Katie's operation

[Narrative by my mother]

An unknown Army photographer recorded this scene in Texas as Doctor Pott does surgery during his wartime stint at Dalhart Army Air Base. But my story here is of Katie, who had her surgery after the war in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Katie was one of our favorite patients. A young wife and mother, she suffered from cholecystitis and needed a gall bladder operation. More than a little chubby, the doctor advised her to lose weight before he would chance doing surgery. She laughingly said that everyone would love him for making her slim down at last. With real purpose and determination she denied her sweet tooth, shoved herself away from the table, walked every day, and checked in with the doctor once a month. Gradually the pounds came off. It was a great struggle for her, but she was determined, and she did it. Dr. Pott monitored all aspects of her health and finally thought her a safe prospect for surgery.

 

While the doctor was performing her surgery at the hospital, the waiting room at his office filled up. Finally the blue Pontiac swung into our parking lot and the doctor entered the back door with his black bag.

 

The smell of ether filled the room. The doctor put his bag down, handed me his coat, and then faced the wall, which he pounded with his fist and forehead. I stood, speechless, holding his fresh white office coat at the ready. He went to the sink, turned the cold water on hard, and splashed his face again and again. Then, turning the control to hot, he took a brush to his poor hands, always scrubbed raw from multiple washings per day.

 

"Katie died in surgery," he said. Holding his arms out for the clean coat, he asked "Who's first?"

 

We went through a full day's worth of patients: a post-partum check-up, a school-boy with "pink-eye"; a dear old neighborhood woman embarrassed about displaying an open and weeping area on her breast she had concealed from family; a pretty blonde teen-ager brought by her mother to discuss the child's belief she was losing her hair; the Kwekel sisters, a weight-loss patient; a gentleman in total misery with gout; and a 40-ish man who hobbled in with the aid of a cane. He was being treated for gonorrheal arthritis, and still spouting anger toward his lover.

 

One poor Dutch lady, clutching her bottle of medicine, paid 50 cents for her visit. I asked the doctor why he would ask her to even pay 50 cents. He responded "She has her dignity, you know." He drew blood from a young couple seeking a marriage license, then the boy ducked back out to the waiting room as his wife-to-be was fitted with a diaphragm. The doctor discovered she was a virgin. A middle-aged mother-of-six was examined and told she was expecting again. She sighed. A long-time patient presented with appendicitis. The doctor told him to get to the hospital. The doctor operated over the dinner hour.

 

Each patient that day received his full attention and kind care. He told me "Don't take any new appointments for tomorrow." It gave me an opening to ask about Katie. He gave me a condensed version as he left in haste for the hospital. The anesthesiologist has two tanks; one sends ether, the other oxygen. During the operation, when Dr. Pott called for the patient to have more oxygen, as she was too deeply sedated, a mistake was made and more anesthetic was delivered. The nurse also signaled for more oxygen, but the same mistake was repeated. And again and again. The patient, our dear Katie, was anesthetized to death. It was found later that the tanks were reversed. It's hard to believe that this could have happened.

 

The next evening Dr. Pott, the anesthesiologist, and another involved doctor went to Katie's parents' home to present their apologies to them and to Katie's husband. I can't imagine what could have been said.

 

I had only recently written a $7,000 check to cover a year of the doctor's malpractice insurance. It didn't become an issue. Katie’s kinfolk, devout and principled, though bereft, never mentioned lawsuit.

 

How people, medicine, and times have changed.

 

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Taken on June 3, 2007