The Five Stages Of Lawsuit Grief – Part One

crispydoc Uncategorized 6 Comments

I was tired – it had been a busy winter shift and my head was spinning, but I was slowly winding down after a nice family dinner and some reading time with my daughter.  My wife and I had put our toddler to bed and were catching up when the doorbell rang.  Taking a perverse pleasure in the humiliation he strove to inflict, the stranger who asked for me announced loudly enough for the neighbors to hear that I’d been served papers in my first lawsuit.

Being named in a lawsuit chafed at my core sense of self.  As an emergency physician, I prided myself on taking care of everyone – uninsured, intoxicated, entitled, addicted, and just plain unfortunate.  I had chosen to work in a field where many of my patients would likely never pay me for my services because I felt strongly about the social justice component of my job.  In addition, I’ve always prided myself on taking a little more time with patients through difficult moments and explaining my rationale in lay terms – you’re going to sue the hand-holder?  I’m using my powers for good, not evil – how can anyone possibly be out to get me? I collected the paperwork associated with the suit, and – in a brief moment of clarity – filed it in the farthest recesses of the house where I was least likely to encounter it.  It took a while to wrap my head around the fact that I could even be in the crosshairs of a lawsuit.
It took about a week for the reality to sink in, after which I became furious at my patients – how dare they turn on me!  I assumed a bunker mentality where every patient was out to get me, just waiting to file a frivolous lawsuit.  Every encounter became a landmine, the ordnance just waiting to explode underfoot.  I became paranoid and defensive – my dictated charts for an ankle sprain became as long as my dictated charts for an intubated ICU admission.  My efficiency plummeted as I stayed later after each shift trying my best to dictate bulletproof charts.  The Who’s “We won’t get fooled again!” could have been my theme song for this stretch of paranoia.


The hubris of a physician knows no bounds.  As the details of my case emerged, it seemed that every legal procedural I’d ever watched unrealistically empowered me to try to direct the attorneys who patiently heard me out and managed never to let me catch them rolling their eyes.  It wasn’t necessarily that I felt my knowledge of medicine extended to other realms (it obviously did not), nor that my eery familiarity with the plots of “LA Law” gave me some special snowflake insight into the corridors of justice.  This phase was a desperate assertion of control in the face of feeling completely helpless.  In the ED, I dealt with chaos every day, yet in my life this enormous bit of chaos haunted me daily, remaining beyond my ability to impose external control

The timing of the lawsuit could not have been worse.  I was married with one kid in diapers, and another on the way. We had just bid on a home, and overnight we went from pre-approved dream borrowers with a 50% down-payment in the bank to default risks no bank wanted to touch thanks to the unknowable outcome of the lawsuit. 

I felt like an albatross around my wife’s neck – I was singlehandedly preventing us from buying a home we’d worked years to save up for.  I was going to keep us in an apartment we’d outgrown with crappy carpets where my children would grow up exposed to moldy bathrooms and spend their adult lives fighting aspergillus fumigatus fungusballs in their lungs. All because of me.

 Anhedonia settled in.  I stopped taking pleasure in my work for over a year. Worse still, I began bringing my work-related stress home with me.  Among my greatest regrets was my incomplete presence during the months leading up to my son’s birth, where I felt myself to be the family liability.  After all, how many of my friends in finance or tech were likely to be denied a home loan based on their choice of career?My attorney, a savvy and sympathetic woman to whom I’ll be forever grateful, called up a key decision-maker at our lender’s office and persuaded her that given my income prospects, it was ridiculous to deny us a loan.  We closed escrow and moved into our new house a month later.

Comments 6

  1. Yikes, sorry to hear about this. I can’t imagine having this dark cloud over your head.
    I’m glad you got the house and don’t have to worry about fungusballs! The entire fungi kingdom creeps me out, so you just ruined my appetite. This is a good thing for my weight loss plan.

  2. Wow, so incredibly sorry to hear this – and so refreshing that you shared your story (and so humbly)! I have walked through things like this with friends before and it can be devastating. The legal system is scary, too, and uncertain. You have the two best things someone can get, though: humility/giving up control, and an *excellent* attorney giving you comfort and wisdom throughout the process. Kudos to her for fixing your home loan situation – that is absurd! I hope the suit resolves in your favor – and soon!

    1. FWP,
      Thanks for the kind words of consolation. I was incredibly grateful for the excellent attorney, who shepherded me through the roughest patch of my then-young career. Surrendering to forces beyond my control took a long time to accept. Many folks enter medicine in part to channel their inner control freak so it becomes a pathology with utility. My saving grace was the realization that no matter the outcome, I was still incredibly fortunate to have a wife better than I deserved and two healthy kids who shared my juvenile passions and innate curiosity, and as I long as they stuck by me there was nothing important the lawsuit was going to take away.
      Camus was correct: in an absurd world, defining and living your values can be a powerful form of reasserting a small (but comforting and significant) measure of control.

  3. It’s important that more doctors open up about their experiences with medical malpractice. I don’t know that the general public understands how common it is, and how much it can ultimately affect patient care in the form of unnecessary testing.
    Thanks for sharing your experience, and sorry to hear you had the added stress of a possible mortgage denial. Looking forward to the last stage of lawsuit grief!
    Dr. C

    1. Dr.C,
      I’d agree, the general public has little sense of how dispiriting the experience can be for the providers they rely on in their time of need.
      My greater concern is the newbie physician, who enters the profession with high ideals, only to have this statistically probable event occur multiple times during their practice and (as it did in my case) potentially jeopardize their ability to pursue straightforward goals like home ownership or deprive them of career satisfaction for years.
      One gets to a point where, despite taking pride in your work as a physician, the stress takes its toll. Hopefully, by helping more physicians achieve FI relatively early in their careers, today’s newbies will have the option of choosing to continue meaningful work they enjoy on terms of their choosing, instead of going through the motions to meet obligations they resent but can’t afford to quit.
      Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing your own story and lessons learned on your recent WCI post,

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