Most of us half expect it when we hear scandals about faraway institutions. We tend to react, cynically, with “Yeah, what else is new?”
But when such scandals happen closer to home, it can have a disturbing effect, causing us to wonder, “Is there anything we can trust anymore?”
One such scandal recently hit home, involving the CentraCare Coborn Cancer Center in St. Cloud. And when I say “hit home,” I do mean hit home – me, personally. Two summers ago, I was treated for cancer there – 28 radiation sessions, two rounds of chemotherapy. I was so impressed by the staff (receptionists, technicians, nurses, doctors) I was forever singing their praises to family and friends and wrote several laudatory columns about that excellent place.
You can imagine my stunned surprise when I received a letter in the mail one day informing me I had been one among other patients whose radiation-treatment plans had been flawed. Long story short, some of us were over-radiated, some under-radiated. Independent audits had discovered the botched treatments.
After receiving the letter, I had to wait an anxious weekend to meet in person with a doctor and a nurse, who told me what happened. I was one of the under-radiated patients. I asked them many questions, wanting to know how many other patients were affected, how long had it been going on, how and why such deadly serious errors could have happened.
They wouldn’t tell me how many patients; they wouldn’t tell me how the botched plans occurred. Legally protected information, I was told. Later, I asked for the actual copy of my audited treatment plan. That, too, was denied, although a nurse did send me a summary, in her words, of the report’s findings.
I recently learned, on good authority, that the incompetent treatment plans had been going on for at least two years; that many dozens of people – possibly more – were affected; that the failures involved a wide range of cancers and cancer stages; that the screw-ups were the result of an utter failure of a checks-and-balances protocol among three teams; that employees in those teams have since been fired (one of which was the radiation-dose measurement team). In other words, they were not consulting with one another (double-checking, triple-checking) with each faction to verify each plan the way they should have. It was a disastrous lack of coordination and focus.
I cannot help wondering how many people – victims of such inexcusable incompetence – have since died or are having to undergo yet more wearying and painful treatments, having to face a recurrence of cancer all over again, as if once is not enough. While sitting in the lobby at that cancer center every morning two summers ago, I used to exchange light-hearted banter (and sometimes serious talk) with other waiting patients, some of them so pale, so weak, so tired it would break your heart to see them. I keep seeing them in memory, hoping they didn’t receive that devastating “oops” letter, but I can almost bet that some of them did. I was very fortunate as my cancer was Stage I, so I feel at this point cautiously optimistic about it not re-occuring. But knock on wood. Who knows?
Despite all of that, I still like the Coborn Cancer Center, and I still enjoy going there for follow-ups because the staff members (the good ones still there) are so kind, caring, compassionate, and all of them possessing a quick-witted sense of humor (humor being good medicine).
Yes, I still praise that place, even though my admiration for it and my trust in it has been shaken. However, I’m confident they will learn from those drastic mistakes. It’s a shame there were some sloppy incompetents working there, but it does my heart good to know they were fired. I just hope they don’t somehow get hired by another cancer center somewhere down the road, the way predatory priests were farmed out parish-to-parish only to continue their abuse.
The doctor and nurse I met with asked me what, if anything, would restore my faith in the center. Here’s my answer: the initiation of an iron-clad treatment-plan protocol, under the strictest quality-control system, with oversight from an independent, outside source – at least until they’ve got a total grasp of quality control. Nothing else will do, and nothing else but those measures will fully restore my former confidence in the Coborn Cancer Center.
And to new cancer patients at that center, I would give this advice: Ask to see your cancer-treatment plan, have them explain it to you in detail and make absolutely sure a rigorous checks-and-balances policy has been followed impeccably throughout every stage of the plan. And then, let me say to you from the bottom of my heart: Good luck! I hope you and your oncology team succeed in conquering your cancer.