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January 21, 2016

The Price of Non-Admission

shutterstock_354814214“Only God knows the number of patients who went prematurely to their graves because of me.”
(Dr. Ignawtz Semmelweis)

Yesterday we spoke of the wisdom of admitting our mistakes. It simply makes sense to do so because all we’re doing is testifying that since the mistake we’ve become wiser, wise enough to see the error of our ways. What keeps us from showing that newfound wisdom, however, is the pride we carry, as if we’re above making mistakes at all.

But that’s not just it. We also carry the flip-side of pride: shame. We feel so ashamed over making any mistake at all that we’re afraid we’ll lose the respect of others, and ourselves. Instead of feeling above making mistakes at all, shame leads us to feel beneath the possibility of making good decisions again. If I’m not mistake-proof (pride), then I must be mistake prone (shame). That’s the inevitable, topsy-turvy emotional roller coaster of pride. Feel familiar? It certainly does to me.

Thankfully, for all our sakes, it didn’t feel that way to Dr. Semmelweis. The classic book, Leadership and Self-Deception, tells the tale of this 19th-century Austrian doctor. He was both a pathologist and an obstetrician, often in the same day, and he couldn’t figure out why 1 in 10 of his mothers were dying in childbirth. There was no knowledge of germs yet, and so no value put upon sterilization. So, doctors could go from performing an autopsy to delivering a child with nothing more than a wipe-down of their hands and instruments. However, when Dr. Semmelweis went away for an extended assignment, leaving only the midwives to deliver, the morbidity rate plummeted; mothers were staying alive.

This astounding difference led the Dr. to this humbling realization—he was the problem. Instead of pridefully denying or shamefully hiding, though, Dr. Semmelweis instead went to work, examining every variable his presence offered. This eventually led to cleaner practices, germ theory, sterilization, and modern medicine as we know it.

Dr. Semmelweis had to live with his mistake, and the lives it took, for the rest of his life. But how much worse would it be for all of us since had he not summoned the courage, and the integrity, to admit his own part of the problem?

How might I be contributing to the very problems I’ve been complaining about?

Might be the most helpful question each of us could ever ask.

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