Failure Report: Year 2011 (Part 1 of 3)

An image of the PLC

The only bad failure is the one from which we fail to learn.

Most organizations put a premium on celebrating successes at the end of every year—we certainly do!

But we also believe that we have a great deal to learn from our failures, so we endeavor to share them and the lessons we’ve learned in hopes of avoiding those same mistakes in the future.

When seeking to tackle intractable problems in an environment like Iraq, missed opportunities, missteps, false starts, and failures are par-for-the-course. There will be no improvement in the political situation in Iraq, in the economy, in healthcare, or in the pursuit of peace without a number of flops and failures along the journey. If we already knew what worked, we all would’ve implemented it by now and moved on.

The truth is, neither the American government nor the Iraqi—neither international nor local NGOs—truly know what works in Iraq. Most of us are making educated guesses and seeking to rightly adapt programs and principles that have proven successful at other times in Iraq or in other parts of the world.

From this point forward, I want to provide you with an annual (and sometimes real-time) assessment of our failures. In absence of such previous reports, I will use a few minutes to highlight our most meaningful setbacks, failures and lessons learned to date.

The three major failures of 2011, to be covered in this report are:

Failure #1: Leadership Indecisiveness on the Case of Six-Year-Old Yahya

Failure #2: High-mortality Remedy Missions in February/March 2011

Failure #3: The Loss of Our Sulaymaniyah, Iraq Surgery Site as a Major Developmental Partner; Lack of Surgical Capacity Increase As a Result of Remedy Missions Conducted

Let’s get started…

Failure #1: Leadership Indecisiveness on the Case of Six-Year-old Yahya

This was a major lesson in leadership that potentially affects every area of our organizational and team life, couched in the saga of one very specific family.

I was walking home from work one night in Iraq in early 2010, when my phone rang. On the other end of the line was a man, knocking on the door back at my office, in hopes of meeting me and presenting the case of his nephew, Yahya, to me for surgical consideration. 

I asked if we could meet tomorrow, but he was insistent and there seemed to be great urgency in his voice. Instead of postponing the meeting, I gave him directions to my home and met with him over tea.

From early on, the situation was less than ideal. Yahya had already received one charitable heart surgery and the second one that was being requested was bound to be difficult.

In our 2007-2010 Failure Report, I noted our decision to restrict the complexity of children we sent abroad for surgery after a series of deaths caused us to reconsider our risk tolerance. Yahya was definitely on the high end of our new risk tolerance.

I chose to refuse surgery to the family based on our new priorities.

Months later, after a new check-up, Yahya’s mother and father brought him into our office to inquire again about the possibility of surgery. I’ll never forget sitting with them in my office explaining our decision to decline surgery funding for Yahya.

Then, with all the persistence that you would expect from a mother, she appealed to me again not to turn away their little boy.

I think one thing that non-profit directors and program directors fail to say often enough is this: “I am a human. I’m swayed by the kindness or brashness of our patients and, at times, it heavily influences how I make selection decisions.”

I could not continue to say “no” any longer. I said “yes” (with conditions).

Our surgeon in Istanbul was clear from the beginning that his surgery would require a “valved conduit” (an additional $5,000 expense or more) and licensing agreements in Turkey at the time had caused a shortage of such devices.

Cody Fisher (Development Director) did a great job reaching an agreement with Medtronic providing Yahya with a donated conduit, but the timing of receiving the conduit was still beholden to the licensing agreements that were being worked out in Istanbul.

All these factors together ultimately led to Yahya missing our July 2010 surgery group to Istanbul. We refunded the family’s portion of the money they had contributed for his surgery.

Shortly thereafter, in August 2010, we conducted our first Remedy Mission inside Iraq—our new programatic focus on localized training and development. The mission was such a huge success, I became convinced that we needed to cease all funding for outside surgeries and focus solely on development work inside the country.

But I also felt a sense of commitment to Yahya and his family, who were basically caught in the transitional period between one programmatic focus and another.

What I should have done at that point was send Yahya to surgery in Turkey, finish our commitments there, take the free valved conduit from Medtronic, and finish our work in Turkey strongly. What I did instead was place Yahya on an upcoming Remedy Mission and take the Turkey option off the table for the family.

What I didn’t account for very well in that decision was how the complexity of Yahya’s case would fare in a development setting; a setting in which local capacity was far below that which he would have received in Istanbul.

In the chaos of Remedy Mission IV, a number of things went badly. Among them, Yahya’s family probably did not receive the proper explanations that they should have about the risks of his surgery and they probably felt very vulnerable about the decision to go forward with the risky surgery or forever miss their opportunity.

It was difficult to assess all this in real time, in part because I was so hopeful for Yahya and his family. In my optimism, I did not see or recognize a few red flags. But even that is not the whole truth… I remember hesitations—“red flags”—even as I sit here today. I willingly suppressed anything that was not hopeful and optimistic. It seemed noble, brave and right.

But he wasn’t my child.

Yahya’s surgery presented many complications that ultimately required doctors to operate through the night. When Yahya arrived in ICU around 5 or 6 a.m. the next morning, he was deemed stable enough for the surgical team to go to the hotel for a few hours of sleep. Before their bus even arrived at the hotel, though, Yahya had passed away in ICU.

I would not normally include a single death in a year-end Failure Report. My point is not that I feel bad and need catharsis. It’s just that Yahya was different, and not only because he had a name or because his family hosted us for dessert in their home and shared tea in mine. No, Yahya was different because I flipped-flopped on the family so many times. I said “no.” Then “yes.” Then “no” again. And then “yes.” And then he died.

Organizationally, the failure was related to a lesson we were just beginning to identify in our 2007-10 Failure Report: we are not the best qualified to select children for surgery. The suggested way forward at that time is still right: we have handed child selection over to a committee of local healthcare providers and our international surgical team. There will still be deaths that we regret deeply, but they will be less a function of our role and influence in the child selection process.

Personally, the failure was related to my inability to make a decision and stick with it. I always had a bad feeling about Yahya’s likelihood to endure surgery. That was why I denied funding more than a year prior to his death. I had good reason to deny funding. But I went back on my hunch. Fair enough… I wanted to give a family a chance. But I never really got over my fears of his death and that made me unwilling to go all in with the family. I hedged over spending extra money on his expensive valved conduit. And even when the conduit was donated, I found other reasons to delay surgery for fear of spending a lot of money (including the family’s) on a surgery about which I was always suspicious.

Lessons Learned: 

1. It’s OK to change one’s mind; but a leadership “Yes” or “No” should mean something. It hurts everyone involved to say one thing, give the impression of support, and never fully get behind one’s own decision. In this case, it played a role in Yahya’s death. 

He may have died in Istanbul just the same. The death itself is not the failure here. The faulty, character-flawed process by which I made life-altering decisions is.

I said “no.” I should have stood my ground. Or I said “yes” and I should have given that family my fullest “yes” ever. Instead, I said “yes” and stayed on the fence. I won’t do that again.

2. We are not qualified to select children. We are too emotionally attached and we do not possess the knowledge to make a right decision about a patient’s candidacy for surgery. We have handed child selection over to a collaboration between local cardiologists and our international surgical teams.

If you have any questions or concerns about this report, the decisions we’ve made, or the direction we are going, please email me at your convenience. I would love to hear from you.