Stranger than Fiction?

“Nobody would believe you if you wrote this in a book,” my mother-in-law said by way of greeting. We had come to visit her daughter, Deb, who was recovering from surgery in the hospital.

I sat down to hear the story. I fully believed that the story would be an interesting, albeit frustrating, one. While I was writing my new novel, QUEEN OF SHOW, my editor expressed doubt about various scenes that had to do with the character’s renal failure and dialysis. My editor thought they sounded unlikely.

That is, she thought they were unlikely until I explained these all happened to Deb.

QUEEN OF SHOW is about a rose breeder and her relationship with her wayward niece. The rose breeder also happens to have kidney failure, like my sister-in-law. Deb provided all the kidney incidents in the book.

For years, I’ve been hearing jaw-dropping medical stories. I guess that’s why they say truth is stranger than fiction.

Deb was in the hospital for about a week; she came home yesterday. A shunt in her leg– basically an implanted plastic tube– had an infection. There was a scab on it that kept breaking off and bleeding. The doctors did nothing about it the first time it broke, saying those just did that sometimes, but she insisted it wasn’t normal. She got a blood infection. Nobody linked it to the shunt. It bled again, and again the doctors wanted to leave it alone.

Of course, Deb was right about the bleeding not being normal. It began gushing blood again while she was at work, and she had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital, where they finally did something about the shunt. Now they think the blood infection may have been caused by the shunt. Um, yeah, we all suspected that two months ago.

So now to the more unbelievable part that happened while she was in one of the country’s top-rated hospitals. When she was admitted, she was admitted to internal medicine, so that was the unit in charge of all her orders. Other doctors, like her kidney doctor, could request an order be written.

She was supposed to get an ultrasound of her upper chest, to find a vein they can use for a catheter. She’s had three transplants and the veins are mostly unusable now. The kidney doc asked for this to be done, but it had to be passed up the chain of command through internal medicine.

This turned out to be like a highly annoying telephone game. Somebody botched the orders, and a tech came in with orders for a leg ultrasound.

“It’s supposed to be on my upper chest,” she insisted.

The tech went away. Eventually, another tech showed up and said she was supposed to scan her arms.

“That’s wrong,” she said.

“That’s what the orders say,” the tech said.

So the chest ultrasound had to wait another day.

Nobody seemed to think it was a big deal– after all, ultrasounds are harmless– but the awful bureaucracy makes it likely that they also mess up orders on harmful tests (which she’s also experienced). Also, the useless ultrasounds will still be billed to Medicare.

Why doesn’t the hospital simply have the doctor who wants the order done, write the order? I don’t know. The chief of Internal Medicine came in to talk to her and made it clear that all the orders had to be written through her, yet refused to take responsibility for the botched tests.

In case you think hers is an isolated incident, the woman in the next bed was supposed to have a colonoscopy. To do this, you have to drink a bowel-cleaning terrible fluid and not eat. It is not a pleasant process. In the afternoon, someone came in and told her, “Oh, there was a mix-up. We’re not doing your colonscopy today. We’ll do it tomorrow.”

So this poor woman had to go through all the bowel-cleaning again and stay overnight, to boot.

Has the IRS been teaching hospital administration?

I’m just frustrated on her behalf. You’re lying there powerless, trying to get better, while all these people around you who are supposed to be professionals with 12 years of schooling seem to be purposely messing things up. I guess it goes to show you that you should always try to have someone with you to advocate if you’re in the hospital; and you shouldn’t be afraid to question people, even if that makes you a “bad patient.”

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

One thought on “Stranger than Fiction?

  1. That’s so scary, it’s surprising more people don’t die from hospital mistakes. I can’t believe this stuff happens-you’d think that hospitals of all places would double-and-triple check orders. That colonoscopy screw-up is probably one reason why people don’t get one.

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