I was furious. My 83 year old mother had arrived at the hospital via ambulance. She was having trouble breathing and chest pains. Her thin body was trembling and her words were slurred.
The doctor in the ER strode into the examining room. “Hey, have you been drinking?” he asked her with a humorless laugh. Everything he did and said after that telegraphed “I don’t give a hoot.” He talked with the nurses about his expensive vacation and brushed off questions about mom’s condition. We were angry at how cavalierly this guy was treating our mother. He diagnosed pneumonia, but sent her home without a prescription for oxygen. Later that day, her condition was so serious, we drove her to a hospital 30 miles away where she remained for four days.
A week later, Mom suffered complications and was back in the ER. That same doctor was there. (We had penned, but not yet sent, a letter of bitter complaint.) My brother and I told the admitting nurse that we didn’t want him to treat mom because we had a bad experience with him last time. As we waited for a different doctor, my brother and I could see this man going over charts. It suddenly seemed juvenile not to tell him ourselves why we didn’t want him near our mother. I asked to speak to him in the hall. I told him how disappointed we had been with how he had treated our mother previously and gave some specifics.
He said he didn’t remember her or us. He said flatly, “I don’t know what I’m apologizing for, but I’m sorry.” He walked away.
My brother and I looked at each other and wondered, “What just happened?” Well at least we had spoken the truth as we saw it and had communicated directly. We decided to send the letter of complaint later the next day.
About 45 minutes later as we sat next to my mother’s bed, my brother’s cell phone rang. It was the doctor apologizing profusely. He said he realized he had been right at the end of his shift and probably wasn’t at his best. He then went on to tell my brother how much it means to him to practice good medicine and to take good care of people. He said he hadn’t been aware of how he was coming across. “Apology accepted,” I heard my brother say and “Thank you very much for calling me.”
That call lifted such a heavy burden of anger off all our shoulders. I could literally breathe more freely. It was as if I had put down a bag of rocks. We agreed that it was no longer necessary to send a complaint letter. These very real feelings of relief reinforced for me how anger consumes so much energy from our minds and bodies. It takes energy to stay mad. I would like to devote that energy to other things.
The experience also reminded me how powerful a sincere apology can be. I look at that doctor with new eyes. I believe that if mom has to be treated by him again in the future, that she will get considerate and thorough care. It’s a good lesson. A sincere and humble apology has the power to heal.
Author and consultant Kathleen A. Paris, Ph.D., speaks on healthy workplaces, provides consulting for strategic planning, process improvement and redesign, and professional development for leaders. Read more »