Leonard Zwelling

I make a lot of them. At least five before breakfast. The point is, of course, that to be human is to err and most of us are way more human than we would like to admit.

Our politicians make mistakes all the time. Biden’s pull out from Afghanistan was a big one. Trump’s behavior after his election defeat was another. There was no excuse for not showing up for the inaugural on January 20, 2021, let alone unleashing the hounds on January 6. The FBI is a nest of errors and Congress is lauded when it does anything right. Yes, it’s that unusual.

Doctors make lots of mistakes. I sure did. I vividly remember the patient I cared for as a second-year medical student who was admitted to Osler Ward with pneumonia. As I identified the infiltrate on her chest x-ray, my resident, the late, great Dr. Joe McClellan, walked by the view box (that’s a lit rectangular viewer for old-fashioned photographic film radiographs).

“When are you going to start treating her right-sided endocarditis,” he asked.

“Nah, she just has pneumonia,” I answer.

“Nope. She has two infiltrates in two parts of her lings and she’s probably a drug user.” He pointed to the shadows. He had trained in the inner city and had seen a lot of this.

As usual, Joe was right, and I was wrong. I made lots of mistakes like that as a medical student and even more as an intern. Of course, I got enough right that they let me finish, go to the NIH, take the boards, and eventually become qualifiable as a real doctor.

Again, the point is that we all make mistakes of many kinds. Sometimes, it’s our judgment that fails. Sometimes, it’s our behavior that is less than perfect.

Why then has it become so fashionable to excommunicate people (it’s called cancelling now) for simple errors? I have no idea, but that is exactly what is transpiring all over MD Anderson as many faculty have been stigmatized with performance improvement plans or worse, outright dismissal, simply for making a judgment error like overreading a mammogram or a behavior error like yelling at a nurse in the heat of a busy clinic.

When I had to deal with such an occurrence in my office or I was the one making the error, the solution was far more constructive and benign. It usually consisted of an apology and occasionally, coaching, but we didn’t fire people for making an error. This has clearly changed as I am aware of several instances of great faculty who are no longer employed at Anderson under the reign of Tsar Peter I.

It seems very contrary to me that an administration so inclined to force the faculty to take endless computer courses in behavior and regulations comes down like a ton of bricks on any faculty, especially high performing clinical faculty, because a mistake is made. For an administration that is dedicated to human understanding in the form of DEI, I find the punishment meted out by these executives surprisingly harsh.

Maybe an appropriate set of gifts for the executives of MD Anderson would be a set of mirrors so that they can view their own behavior through the lens with which they view that of others. Either they would ease up on the Draconian punishment or, better yet, they might fire themselves.

I guess it is the Internet and cell phones and the rapidity of communication that has given rise to the cancel culture. But, just because this is happening in the outside world is no reason for MD Anderson to follow suit.

The leadership is calling for “one MD Anderson.” That’s going to be hard to attain if you keep putting the fear of God in the faculty by firing people.

“To err is human” (Alexander Pope). The rest is “to forgive is divine.” Perhaps the MD Anderson leadership can aspire to the divinity it seems to believe it has and be more forgiving. Everyone would breathe easier.

Dr. Zwelling’s new novel, Conflict of Interest: Money Drives Medicine and People Die is available at:


on amazon if you search using the title and subtitle,


directly from the publisher Dorrance at: https://bookstore.dorrancepublishing.com/conflict-of-interest-money-drives-medicine-and-people-die-pb/m

2 thoughts on “Mistakes”

  1. Great leaders admit their mistakes, address the causes, and move on with better decisions.
    Recently, we have noticed that a leader of a small organization to which we belong ALWAYS blames others for her mistakes. She simply does not understand or does not want to acknowledge the meaning of responsibility in leadership. Whether this is more common now than in the past is not clear to me.
    BUT, we need to rear our children and train our professionals to follow the credo: I will not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do.

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