Serious Complications: What Andy Rooney Might Say About His Death
Pat Mastors, who worked for more than two decades as a journalist in Rhode Island, wrote the following column in his style. It appears here with her permission.
I died last week, just a month after I said goodbye to you all from this very desk. I had a long and happy life - well, as happy as a cranky old guy could ever be. 92. Not bad. And gotta say, seeing my Margie, and Walter, and all my old friends again is great.
But then I read what killed me: "serious complications following minor surgery."
Now what the heck is that?
Nobody gets run over by a "serious complication." You don't hear about a guy getting shot in the chest with a "serious complication." Sure, I didn't expect to live forever (well, maybe only a little bit), but I was sorta going for passing out some Saturday night into my flank steak at that great restaurant on Broadway. Maybe nodding off in my favorite chair, dreaming of reeling in a 40-pound striper. You know, not waking up. This whole death- by-complication thing is just so, I don't know...vague and annoying.
Here's something else that bothers me. This note I got a few days ago from a lady who says she's a fan. She talked to a reporter at a national newspaper the other day. Asked the reporter, basically, what kind of complication did me in? The reporter said "No idea what killed him. Unless someone dies unusually young, we don't deal with the cause of death."
Now, I know reporters have lots to do. I was one myself before they started paying me to just say what I think. But I guess what this reporter means is, if I was 29 instead of 92, they mighta thought it was worth asking why I went in for minor surgery and died of "serious complications."
Remember a guy named John Murtha? A Congressman. Democrat from Pennsylvania. He made it to 77, a real spring chicken next to me. We were talking about this the other day, and guess what he told me? He went in the hospital last year to get his gallbladder taken out. A tiny incision, they said. Laparoscopic surgery. Only he died, too. The reason? You guessed it: "complications of surgery." The docs looked really sad about it, but they wouldn't give out any details. They said they couldn't, because of family privacy and federal privacy laws. But you know, people talk. Someone on the inside came out with it: "they hit his intestines."
John figures it's better that people know what happened. Maybe it'll help docs figure out a way not to hit intestines when they do that surgery next time. Now what's wrong with that?
I know what you're thinking. "That Andy Rooney. Something's always bugging him." Well, I guess it's like my mom told me a zillion years ago, when she asked me at dinner if I knew anything about how the window in the garage got broken. I said no because I didn't want to admit I'd been throwing a baseball with Tommy McNamara, and I guess my aim was really off. She looked at me with that look moms have...the one that makes you squirm and try to change the subject and finally offer to do the dishes if only she'll stop looking at you like that.
She said, "Andy, just tell the truth."
So, do me a favor. Something killed me. And it would be good to know what. You don't have to squirm, or do the dishes.
Just tell folks what happened.
- Pat Mastors
I met Mastors at the Consumers Union Safe Patient. She started her journalism career in 1981 and worked as a medical reporter and anchor for WPRI TV in Rhode Island for the bulk of her career. She lost her father in 2006 from "complications of surgery." He had been in the hospital for neck surgery and ended up with a Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) infection that ruptured his colon and killed him six months later.
Inspired by what she thought was a lack of focus on patients as people, she founded her own company, Pear Health LLC in 2010, where she is president and CEO. The company recently unveiled the The Patient Pod, which is a toolkit that can hang on a patient's hospital bed. It contains, among other things, pockets for a patient's glasses, cellphone and other items, a TV remote control cover to prevent the transmission of bacteria, a list of safety tips, and, most importantly, a place for every patient to have their name printed boldly and their picture, reminding hospital staff that even frail and non-communicative patients were once healthy and engaging.
I agree with Mastors (and Rooney's ghost). Let's stop telling people that someone died from complications. Demand an answer and then print it. Comments or questions? Share them in the comments below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Stephenson Brown via Wikimedia