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.