It was probably our eighth or ninth admission that day, but my intern and I had given up counting. I was midway through my medical residency, already a master of efficiency. You had to be, or you’d never keep up. This one was a classic eye-roller: a nursing home patient with dementia, sent to the emergency room for an altered mental status. When you were juggling patients with acute heart failure and rampant infections, it was hard to get worked up over a demented nonagenarian who was looking a little more demented.
The trick to surviving was to shuttle patients to another area of the hospital as quickly as possible. This patient was a perfect candidate for the intermediate care unit, a holding station for patients with no active medical issues who were awaiting discharge. First we just had to rule out any treatable medical conditions — get the labs, head CT scan and chest X-ray. But the docs at the intermediate ward left at 5 p.m. and it was 4:45. I quickly scanned through the labs, called the ward’s doctor and ran through the case — demented patient, still demented, return to nursing home tomorrow.
I remember the doctor’s voice so clearly: “You’re sure the labs and everything are normal?” Yes, yes, I said, everything is fine. She hesitated, then said O.K. The intern and I high-fived each other, and bolted back to our other admissions.
The next afternoon the doctor tracked me down. Without mincing words, she told me that she’d been called overnight by the radiologist; the patient’s head CT showed an intracranial bleed. The patient was now with the neurosurgeons, getting the blood drained from inside her skull.
My body turned to stone. An intracranial bleed? You couldn’t do much worse than miss an intracranial bleed.
How had I let my craze to decrease my patient load overtake proper medical care? I had failed to check the head CT! I was appalled at myself, mortified by my negligence. I stumbled through the rest of the day, an acrid mix of shame and guilt churning inside me.
I never told anyone about my lapse — not my intern, not my attending physician, certainly not the patient’s family. I tried to rationalize it: the radiologist had caught the bleeding, and no additional harm had come to the patient.
But what if I had discharged the patient? What if I had started her on a medication like aspirin that could have worsened the bleeding? My error could easily have led to a fatal outcome. The patient was simply lucky.
In hospital lingo, this was a “near miss.” But a near miss is still an error, just one in which backup systems, oversight or sheer luck prevent harm.