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Over half-a-dozen years ago, someone very dear to me wound up in intensive care after surgery, the result of one of those risks often rattled off at lightning speed during pre-op consultations, or buried in miniscule print on consent forms.

To his credit, the surgeon took full responsibility for what happened—in effect, an unwitting oversight—and immediately brought in specialists to treat and monitor the condition, which, thankfully, resolved.

But, sadly, he never took responsibility for a different oversight: his failure to tell us about all the risks associated with that surgery, despite the fact that we asked for them.

As you might expect, we felt blindsided.

But this post is not about medical error.

It’s about survival instinct, the way it was leveled against us by some of our closest friends—as blame for not checking the surgeon thoroughly enough—a man at the top of his field with an international reputation, not consulting with other surgeons—we’d seen three, or asking about the risks.

You’ve heard it before, I’m sure.

Hit by a car?  You don’t look where you’re going.

Heart attack? You never exercise, eat right.

Flu? You should get vaccines.

Cancer? It’s all that bacon.

Surgeon error?  Sigh.

I could go on, but I won’t.

I’m not recommending that people behave irresponsibly—cross without looking both ways, play in traffic, be sedentary, gorge on cured meats and sweets, skip vaccines and physician background checks, but due diligence will only protect you to a point.

The truth is, you can look both ways when you cross and still get hit by a car barreling into you out of nowhere. You can exercise every day, follow whatever heart-healthy diet is current and still have a heart attack. And, even though you get your flu shot in October, and avoid nitrates like the plague, you can still come down with the flu in January, and get cancer.

Even the most painstaking due diligence will not completely protect you against accident, disease, or surgeon error.

While I was hurt by my friends’ insensitivity, I resisted the urge to strike back.

I understood that it came from the will to survive, self-protect, a will that is powerful and nearly irresistible. This is why our first impulse is to blame victims, claim, if only they’d done this, this, and that, they wouldn’t have fallen ill or prey to someone else’s missteps. Because we want to believe that if we are careful, and do this, this, and that, we will not fall ill or prey.

When, sadly, accidents do happen. People make mistakes. Our bodies can betray us.

And death is inevitable.

Related reading: “The Bad Luck of Cancer Patients”

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