This new column will be published every Sunday. It will explain how to avoid pitfalls that can harm you as you seek the very best care that modern medicine can give you.

When I was 15, I was rushed to the hospital because I almost stopped breathing. My throat was nearly swollen shut. I couldn't talk because of all the swelling. I was confined to bed because my doctor was worried that any movement at all could trigger a coughing attack that would completely close my throat. "Don't even try to whisper!" he warned me, for the same reason.

The hospital staff set up a surgical kit next to my bed and one of them said, "Press the call button if your breathing gets any worse." To save my life, they would have to operate on me right there, cutting an emergency airway through my neck. They said, "You would die before we could get you to an operating room."

Whenever I hit the call button, they would not know if it was an emergency or if I just needed a drink of water. They told me that to be safe, "When you hit the call button, someone will always come running."

A few hours into my stay, I pressed the call button for the first time.

Nobody showed up.

Instead, a moment later, a voice came over the intercom, asking, "What do you need?" Of course, I couldn't talk, so I couldn't answer. After a minute, the voice said sternly, "If you don't say what you need, no one will come." I froze, and realized in a flash that I could die -- at the age of 15, in the hospital, with the surgical tools to save my life lying less than two feet away.

That was my first hint that the promise of health care to save lives can fall apart. Gaps like the one I experienced are not intentional on the part of doctors and nurses. Almost every health care professional I have ever talked with or heard about comes to work intending to do a good job. But things often go wrong. The health care system saves millions of lives every year, but it also has a lot of problems.

Interestingly, many of the biggest problems in health care are not due to a lack of technology or a lack of money. They are due to hidden assumptions on the part of doctors and nurses -- and on the part of patients and their families.

For example, in my situation, perhaps the person on the other end of the intercom assumed, "If a child presses the call button and then doesn't answer me when I speak to her, she must be fooling around."

Research shows that health care workers sometimes assume that patients are clueless, self-centered, attention-seeking, or purposely disruptive -- when they are not.  It is easy to see that injuries and even deaths can follow. 

Medical professionals aren’t the only ones whose assumptions are dangerous.  For example, my mother assumed that I was safe in the hospital, and that there was no need for her to be there.

Future columns will explore assumptions like these that can lead to unexpected problems for you.   More importantly, the column will offer action steps that anyone can take to reduce the chances that they will be hurt by the care they get.

If you are going to read this column, you might want to know my background. 

I was an executive for 20 years with Johnson & Johnson.  In 1996, while at J&J, I started to research the impact of the health care system on the people it serves, and discovered a disturbing picture that reminds me of lines from a children’s nursery rhyme:  “And when she was good, she was very, very good.  And when she was bad, she was horrid.”  That is, health care performs miracles -- and injures millions of people by accident at the same time.

And when she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was horrid." That is, health care performs miracles -- and injures millions of people by accident at the same time.

In 2008, I founded Pario Health Institute. The focus of our work is to promote change so that health care's purpose becomes "to enable people to lead the lives they want." Part of that work involves helping people understand what they can do to get better results from health care today.

My husband Stephen Brubaker and I are happy to call Prescott our home. We enjoy hiking (everything from Thumb Butte to the Lakeshore Trail off the Peavine to Granite Mountain), mountain biking, swimming, yoga and tai chi.