Keeping well while facing a medico-legal complaint - a personal story
Dr Emmanuel Varipatis, a 59-year-old GP from Manly, NSW, was sued for $350,000 after a judge found that he had been negligent in not referring a morbidly obese patient for gastric band surgery. Here, he explains what self-care measures he employed throughout the ordeal.
The story begins
It was just a normal day. I was standing at reception and picking up a file when I got served. I opened the envelope and saw it was a Supreme Court document; I was being sued by a patient who I thought I’d looked after quite well for a long time and who I’d gone out of my way to take care of.
I found that my mind was obsessing on the case 24/7 and it was too easy to let this take over. I started suffering the basic symptoms of anxiety with even occasional moments of panic, and found myself waking up in the middle of the night with the case on my mind. When it became evident that this case wasn’t going away, I decided I needed a strategy to deal with it so it wouldn’t affect my work, family life or health. To achieve this, I needed a plan to manage my cortisol levels as best I could.
A plan of action
I followed my own advice and engaged in the same type of stress management techniques that I would recommend to my patients. The first thing I decided to do was to change my attitude around this case. It was self-evident that worrying and obsessing wasn’t going to change anything; so I made a deliberate decision that, as much as I could, I would stop worrying and just take whatever actions were necessary, as necessary.
Relationships and lifestyle
I kept my wife involved and found that being able to ‘share’ the stresses made it easier for both of us. I made sure to keep up a nutritious diet and stuck to the rule of ‘early to bed, and enough sleep’.
Full steam ahead
I increased my exercise from two hours to five hours a week with sessions of Pilates, walking and body surfing. I did lots of early morning walking sessions with mates around the headlands, followed by outdoor gym exercising, then body surfing and finally breakfast. This combination of social ‘guy time’ plus exercise was probably the best help of all in keeping me sane.
I restarted the regular practice of meditation. I find it easier to do if it’s ‘directed’, so would generally use phone apps that allow me to just put on headphones and listen to guided meditation and self-hypnosis sessions.
A set back with health implications
When the judge found against me, the case received nationwide media coverage and I received lots of unwanted publicity. So even though I still felt I was coping well; it was at this point that my blood pressure went up and I had to commence medication for it.
It has proven to be a high-publicity case with unusual longevity; a marathon case that just keeps on going. As life stressors go, this case for me has ended up rating right up there with bad marital or financial stress; and I am certain that I would be ‘a mess’ now if I hadn’t worked out an action plan early on for managing the stress of this case.
A good outcome
The Court of Appeal found in favour of Dr Varipatis, overturning the NSW Supreme Court’s earlier decision. The High Court of Australia has subsequently rejected the patient’s application for special leave to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision, effectively closing the door to further appeal and bringing this stressful event to its conclusion.