DR MAX PEMBERTON: Never doubt the power of saying ‘I’m sorry’


While on a visit to Canada last week, the Pope made a historic apology for decades of abuse at Roman Catholic schools. ‘I humbly beg forgiveness,’ he said to a crowd, referring to the Church’s role in Canada’s government-run boarding schools where thousands of indigenous children were abused and died. 

The schools were part of Canada’s plan to assimilate native people into Christian society, which the Pope acknowledged was ‘catastrophic’ and destroyed their culture, severed families and marginalised generations. 

This was a deeply shameful, appalling part of the Church’s history and, of course, apologising won’t undo the dreadful harm that was done. 

However, I am routinely astonished at how powerful the word sorry can be. Sometimes it is the salve that people need to start healing. 

Too often people feel frustrated and angered by their treatment in the health service, but receive no formal acknowledgement of this or an apology

A really heartfelt apology can make all the difference. Saying sorry involves an admission of error and this is not always easy to do. 

Admitting when you’ve done something wrong may be difficult, but it really can make a significant impact on the person who feels wounded by your actions. We could all do with saying sorry more in life, and I wish the NHS in particular would take this on board. 

Too often people feel frustrated and angered by their treatment in the health service, but receive no formal acknowledgement of this or an apology. 

They write to hospital managers and chief executives and get short shrift in return. They attempt to negotiate complaints procedures of Byzantine complexity, when all they really want is someone to say sorry. 

Over the years, many readers have contacted me to express their frustration and annoyance at how their complaints and legitimate concerns are stonewalled by those who are in power in the NHS. Is it any wonder that, when faced with this, they resort to punitive measures through the courts to get justice? 

Is it really so difficult to apologise? I once worked with a surgeon who had operated on a woman. After the operation, she complained of being in pain and a strange ‘dragging’ sensation in her abdomen. She went to see him for a check-up, but he dismissed her concerns, assuring her the operation had been a success. 

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says we could all do with saying sorry more in life, and that he wishes the NHS in particular would take this on board

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says we could all do with saying sorry more in life, and that he wishes the NHS in particular would take this on board

One evening, however, things got so bad, she came into A&E. The on-call surgeon agreed to do an exploratory operation to see what was wrong. 

As soon as he opened her up, the problem was there for all to see: a swab had been left behind inside her after the first operation and this had been causing considerable irritation to the surrounding tissue. 

There are very strict procedures and protocols in the operating theatre to ensure this doesn’t happen, but surgeons are only human and even they can make mistakes. Hospital managers and the head of surgery descended on to the ward to try to speak to the patient about what had happened, but she refused to talk to them. 

This only made them panic more. Instead, she insisted on speaking to the surgeon who had been responsible. 

The next day, he came to the ward. The managers had warned against doing so without legal representation, but he went anyway, arguing that he owed it to her to speak to her in person about what had happened. While he was usually quite an arrogant man, this unexpected display of humility surprised everyone. 

‘I was wrong — she deserves to hear that from me,’ he said, ashen-faced, and went to her bedside.

He apologised profusely to her and told her he would understand if she wanted to make a formal complaint against him. 

We all knew this could be very damaging for his career, but he was racked with guilt about what had happened. 

She looked at him aghast. ‘Why would I want to sue?’ she asked. ‘It was an honest mistake.’ 

‘What do you want then?’ he asked her, perplexed. 

‘We all make mistakes. You said sorry. That was all I wanted’.

Cheers to Julia’s booze ban 

Julia Bradbury (pictured) has given up drinking after her surgery for breast cancer. She says she is determined to do all she can to stop the cancer returning

Julia Bradbury (pictured) has given up drinking after her surgery for breast cancer. She says she is determined to do all she can to stop the cancer returning

Julia Bradbury has given up drinking after her surgery for breast cancer. The former Countryfile presenter, who had a mastectomy in October, says she is determined to do all she can to stop the cancer returning. If only more people did the same. While people realise that smoking is bad for their health, many still don’t appreciate that other lifestyle factors, such as alcohol and obesity, are also linked to cancer. Too often, though, I see people who make the changes after they’ve had a diagnosis, by which point it’s sometimes too late to undo the years of damage. I know doctors can seem killjoys by their constant finger-wagging at people’s choices. Life is for living and it’s important to have fun and enjoy yourself, but it’s also important to remember that we nag about healthy lifestyles and advocate for everything in moderation for a reason. 

  • I’ve noticed stories recently highlighting the backlash against social media stars performing ‘random’ acts of kindness to unwitting strangers, then posting the footage on their social media channels. One woman, who was filmed being given flowers by a stranger, spoke out afterwards about how she felt humiliated and ‘dehumanised’. She assumed she was singled out because she looked sad and lonely when, in fact, she was just enjoying a quiet coffee while out shopping. I loathe this trend. These are not acts of kindness. Nor are they random. People are picked to elicit sympathy based on tired, patronising tropes of the deserving poor, or those who are deemed to appear down on their luck. It’s exploitation with the sole intention of getting likes and follows, and sums up the vacuous self-promotion that has infected social media. 

Doctors claim the trend for testosterone replacement therapy in men is ‘dangerous’, and they are seeing more become unwell after taking the steroid to achieve the perfect, ripped body. While we know women are under pressure over body image, we should be mindful that men are not immune either. 

DR MAX PRESCRIBES…

GARDENING 

Many GPs now prescribe gardening for depression and anxiety. Research has shown that it can also reduce the risk of dementia by up to 20 per cent

Many GPs now prescribe gardening for depression and anxiety. Research has shown that it can also reduce the risk of dementia by up to 20 per cent 

We’ve known about the mental health benefits of gardening for many years. Indeed, many GPs now prescribe it for depression and anxiety. Latest research has shown that, as well as a relaxing way to pass the time, gardening can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 20 per cent. If you don’t have a garden, contact the National Allotment Society on how to get an allotment (nsalg.org.uk). 

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