Emotional toll of being a doctor

Haunted by a complication

Location: UK
Audience: All doctors
Updated: Monday 20 June 2022
Topics: Your wellbeing
Elizabeth Melton is a consultant. She writes under a pseudonym.

A baby I operated on had a post-op complication. I had gone back to correct a minor problem, then this unusual and unwelcome surprise.

The child's family were understanding, so kind to me. Lucky child, to have such lovely parents.

At the time, I was pregnant. For the first few days, I didn't think about it that much, then I started seeing flashbacks at a pregnancy yoga class when we were supposed to be visualising floating through a rainbow, then whenever I tried to relax on the sofa at home, whenever I woke up at night.

Most expectant mothers wake often at night; I was waking in tears. I had spoiled someone else's beautiful baby. In the morning I would look down on my sunny garden out of the window and think about how I had certainly spoiled this young person's enjoyment of his life for ever, and cry again.

Of course I had explained what had happened to the parents, but I felt they couldn't possibly understand how bad I had made it.

I went over and over my decision-making, how I had turned a mild problem into something with much more lasting consequences. How could I have done that? What was I thinking when I decided to operate a second time? Was it hubris, subjecting a baby to another general anaesthetic and hospital admission for my desired perfect outcome?

Of course I had explained what had happened to the parents, but I felt they couldn't possibly understand how bad I had made it.
Elizabeth Melton, Consultant

I went over each step of the operation again and again. What if I had done less, a smaller second procedure, would the complication still have happened? If only I had just waited. I was afraid being 'found out', of losing my job, on which my family depends; of GMC proceedings, of going to prison.

My husband thought I was exaggerating; I really meant it. In the run-up to maternity leave, I had to hand all my patients, including this one, to my colleagues. Surely they, also, would realise I was not up to the job, and I was afraid of sharing with them.

My patient's problem had settled by the time I delivered. I still don't know what permanent consequences there might be.

My wonderful midwife reminded me that you can't control all outcomes, that the complication was exceptionally rare. No doubt she knows this very well. She said I was going through a grieving process. With a little more hindsight, I think that was right.

After my own baby was born, I still thought of that family often: how awful it is to fast a young baby for a general anaesthetic, to come into hospital at all, and did I really have to make them come again? When my child reached the age at which I had treated my small patient, I felt sad, wondering whether the child would ever be as good as they perhaps might have been, had I stayed my hand.

I still think about this baby often, though without such distress now. Perhaps only doctors know what this is like. Maybe now I will be able to help someone else.