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More than 30 years have passed since the near-fatal medication error but Michael Villeneuve recalls the moment with absolute clarity.

The little man on his shoulder was telling him 'wait a second, something is not right here,' but Villeneuve, then a cocky young nurse eager to keep pace with his colleagues in an Ontario intensive care unit, went ahead and administered the medication.

The instant he did so, he knew exactly what he'd done: right drug, wrong patient.

Now the chief executive officer at the Canadian Nurses Association, Villeneuve frequently draws upon that experience in his day-to-day work to promote better care, better health and better nursing across the country.

As a youngster, Villeneuve always dreamed of becoming a surgeon. His grandmother was a director of nursing in a small rural hospital and used to take him by the hand and lead him, spellbound, along with her as she did her rounds. His ambitions shifted slightly in high school after a family friend helped him get a job as an orderly at an Ottawa hospital. He was there less than an hour before he realized he was far more fascinated by what the nurses were doing than the doctors.

"There was something about the competence of those women," Villeneuve recalls. "If you've been in an emergency department with certain women running the place, there's a kind of swagger and an attitude that's quite intoxicating when you're young. I just thought, 'I want to be like that.' That's where I ended up working in emergency intensive care, neurosurgery and so on, and never looked back. To this day, I would never change a second of it.

"Except I wouldn't make the mistake."

The mistake happened back in 1985. Two years after graduating nursing school Villeneuve had moved from a ward setting into a neurosurgical intensive care unit. He'd only been there a few weeks. At that time in the profession a male nurse was still something of a novelty and Villeneuve was eager to prove his worth. In that setting, an open ward with 12 beds, the pace is fast. Villeneuve remembers being so impressed by the confident execution and rapid thinking of the nurses around him.

"When I think back to what happened, I do think some of it was trying to be better, faster maybe than I was, if you know what I mean."

On the day of the incident, Villeneuve had two patients in his care — one with high potassium levels, the other with low potassium. The charge nurse took a call from a doctor, directing potassium be administered to one of his patients. She transcribed the order, called Villeneuve over and holding up the order sheet, instructed him to give medication A to patient B.

It is something in that chain of events, a partially obscured order sheet, the utterance of one patient's name rather than the other, that sent Villeneuve to the wrong bedside.

"I took the medication, which I had drawn up, potassium, and was about to give it to the patient and — this was a big lesson for me in my entire career — I thought, something was wrong," Villeneuve says.

"I thought something was triggering me, something's wrong with this. What I didn't do was stop. I pushed it in, slowly, but pushed it in. It wasn't two seconds after I finished that I thought, oh, it's the wrong patient; it's the guy with the high potassium that I just overdosed with a whole bunch more potassium. Literally I nearly collapsed. I thought, my career's over, I'm going to lose my license, he's going to die."

Villeneuve owned up to the error immediately and nurses and doctors swept in to attend to the patient, whose heart went into immediate distress. To make matters even worse, the patient was a senior physician himself. Villeneuve was so upset that his colleagues basically parked him in an adjacent staff lounge for the remainder of the day.

"It's 32 or 33 years ago that that happened and it is still cemented in my mind, everything about the lighting in that room that day, the look of people around me, how I felt, what I learned about when the little man on your shoulder says, 'Slow down,' you should slow down before you hurt somebody," Villeneuve says.

He views his experience as a perfect example of what is confirmed so often in medicine and nursing, which is that errors most often happen at points of handoff in care.

"We see it in handoffs even in home care from registered nurses who provide plans of care and delegate care to a licensed practical nurse who may delegate that to a nursing assistant or a personal support worker and, a point of great error, onto families," Villeneuve says.

"Because families provide a lot of care. So it's not just a critical care unit issue or a hospital issue; it's across the healthcare system. Points of handoff, and the more of them there are, the more chances that there are for an error."

Villeneuve spent an entire second shift in that staff lounge that fateful day, panic-stricken about his patient, worried about his future, wracked by that "terrible fear of error" that hangs over nursing from graduation day onwards. But as the hours passed it eventually became clear the patient would survive. It was only then that Villeneuve had a chance to talk things over with his head nurse, who was wonderfully supportive.

"I was expecting when she came in that I might be disciplined, I might be sent home. Her comment was, 'What did you learn?' " Villeneuve recalls, choking up at the memory.

"She said, 'slow down.' One of the nurses I really looked up to was a nurse named Jennifer who was so competent. And she said, 'You're not Jennifer yet. Settle down. Stop. Double check.' All the things I knew I should've done. And it helped me reduce my ego, which was quite constrained after that incident."

It was a major life lesson for him. When that little man on your shoulder says stop, it's like encountering the yellow light at the intersection. You shouldn't speed up, you should slow it down.

Even now in my administrative roles, my teaching roles, if I sense something's wrong, I just say to people, 'I need a day to think about that.' I try to not make snap decisions and I think my decisions are better."