so that His Easter could dawn for my failures as well.

Dear God,
Let me trust You and glorify You in my failures, and please protect others from being harmed by my imperfection.

Al Weir, MD

Al Weir, MD

After leaving academic medicine, Dr. Weir served in private practice at the West Clinic in Memphis, Tennessee from 1991-2005 before joining the CMDA staff as Vice President of Campus & Community Ministries where he served for three years from 2005-2008. He is presently Professor of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Program Director for the Hematology/Oncology fellowship program. He is also President of Albanian Health Fund, an educational ministry to Albania where he has been serving for 20 years. He is the author of two books: When Your Doctor Has Bad News and Practice by the Book. Dr. Weir’s work has also been published in many medical journals and other publications. Al and his wife Becky live in Memphis, Tennessee, and they have three children and three grandchildren. Dr. Weir is currently serving on CMDA's Board of Trustees.

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