Making Truth-Telling Your Lifelong Practice
By Vincent Gardner, M.D.
Today's Christian Doctor, Fall 2010, Volume XLI, Number 3.
Sixty years of hiding the truth taught this doctor a very hard lesson.
About five years ago I received a tap on my shoulder. "Who tapped me?" I asked.
The answer came very clear. "I'm God." "But why are you tapping me?" God's answer was very specific.
"About sixty years ago you told a lie that you have never confessed." God said no more, but my memories were turned on.
What was the I ie that I had told and refused to confess for sixty years? I looked to see what I was doing at that time. Had I realized that I had lied, certainly I would have confessed it and attempted to make it right, I reasoned.
Now my memory became more specific. Sixty years earlier I was taking care of a young couple from a prominent family. The husband was very attentive to his wife. This was her first pregnancy. There had been no complications during the pregnancy. Now she was in labor and complaining bitterly about labor pains. I had read that intravenous procaine would be helpful. So I started an IV, which didn't seem to control the pains of her labor at all. I had also read that saddle block anesthesia was very effective and practical. I had experience with that type of anesthesia for surgery. So I did a saddle block, being careful to make it anesthetize only the lowest nerves in the spinal cord. The labor pains quit and she rested. In a little while her pains began again and continued to what seemed a normal delivery.
I came to believe that had I checked the mother's blood pressures like I should have, the baby would have been born alive. But the baby never took a breath. I gave it artificial respiration, but it never began breathing on its own. The baby was dead when it was born. But the pregnancy had been normal. The county commissioners had made me the county health officer. But since no pathologist was available, they also had made me county coroner.
So when I pronounced the baby dead, I asked for the permission to do an autopsy. I examined the tissues carefully. I found everything normal except that the kidneys appeared abnormal, even polycystic. I was so overjoyed to have found something abnormal that could be blamed for that infant's death, that I told the parents that polycystic kidneys was the cause. I didn't even look inside the kidneys to see if they really were polycystic. I subsequently learned that in newborns, the kidneys will frequently look polycystic, but when examined inside, they are normal. They just look abnormal. The technical name for these kidneys that look polycystic when they aren't is "fetal lobulation."
I became convinced that my coroner's report was wrong, and that I should not have performed a coroner exam on this particular baby due to the conflict of interests, but I never told the parents.
Since the false coroner's report had been accepted by the parents, this is the reaction I imagined the mother may have had, "Dear husband, I married you on the basis that you were a male like all the others I knew. But if you have congenital kidney problems that our baby inherited and caused his death, I don't want you to father any more babies for me." Sex ended, and the marriage collapsed.
As I look back on it now, it seems that it was my pride that kept me from admitting my malpractice. During the earlier of those sixty years, I was a member of a three doctor medical group. We all belonged to the same church in which we were active. We all held different offices such as elder, deacon, teacher, etc. But these church activities did not cause me to confess that I had withheld the truth in that one case. And as far as I am concerned, withholding the truth is the same as lying.
Now by a tap on the shoulder, I was being asked by God to express repentance and to ask for forgiveness from the father. For God loves me enough to tap my shoulder while I still have one to tap. I knew that I must repent in order to receive forgiveness.
I was able to obtain the father's phone number, in a nearby city. So I called him and confessed the lie I had told him sixty years earlier. "I did an autopsy and then told you that polycystic kidneys caused the baby's death. Now, sixty years later, I am calling to tell you I came to believe that the true cause of death was low pressure produced by the saddle block anesthesia, which I had not properly monitored. It was my fault, but I never shared this with you. I'm asking you to forgive me for that sixty-year-old lie. Being active in my church did not protect me from lying. But, recently, God gave me a tap on the shoulder, and that is why I have called." He replied immediately, "I forgive you."
Praise the Lord! The weight of my unconfessed sin and the shame that went with it was lifted.
This has been very humbling for me. My friend, if you have any unconfessed sins in your life, don't wait any longer; confess them now. I am writing especially to young doctors just graduating from medical school. God might not tap on your shoulder like He did on mine. My mistakes were made in medical practice, unintentionally. When the result was the death of that baby, I covered it up. That was my malpractice.
I know that you intend to do everything perfectly so that there will be no malpractice for you. That's what I thought when I started medical practice, but mistakes do happen. Make a decision now that you will be truthful about any malpractice. Covering it up or being deceitful about it in any way is the same as lying. If you have already told a lie, confess it now. Don't wait for God to tap your shoulder. It might never happen.
Vincent Gardner, MD, born i 11 1920, finished 111eclic2I school Jt the Jge of twenty-four and served as a general practitioner in Colorado for twenty-five years. During that time, he and his pa1t11eI·s helped to establish and man a clinic for the Navajo Indians in Monument Valley, Utah. Guilt over his malprc1ctice caused hin, to quit any type of medical practice. In 1971 he moved to Philadelphia to work in a doctor/minister team doing health education, which he did for the next thirty years in various places including New York City and Weimar, California. He joined CMDA in 1972. He has now retired. (2010).