A Dark Corner In My Medical Life
(c) Dr. Rajas Deshpande
“Doc, she is becoming unconscious many times since last night” said the worried husband Mr. Robert Jolly, “even since today morning, she went blank twice”.
The young Mr. & Mrs. Jolly couple was married two years ago, and both worked high-profile. Mrs. Shona Jolly reportedly never had such problems in the past, as confirmed by her mother. Just as I was asking them questions, her neck turned towards one side and she appeared to have become unconscious again. The terrifeid Mr. Jolly tried to wake her up. I asked him to step aside and checked her pulse and heart. Everything appeared fine, but she did not open eyes.
However, while I checked her, Mr. Robert Jolly’s peeping over my shoulder annoyed me, but what really surprised me was the indifference with which Mrs. Shona’s mother was standing aside, calmly watching her unconscious daughter and panicked son in law. We neurologists learn after a long experience how to differentiate whether the patient is truly unconscious or just faking it.(c) Dr. Rajas Deshpande
We are not always right, sometimes the patients indeed have unexplainable symptoms or behavior. So we try to refrain from jumping to early conclusions. I explained them that we needed to run some tests before we could finalise the diagnosis. Mrs. Shona was admitted. The husband Mr. Robert shadowed her 24/7. As the MRI, EEG and almost all other tests turned out normal, I reviewed the case and examined her again. Everything was normal. Now was the time to ask her some private questions.
“May I ask her some questions in privacy?” I asked Mr. Robert.
“”Doc, we hide nothing from each other. I am sure she won’t mind if I stay here”, he said, and looked at Mrs. Shona.
Smiling heartily, she repied “yes doc, you can ask me anything. I don’t hide anything from my husband”.
I told her that as all the tests were normal, we had to look at the possibility of psychological factors like stress, depression or personality disorders etc. , which could cause some of the symptoms she had.
“Oh no no, not at all. I am very happy, I have no stress at home or workplace. I am sure doc, this is not psychological” Mrs. Shona replied. We then had two more opinions by senior consultants. They too did not find anything abnormal. Her “attacks”continued.
On the third day, outside the ward, patient’s mother waited in the corridor, where the couple couldn’t see her. She gestured to me, and whispered hastily “Sir, I am Shona’s mother. Please refer her to a psychiatrist or a counsellor. She has had similar problem in her past, and had felt better after a psychiatrist treated her”.
This was difficult. How could I pressurise the highly educated Mrs. Shona to visit a counsellor / psychiatrist? As her husband continuously accompanied her, it would also be unfair to refer to her past illness in front of him.
I asked Mrs. Shona cautiously: “I feel at this stage we must also involve a counselor, and request her opinion about what is happening”. They both agreed, and I sent her to a counselor. Next day, I received a feedback from the counselor: that the patient definitely needs to visit a psychiatrist. I told Mrs. Shona again that I wanted to speak with her in privacy.(c) Dr. Rajas Deshpande
She quite emphatically said “Whatever it is, Doc, please say it in front of my husband”. Then I told her about the feedback from the counselor.
They went to a psychiatrist suggested by the counselor. She was diagnosed with a condition, and when they followed up to inform me, her mother disclosed in front of Mr. Robert Jolly that Mrs. Shona had been diagnosed and treated earlier for the same. She also guiltily mentioned to Mr. Robert that Shona had threatened her parents that she would cut them off in case they ever spoke about her illness to him or his family.
Once her treatment started, she improved. In a shocking turn of events, Mr. Robert Jolly chose to file for a divorce. Six monts later, I received a bitter letter from Mrs. Shona : that I had not been fair to her because I had referred her to a psychiatrist in front of her husband, that I should have kept her illness confidential and hidden from her husband. She even went on to say that in a way I was responsible for her divorce.
I had done nothing wrong, but this was indeed an emotional blow.
Patients often confess to their doctors what they hide from even their closest family members. This includes many things unacceptable to the society: drug consumption, visits to commercial sex workers, abnormal thoughts and behavior including violence, confessions about the past, extramarital affairs, porn addictions, abuse, abortions and even some diseases like AIDS, Tuberculosis and psychiatric issues as mentioned above. In the extremely orthodox and prejudiced society that we live in, even the legal, moral boundaries of what constitutes private information in such cases are not clearly defined. A husband or parents are automatically presumed to “own”the patient and every bit of information related to the patient, directly questioning the doctor and refusing to follow simple courtesies, manners or etiquettes towards their own family members. There are no presets / guidelines about privacy especially related to women or children.
A doctor’s job becomes all the more difficult when dealing with aggressive, litigant, blame-game prone patients and relatives, from both high and low educated classes. One must treat such cases extremely carefully, and our medical bodies must form strict criteria about patient information privacy that cannot be violated by even their family members.
I kept feeling sad and somewhat guilty about what had happened. But that is also what a doctor must learn to digest. One more dark corner of a doctor’s daily life.
(c) Dr. Rajas Deshpande
Please share unedited