Thursday, January 12, 2012


I have created art with children in preschool and elementary classrooms for the past ten years. Like many artists before me, I only use permanent paint and markers. Each pencil top ends in a metal ferrule, and where the eraser once resided, now a hole remains. Often parents respond in disbelief, “How can you give little children permanent paint? What if they paint and make an error? Or how do you fix a mistake without an eraser?”

The answer is simple; you can’t. The “mistake” or “error” will be there for the teacher to see and for the student to learn from. Fine art is a lot like medicine. Mistakes will be made that cannot be erased and the results of those mistakes provide valuable lessons. We learn so much from our mistakes. The human mind is wired to respond to negative emotions. We can remember failure with great precision, and apply that memory to our current task.  The memory of failure need not even be our own error: we can apply the lessons of experience that others teach us and create a better outcome in our art and in our life.

In my class, I can often help a child incorporate a mistake into a work of art. I call them “happy accidents.” I tell the child this is an opportunity to create organic change within his piece. I try to redirect a child away from crumpling up his work and walking away. I help him save whatever is left and his “mistake” becomes part of my teaching strategy from that day forward. I am a teacher; if my students make an error, I must own that. I must re-evaluate the method of instruction and determine if this was a system error.

Yes, there are “happy accidents” in art. Sometimes the art is even better for the error that occurred during creation. But in medicine most accidents are not happy ones, and errors can have horrible ramifications. Yet we still can learn from these tragic occurrences, sometimes called “never events.”  The key to using a mistake for greater edification is to embrace the information rather than conceal it.

Not long ago I was perusing videos on the website and I saw a video interview of Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, DNP, FAAN. She was talking about mistakes in nursing practice.
I was amazed by one line in her interview. After a nurse makes an error, Dr. Erickson asks her, “Did you commit this error on purpose?”  She said that the nurse is taken aback by such a question. When the nurse says no, then Dr. Erickson responds, “Well, then, it is my fault, because errors stem from system flaws.”

I was so excited to see this clip. So many of my friends who work in patient advocacy do so because someone they loved was hurt or died while in a medical care facility. My fellow advocates speak out every day so others will not have to suffer as they did. The have become living examples of system failure. All they ask is that providers listen to and embrace these advocates’ stories.

Just as in my art class, there is no place for erasers in lessons on medical error. There is only embracing the mistake, doing one’s best to prevent additional harm, and using this as a true “educational opportunity” so others will not have to suffer as we did.