The Doctor Goes to Court

It was a cramped courtroom, filled with wooden tables and benches that appeared much older and heavier than me. I suppose the weight was intentional, to prevent any plaintiff or defendant from hurling any of the benches in a moment of outrage.

I had been served a subpoena to testify in a case of frustrated murder. The plaintiff was a patient I operated on three years earlier and it was my first time to perform my civic duty as expert witness. I picked a seat in the middle of the first row.

As a doctor who grew up reading John Grisham, the first thing I did after entering the courtroom was to try to identify the people inside. Three prisoners shackled to one another and flanked by police officers were on the bench that was flush against the wall to my left. The lawyers all seemed to be arranging and rearranging last-minute documents on the counsel’s tables just in front.

I remembered the clerk of court from our last meeting, when I showed up in time for the trial, only to find out that it had been moved to a later date a second time because the judge had to attend a convention. He asked for the correct spelling of my name before standing up to have me sign the attendance sheet. He sat in front of the witness stand, next to the court stenographer. It was comforting to know that she had not been replaced by an electronic device.

Other civilians were seated behind me and to my right. My patient and his mother were not among them; I had no way of knowing who was the defendant in their case.

Turning to me, a lawyer in polo barong said with a hint of sarcasm, “Antagal din kitang hinintay, Dok.” (I waited a long time for you, Doc)

I received the first subpoena duces tecum ad testificandum six months earlier. Twice I had failed to attend the trial because I could not reschedule my elective surgeries.

“Sir, dalawang beses na rin po akong nagpunta, pero hindi natuloy ang hearing,” I replied. (Sir, I’ve been here twice, but both times, the hearing was postponed.)

In both instances, I was not duly notified so I ended up wasting two mornings and considerable taxi fare. In my head, I added, “Kaya quits na tayo, hindi ba?” (So that makes us even, right?) but what I said, in a continuing attempt to be polite, was, “Sino po kayo?” (Who are you?)

“Prosecutor, Dok.” (The prosecutor, Doc)

On the wall just above the heads of the prisoners was a sign requesting to turn off cellular phones, with a warning that a 200-peso fine would be imposed for its violation. I would rather pay the fine than miss an urgent call about a patient from any of my consultants or co-residents, so I switched my phone to vibrate mode instead.

“All rise!” the court of clerk announced as the judge entered the room. Her face was radiant and her hair tied neatly in a bun. She could have easily been the mother of a classmate, one who would invite me and other friends to their home for lunch she cooked herself.

The judge, the clerk of court, and stenographer then began to recite the ecumenical prayer. “Almighty God, we stand in Your holy presence as our Supreme Judge,” the prayer began. Earlier, I noticed a copy of the prayer posted next to the cellular phone warning. I was surprised that prayer was part of court protocol, and wondered if any other country did the same.

The clerk proceeded to the roll call of cases to be tried on that day.

“We are ready your honor,” the prosecutor said when our case was called. “We have a government witness,” he said, acknowledging my presence.

As I listened to the exchange of statements between the judge and the lawyers, I tried to make sense of the legal jargon, relying mostly on what I had read from John Grisham’s novels.

In Medicine, one tries to be as concise as possible when narrating clinical information. It has always seemed to me that the converse is preferred in Law.

Everything was alien. Arraignment, motion, and bail were all too different from nerve, seizure, and bipolar. I only vaguely remember a lecture in medical school about a physician’s duties and responsibilities as an expert witness: what to bring, what to say, and how to say it. Even with my white coat on, I waited with a fair amount of apprehension.

I was called to take the witness stand first, a relief because I still needed to go back to the hospital to operate on a patient in the afternoon.

After being sworn in by the clerk of court, the prosecutor began to ask his questions. It was a case of severe head injury, and my patient was allegedly mauled by the defendant, causing multiple blood clots and brain swelling that would warrant my operating on him a week later. I made the mistake of saying the diagnosis as a doctor would write in a patient’s chart, so I was interrupted by the judge and asked to explain my findings in layperson’s terms.

That English was the preferred language during the trial was also unexpected. Many times I was tempted to speak in Filipino so that more people in the room would understand how the injury sustained by my patient could be fatal, but I was too timid to ask the judge if I could, so I continued to answer questions in English.

It was humbling to see the judge paying close attention to what I was saying, taking down notes throughout my testimony. When she spoke to clarify points, her voice was almost inappropriately pleasant. The courtroom belonged to her, after all, as an operating room did to its surgeon.

Halfway through my testimony, my patient and his mother entered the courtroom. I kept on speaking as if I did not notice them.

The prosecutor held up a copy of my patient’s chart.

“Is this your handwriting, Dr. Baticulon?”

Even from afar I easily recognized the perfectly aligned capital letters slanting to the right. My handwriting always pretended to be legible, I would say. Had he exhibited the original chart, which I brought with me, the words indicating my diagnosis and operation would have stood out even more, having been written in my preferred blue ink.

“Yes, it is.”

Having examined and treated hundreds of patients in the last four and a half years, I could not remember all the details of my history and physical examination for this patient. It was a good thing that I would always write down important details in my clinical notes. It saved me from the embarrassment of having to answer, “Sorry, your honor. I do not remember,” all the time.

But I did forget to write one thing.

The defense attorney pointed out one detail in the patient’s clinical abstract. In the box for clinical history, it was indicated that the patient was intoxicated when he got into a fight with the defendant.

“Was it you who wrote the clinical history?” he asked.

“No sir, it was the medical intern.”

“So did you know that your patient was intoxicated when he was mauled?”

“I am not sure.”

“For this patient, do you remember asking the mother if his son was drunk when the incident happened?”

“I might have asked, because I always do a comprehensive history and physical examination on my patients before I operate on them. But sorry, I do not remember.”

Towards the end of my testimony, the prosecutor asked, “So is your patient’s head injury consistent with being banged on the wall?”

“What do you mean consistent? It is possible.”

“The question was, ‘Is it consistent?'” the judge interrupted once more.

“Well, if you want me to tell you that my patient’s head injury is definitely due to his head being banged against the wall, I cannot say for certain. But if you’re asking, can his head injury be explained by that mechanism, then I would say yes.”

The judge nodded, and after that I was thanked and excused.

While I was waiting for my certificate of appearance just outside the courtroom, I realized that I might have just helped convict a person of frustrated murder. I narrated the circumstances as I remembered them, gave the numbers, and laid down the facts. But was the defendant really at fault? At the pace this trial was going (the supposed crime was committed three years ago), I think the court would not be able to come up with an answer anytime soon. That wasn’t my problem anymore, was it?

My patient’s mother exited the courtroom and walked to where I was waiting.

“Dok, maraming salamat ha. Ikaw na lang talaga ang pag-asa namin ng anak ko. Masamang tao talaga ‘yun. May binaril pa nga ‘yun sa amin. Tatawa-tawa lang nung sinabi naming magdedemanda kami.” (Doc, thank you very much. You are our only hope. He is really a bad man. He even shot someone in our town. He just laughed at us when we said that we would sue him.)

“Naku, wala po iyon, ‘Nay.” (It was nothing, Ma’am)

She explained that the defendant tried to settle the case with them, but she and her son refused. Her son, who used to work in construction, had not been able to go back to work since his surgery. I told her that he could, if he wanted to, so that he would not have to settle with feeding poultry and earning a measly income.

“Kain muna tayo, Dok,” she offered. (Let’s eat, Doc)

I politely refused, for fear that people might see us and brand me a biased witness. I thanked her before saying goodbye, knowing that I would see her and my patient again in the outpatient clinic. Perhaps then we could have our lunch.

On the bus going back to the hospital, I felt a certain relief I was a doctor rather than a lawyer. I would not last long in the legal profession. Dealing with life and death is much less complicated and much more fulfilling than deciding between right and wrong.

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30 comments

  1. Wow, pwede rin pala maging witness ang mga doktor sa mga ganitong kaso… Refreshing to read something like this in your blog! Sobrang dami kong nalalaman (natutunan) dahil sa blog niyo. 🙂 I’m an aspiring doctor po. First year pre-med pa lang po sa UST (BS PT). I’m a big fan of you and your blog po, Dok. Na-amaze po ako lalo when I found out that you were one of my kabarkada’s dad’s students (student nga ba?)! Si Dr. Jonas Del Rosario. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Tricia! Yes, doctors are required to attend the trial when they are served a subpoena. Otherwise, pwede kang ma-contempt of court. 🙂 Yes, I know Jonas Del Rosario. Do well in PT and keep the MD dream burning! 🙂

      • Doc, what can you say about a dentist who is a first hand witness but refuse to testify nor even give any statement about a case? What kind of code of ethics support this kind of behaviour among some medical /dental practitioners? Please enlighten me on this one?

  2. Interesting… that dealing with life and death is actually easier than dealing with right and wrong. Oh the world is so full of gray areas!

    But your life as a doctor is surely a colorful one! 😛 Great read!

    • Yes Marshee. I’d choose to be a doctor all day, any day. 🙂 Nah, it just appears to be. My life is just as colorful as everbody else’s. 🙂

  3. In my almost 10 years of practicing as a physician only last year was I able to testify in court as an “expert witness” having attended to a medicolegal case despite the fact that I have been an Ob-gyne for 7years now. The hospital where I worked for being an infirmary hospital and an LGU at that caters to medicolegal cases and regardless of your specialty. I never liked attending to these cases more so to testify in court. Like you I was nervous as if I was taking the oral exams for a diplomate test. My case was a domestic abuse. At the court, I heard the same prayer, signed the attendance sheet and so forth. The judge was also female and was very accomodating to me. I am an OC when it comed to patient’s history and I was certainly glad that I was when I testified because I cannot remember anymore the exact day I examined her. The victim was also intoxicated with alcohol so I was also questioned whether it was possible whether she could have sustained her injuries if she fell flat on her face to which I answered yes. But in my case, the victim and the defendant reconciled so she wanted to dismiss the case but the judge did not allow it. Upon knowing that in court while I was seated at the witness seat, I wanted to stand up and bash both the victim and defendant’s head for making me so anxious at appearing in court only to know tht they have kissed and made up. ????

  4. This is my first time to come across your site and I have already read several entries before remembering to check out your ‘about me’. I was surprised when I saw your pic because I remember seeing you in my clinical rotation in NSSCU as a nursing student. I even remember you intubating a patient because I was the student nurse assigned to that patient and I could never forget that experience because it was my first time to witness an intubation. Hehe. I also saw you one time in Hainanese Delights and you were dozing off while your fellow doctors were talking. (Just happened to remember you, not stalking) Hehe Napaisip na lang ako na “kawawa talaga mga doctor minsan di na talaga malabanan antok” Now that I just learned you’re an Intarmed graduate and a Neurosurgeon, WOW. Hands down. Congrats, doc! Keep inspiring people and saving lives.

  5. Reminds me of the time I read a single paragraph of my brother’s law book. It gave me a headache. Whereas in Medicine, (currently 2nd year), at least it’s straight-forward.

  6. i can’t wait to become a licensed doctor, but i think being asked to testify in court is one of the peeves i’m not excited about happening in my “future” career.. hehe! anyway, i pray the judge makes the right decision.

    PS. your review and pearls lectures were high-yield doc, sana nga lang tama pagkakatanda namin habang sinasagutan yung mga questions sa boards yesterday. thanks po!

  7. You are such an inspiration, Doc’! I can’t wait to pursue med right after my BSN degree this coming march! 🙂

  8. ROBERTO DAROY, JR.

    Kahit pala sa korte nakakatulong ka pa rin dok Ronnie. Napanood namin sa Jessica Soho ang 5 valedictorians last year, hala pag-uwi namin sa probinsiya ibinida na kayo ng misis ko sa mga relatives at kakilala niya. Pinanood nila sa youtube. Nakakainspire talaga. Ang totoo niyan, paulit-ulit naming ipinapanood kapag may mga group study ang anak namin at mga kaklase niya para ma-motivate sila.

    Tsaka paborito mo rin pala si John Grisham dok; we named our one and only son Grisham after him.

  9. Very well written doc; like a cut from one of the courtroom drama scenes of a Grisham novel. Any observant reader can conclude that you embrace every task ( no matter how great or small) at heart–a trait that not many professionals in this age and time espouse in their day-to-day lives.

  10. Well this is a kinda terrifying experience. Great job doc, you survived it hahaha. I’m not being sarcastic but it’s just not something I would dare wish to experience. Maybe I’ll cry in front of everyone or freeze to death before I speak nyahaha. Good thing that you still maintained your wit that day. Around of applause to you doc 😉

  11. Nice read, doc.

    When I was in college, I wanted to pursue Medicine but got really sacred with the Math requirements with my pre-med choice. I ended up with a non-medical degree and soon after found myself in law school and a lawyer thereafter. But you are right, there are some days I wish my choice of profession was as life-changing as yours.

    And its not always about deciding what is wrong or right that ads to the complication. It’s “crafting” the truth that some members of my profession become so adept at… hence all these lawyer-liar jokes.

    This was a very good blog entry and got me thinking.

    • Hi Lucy! I think all professions are life changing, just in varying degrees. 🙂 Thanks for reading, Attorney!

  12. Good Read, Doktor. 🙂 hope i could also write a similar article on a lawyer’s point of view, like a lawyer goes to surgery/OR or something like that, only that’s not possible.

    Keep your stories coming.

  13. You we’re quite lucky hindi terror ang judge. I hope you had a pleasant experience, rest assured that most lawyers and judges are very considerate to doctors and I must thank you for your dedication and willingness to attend hearings despite the busy schedule. One thing i really appreciate from doctor witnesses is that when they are not available on the scheduled hearing, they inform the court and/or the prosecutor ahead of time so that the trial date will not be wasted. I hope that like you, most doctors realize the importance of their testimonies specially in criminal cases. I am a lawyer and i dont think i can last in the medical profession as well 🙂 Imagine spelling the difference between life and death. I’d probably crack under the immense pressure. Anyway, the only fulfillment in this job is when justice is rendered. Even so, i still feel pity for the convicted ones, specially when they are so remorseful.

  14. Nice one Doc.. Thank you for sharing the Doctor’s point of view in court. I was a law student and I appreciate experts attending court trials as witness. It makes the trial a little bit more interesting because we get to hear and learn something new. The hematoma, asphysia, rigor mortis and other medical terms are still alien to me despite of the fact that we have a Legal Medicine subject in our second year curriculum. Atleast now I already have an idea how does a Doctor feels inside the court room. Hope that this blog would remind me later on in my practice as a lawyer to crack the pressure and be more accommodating to doctors/expert witnesses who will be testifying in court whether it be for my client or not. 😀

  15. Hi Doc Ronnie, you have not replied to my comment last March, although i was referring to a dental case. However, should i reword it as a medical case, how would you react to a doctor who happens to be a first hand witness to a medical malpractice but refuse to testify nor stand by his/her patient’s case? What code of ethics support this kind of behavior among medical practitioners? I was told by somebody that there’s a certain code of ethics wherein a doctor should not testify against another doctor? Is that right? Please enlighten me on this one.

    • Hi Malou! I am sorry but I don’t think I am of any authority on this matter. Perhaps you should seek legal counsel?

  16. Hi Doc Ronnie, actually, i just wanted to get your honest personal opinion on this matter, that’s all.

  17. well, it’s just a matter of persuading the people present that my point is right not yours. i have a dream to be a lawyer but growing and seeing the system, learning that truth is not real nor anything is and everything is subjective in nature, I just went on pursuing a career in IT. Nonetheless, good job to you doc 🙂

  18. Hi doc ronnie! I’m not sure know if you still remember me, but i was your Surgery pre-res at PGH a few years ago. Like you, i have been called upon to testify as an expert witness a lot of times, and my first stint was as nerve wrecking as yours. 🙂

    I remember when i was summoned for the first time for a murder case. I attended to the victim who was stabbed several times by a known assailant. (The victim was pronounced dead on arrival, autopsy was recommended but not done)

    I used to have the same dilemma as most doctors do when I first testified as an expert witness in this case; that anything we say can either acquit a murderer or convict an innocent person, so we tend to be extra careful (and matipid) with our words when testifying (less talk=less mistake, right?). We know that amongst all the people in the courtroom, we are the most knowledgeable on the injuries sustained by the victim that we can discuss them at great lengths, but we are being prevented in doing so because oftentimes, we get intimidated when lawyers try to put words in our mouth. (“Can you say that the stab wound on the *insert body part here* caused the patient’s death?”) Are you sure you want me to answer that when autopsy was not done in the first place? For all we know, the patient could have died of a heart attack when he was being transported to the hospital. Being asked with the same question for almost 2 hours, the confusing legal jargon that made me want to ask for an interpreter, and the dagger looks i got from the suspect and his family throughout my testimony were so stressful than i went straight to a spa for a whole day of pampering after the hearing.

    Fast forward to 2015. I am almost done with my 1st year in law school. After falling in love with Criminal Law (i just hope it loves me back come when i get that class card hehehe), I am actually looking forward to my next subpoena duces tecum and ad testificandum, because i know that i can handle any question thrown at me with more confidence. Who wouldnt, if you have thoroughly read the 2 volumes of the Revised Penal Code over the year?

    Legal medicine is a road less travelled for doctors (who would want to take this ordeal when you have actually spent almost half of your lifetime to become a doctor?). Clearly this isn’t a childhood dream but a decision made on the necessity for medicolegal officers in my place of practice (as of this writing, there’s none in my province, and only a handful in the country).

    So far, so good.

    Keep blogging doc, marami kaming nakakarelate sa mga post mo. 😉

  19. Nakakatuwa pong basahin ang post mo na ito..am a lawyer and i get nervous too…. It is not really a choice of what’s right or wrong… Its even more complicated than that haha??

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Names, dates, and events may have been changed to protect the identity of patients. The stories are not meant to provide medical advice for specific illnesses. The author neither accepts online consults nor gives medical advice online. Please consult your trusted physician.