Several years ago, I read an article about the importance of patient advocacy. “Never leave someone you love alone in a hospital,” the writer said. The reason? The high rate of medical mistakes, some of which are fatal.
After years of being at the bedside of hospitalized loved ones ‘round the clock, for days at a time, I know how true this is. Sometimes hospital staff—from orderlies to nurses to department heads—are rushed and overworked. Other times, they’re simply too arrogant to admit their mistakes. But recently, something happened that caused me great alarm, and which I wasn’t prepared for. It involves a friend of mine, and I believe she came very close to dying.
I drove Polly (not her real name) to Mon General Hospital here in Morgantown, West Virginia, for a routine colonoscopy, which involves anesthesia but not intubation (a breathing tube inserted into the airway). I was in the room when they wheeled her off to surgery; I was still there when she returned twenty minutes later. On similar occasions, while waiting for a family member or friend following surgery, they were sound asleep, with no movement whatsoever. But that day, I saw something very strange: Polly’s legs were flailing and she was trying to sit up while grasping her throat and coughing.
While trying to help calm Polly down, I asked the nurse anesthetist how she did. “Fine,” he said, “but she’s a little wild waking up. Combative.”
“Does that happen very often?” I said.
“Sometimes,” he replied.
“What causes it?” I asked him.
“Usually anxiety,” he said, “she was probably anxious about the procedure.”
Then he chastised Polly for being so “combative,” and stepped in front of me, up to the head of the bed, where he told her to lay back down and scoot up in the bed so she wouldn’t fall off. (Yes, that’s how vigorously she was thrashing around on the bed.) Polly did as she was told, but still seemed upset. Clearly, something was wrong.
A few seconds later, when she had recovered enough to speak, Polly kept saying her throat burned. Asking for Tums. “I don’t know why your throat burns,” he told her, “you didn’t have a tube down your throat.”
Which is true. During the procedure, Polly didn’t need to be intubated. She was breathing on her own—which is how she aspirated stomach fluid into her lungs. And why she was “wild and combative” and why her throat burned. (And later, she would say, her nose and ears.)
Polly, an asthmatic, was also wheezing and coughing by then. A lot. Loudly. He asked if she had her inhaler with her, and when she said yes, he told her to use it. She did, but it didn’t help much.
Still, about thirty minutes later, Polly was discharged.
In addition to the asthma, Polly has acid reflux. She’s had it since childhood, and several family members have it. Neither of us recall the medical staff talking about her reflux problem when they prepped her for the procedure, as we were too focused on another problem. That is, the type of anesthesia they planned to use. Polly requested a different one, because last year when she went for a colonoscopy, she stopped breathing, so the anesthetist stopped the procedure entirely.
After being sent home last year, Polly, a college-educated woman who is exceptionally bright, later discussed this with her other doctors, and researched the drug. What she found convinced her the anesthesia was to blame. She tried to tell both the anesthetist and her medical doctor that she wanted a different anesthesia, but no one would listen. In the end, we both feel like the anesthetist bullied her and her physician into letting them use the same gas they used last year.
So guess what? Something went wrong again. But what? Neither of us know for sure. I was alert and conscious, unlike Polly, and I took the expert’s word for it: there was nothing wrong, and Polly could go home. In short order, she was discharged. I went to get the car, and she later told me that she was so weak from not being able to breathe well that she could barely get dressed.
Within an hour or so of arriving home from the hospital, after Polly was tucked into bed, I heard a distinct rattling in her chest, and realized she was short of breath. The airway sounds carried me back to the days of nursing a sick child, when my middle daughter came down with pneumonia every year. I told Polly to call her doctor, who told her to return to the hospital for a chest X-ray. We went to the emergency department, where we spent the next five hours. Polly received three breathing treatments from a nebulizer, steroids, and an antibiotic. The ED doc said, yes, the chest X-ray did show something in her right lung. Terms like “aspiration pneumonitis” and “pneumonia” fell from the lips of the medical staffers who saw Polly that evening.
Two days later, even using the nebulizer four times a day, she was no better, so I took Polly to see her family doctor. That doctor prescribed a different antibiotic, saying the first one wouldn’t treat this particular type of pneumonia. (Apparently, stomach fluid is gram-negative, but the ED doc had prescribed a gram-positive drug.)
By Friday, when Polly was still no better, I did some research and found that combative patients like Polly are in distress. They aren’t acting up because they have a difficult personality—something is very wrong. Being “wild and combative” after a medical procedure indicates the patient has had, as a different nurse anesthetist told me later, an “incident,”—which the medical staff should see as a potentially life-threatening problem.
Polly now says she was in distress. “I was fighting for my life!” I believe her. And wonder if the staff was more intent on the patients who were lined up, assembly-line style, for their colonoscopies, than they were on Polly? I still don’t know.
But last Monday morning, one week later, Polly still hadn’t gotten out of her nightgown, except when she went back to the doctor. She still had no energy, had developed a low-grade fever, and was in a great deal of pain—because her mouth, ears and throat burned so bad she could barely eat, much less speak. So we made yet another trip to the doctor, where she received yet another diagnosis: chemical burns, from the reflux that occurred during the colonoscopy.
I hope Polly recovers completely, and soon. Meanwhile, please learn from us and do not allow you or your loved one to be bullied into something of a medical nature which your gut tells you may kill you.
Equally vital, never ever let the hospital staff send you home when you’ve flailed around on the bed like a fish out of water, following surgery. Insist they keep you for observation, if nothing else. Patients have a bill of rights, and medical folks are supposed to honor them. When they don’t, though, you can’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and demand they find out what’s wrong—and then treat it.
Finally, always, no matter how routine the procedure, stay with your loved one in the hospital. Doing so could just save their life.
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My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my first memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April. Prior to those two books, Guilt by Matrimony was released last November. It’s about the murder of Aspen socialite Nancy Pfister.
My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Ms. Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”