People make mistakes. It’s a plain fact of life. I don’t even want to tell you the errors I saw, much less participated in, on a consistent basis when I worked at a pharmacy. Most of the time, we caught our errors before they went out the door; sometimes we didn’t. As far as I know, no one died, nor was even seriously injured — but it is a huge responsibility to be in such a position to make or break someone’s health. After all, a lot of people won’t even seriously question the medication given them, even if it looks different (which is usually because of a different generic, but sometimes it’s because the pharmacist picked up the wrong bottle).
As an aside, I’ll tell you that as a pharmacy tech, we didn’t really like it when people questioned us — primarily because it interrupted our “flow” of things, slowed us down, etc. And of course, it seemed like it would always happen when we were already behind. But even at that time, and much more so in retrospect, I see these people as just doing what everyone should do — make sure that the people who are giving them medicine haven’t made a mistake somewhere — because it’s just human nature to make mistakes. While I don’t want to slip into fatalistic “can’t help it” thinking, it’s a simple fact that no matter how hard a person tries, there is no such thing as human perfection, and when it comes to your health, you are your last defense against other people’s errors.
Several months ago, I included a story of a now-famous actor who survived a bout with cancer as a teenager or young adult, at least partly because of his own self-defense. One story he tells was of a time a nurse hooked him up to an IV with somebody else’s medicine in it.
One story I read recently was of a nurse who almost made a tragic error, but fortunately caught it before she left the room. She always arranges her room “just so” — with the bag of Pitocin far separated from the bag with just fluids in it. This is a good idea, because it keeps her from accidentally grabbing the wrong bag. Except this time, somebody else had set up the room, and had the Pitocin bag next to the fluids bag, and the nurse grabbed the bag of Pit and started running it wide open into the mom’s IV. She caught it before she left the room, but she worried about the baby for the rest of the night, fearing that somehow she had caused some damage, even though the fetal heartrate looked great all night long.
Then there are stories of babies switched at birth — the most recent switch I heard of occurring while two boys were both taken to be circumcised, and then given to the wrong parents. Fortunately, the mistake was corrected quickly — in many other stories (which are, of course, rare considering how many births occur every year) the mistake isn’t realized until years later.
Currently, there is the fear of the swine flu (or whatever they’re officially calling it — a disease by any other name would kill as much… or as little — depends on who you want to believe). If it is as contagious as “they” say — and sometimes I wonder who “they” is and how “they” know so positively — then extra precautions are in order. You can check out Hospital Infection.org for more information on this topic, as well as steps you can take to keep yourself safe when you’re in a hospital. To be honest, I haven’t read very much on this whole new epidemic, pandemic, or whatever other term they’re calling it now, but simple things like making sure that all your caregivers wash their hands as soon as they come in the door would help reduce the spread of infection, whether it’s the common cold or something more dangerous.
When you’re in labor, you might not feel like you can really protect yourself in these ways — I sure didn’t question anything that happened to me — so make sure that whoever attends you in birth, whether that’s your husband or a doula or some other friend or family member, is aware and alert to these things. Sometimes being a pain in the butt can save your life or health. Yeah, it probably won’t make your care providers too happy — until you are the one that saves them from making a careless error. I got taught that lesson working in the pharmacy, and was ultimately grateful for it.
A footnote — these things apply whether you have a home birth or a hospital birth. Although certain types of errors can only happen in a hospital, errors can occur just as easily at home as in a hospital. No, you will never have to worry about your baby having been switched at birth if you give birth at home, but that doesn’t mean your midwife can’t bring in an infection unawares, or in some other way mess up.