All the Mistakes That Had to be Made

There aren’t many places less comfortable, less restful, less conducive to healing than a hospital, at least not many allowed by the Geneva Convention. So, when my four-year-old daughter had to go into one for minor surgery recently, we expected an experience that was akin to being held captive overnight in a compound of obsessive/compulsive vampires who have an affinity for modular furniture and overpriced vending machines.

Luckily for us, the good people at Children’s Hospital made is a lot more pleasant than that. It was still a little short of an all-inclusive resort vacation, but really, what can you expect for $10,000 a night? (Seriously, though, she came through it like a champ and was back to 100% by the Sunday after her Friday surgery, thanks in no small part to the skill of her doctors and nurses. It took longer for my wife and me to recover from sleeping overnight on a hospital couch than it too her to recover from actual surgery.)

But one thing I kept noticing throughout this process was the structure of the process itself — the way that hospitals run on requirements and rules and backups of backups. Everyone we encountered was operating within a well-defined framework that spelled out every step they had to take. I started noticing this around the fifth time someone asked us if our daughter was allergic to anything. Everybody had the same information about her, updated with what we’d told them in our last round of questions. But everybody asked anyway, because they had to ask. It was the process.

And it struck me that, much like the warning labels on hair dryers that say “Do not use in bathtub,” each of the steps in that process had been added as a corrective to some mistake that had happened in the past. A mistake that had probably led to grievous harm for somebody. So we, today, were blessed with layers of safety that had collected over years and years of learning from mistakes.

All the instructions that we heard over and over again, the stupid heart rate monitor alarm that kept going off in our room (because the settings were apparently for “hummingbird” rather than “sleeping 4-year-old girl”), and no telling how many required steps in the actual surgery. All there because mistake after mistake in the past had taught the hospital how not to do things.

And probably a lot of these rules, like a lot of other regulations we see, were overreactions or more structure than is really necessary (eventually I took the heart rate monitor off her finger and put it on mine so it would shut up; didn’t work). But each time we encountered part of the process, I couldn’t help but think about the people involved when that process wasn’t in place, and what might have happened to them, and how it wouldn’t happen to us because of what doctors learned from it.

Nobody hates overregulation more than me, but I appreciate that sometimes there can be good intentions behind it. And I’m thankful for the learning that comes from mistakes.