I read a story recently about an organ transplant that went horribly wrong. It happened in a prestigious Taiwanese hospital, well established in these procedures. A patient, who was on record as an organ donor, died and blood work was done to determine his suitability. Human error ensued and, instead of his results being recorded as reactive, or HIV+, his organs were given clearance and, as a result, five people were given tainted donations. I thought about the ever widening circles of people affected: the clerk who made the original mistake, the five organ recipients and their families and friends, the surgical teams, the hospital administration; people like you and me, thousands of miles away, who read the story. It was a small human error, a miscommunication of terms, but with tragic consequences. My first thought was how could one live with themselves after making a mistake like that.
I told this story to several people, all medical personnel, and it was interesting the different reactions. The first person I told immediately felt sick at heart and went into fear of her own work and the potential for mistake. The second could only look at the bright side of the issue. She stated that those patients were at low risk and, anyhow, they were lucky to get an organ in the first place. The last person was morally outraged at the erroneous clerk and the “minions they hire these days”.
I just listened to two TED Talk by Nigerian authors Chimananda Adichie and Chris Abani. They both spoke of the dangers of what they call the “single story” — the essentialization of culture and the people within. The single story, for example, that Africa is a continent of dictatorship, strife and poverty, rather than a complex region full of multiple stories with the same contradictions, living conditions and philosophical extremes found in North America and Europe.
I thought about this when I reflected on the medical error reported above. Each person I spoke to, including myself, attached a different story to the tragedy— each perspective coloured by the individual’s unique response to life. There was deep pathos, fear, optimism, and anger. And there was my reaction to their viewpoints. I found the Pollyanna response naïve and judged the holder of that view to be fearful of confrontation. I deemed the outraged person to be steeped in unexpressed anger, always on the lookout for a way to vent and I thought the fearful reply to be reflective of one who was not confident in their skills. My judgment, or story, melded into their judgments or stories — it was no longer a human tale about a tragic mistake but a vehicle to condemn others or, as the case may be, ourselves.
Everyone I spoke to — each single story — was correct to some degree about this medical mishap. Yes, it was a horrible mistake but true, the organ recipients might still be better off. Yes, it’s a cautionary tale to inspire diligence but also one to encourage stronger checks and balances, and yes, it is a story of ineptitude, however singular, however chronic. Each story viewed alone gives us one perspective and through that perspective, seemingly one path of correction. Generalizations are made and a complex story is simplified into a single narrative and a platform for our beliefs. The story and the storyteller become one-dimensional.
But life isn’t like that and either are our stories. Being human, among others things, is a complex tale of erroneous beliefs, judgments, missteps and communication breakdowns. It is also about love and compassion, innocence and open-heartedness. The question is, which story will we follow, which story will we tell and which will we believe?