Up Front: May 2005

After the fall

She fell outside her doctor’s office after her checkup, losing her balance when she stepped off the pavement onto the grass. There’s nothing unusual about an 84-year-old woman falling. And if it had to happen, it’s hard to imagine a better place — other than an emergency room — for it to occur.

Her head bashed the concrete. But that didn’t hurt as much as her left arm, with which she had tried to break the fall. A man driving by stopped and helped her to her feet. She went back inside: Her bones were getting so brittle, her doctor had once told her, any fall could snap one. He felt her forearm. Nothing, he assured her, was broken. He didn’t bother to X-ray it. Nobody even looked at the knot swelling on the back of her head. The waiting room was full. It was a busy day. She got in her car and drove home.

When the daughter who lives with her came home from work four hours later, she found her mother waiting — in pain, forearm swelling, nauseated. The daughter, a medical technician, knew that people get sick to their stomachs when a fracture leaks marrow into the bloodstream. She took her mother to an urgent-care center, which X-rayed the arm. It was broken in two places. The limb was so swollen they had to cut the wedding ring off her finger.

When the daughter — my sister-in-law — called to tell the doctor, he wanted to see the X-rays. Dreams of trial lawyers no doubt deviled his sleep that night. But when my mother-in-law talked to my wife the following day, the first thing she said was she wasn’t going to sue him. But she knew she had to find another doctor: She couldn’t go back to this one.

She asked me not to write anything about it. But rarely a month goes by that this magazine doesn’t carry something — whether it’s a major piece such as last July’s cover story or an item as brief as a Tattler — about the mess we’ve made of our health-care system. We believe this is one of the most important issues facing not only business but our whole society. Though many in the medical community are doing their damndest to demonize plaintiffs’ attorneys and lay the blame on lawyers’ venality and greed, an incident such as this one can’t help but remind us: The boogeyman isn’t always the one carrying the briefcase.