Thursday, July 15, 2004

Doctors and the Patients Who Sue Them

Virginia Hand is suing two doctors. While I don't pretend to understand her plight, I believe her case against these doctors is an example of a culture of blame, which makes tort reform necessary to protect health care professionals. Such reform would have drastic impacts on the cost of health care in America.

Mrs. Hand was long suffering from Lupus. It is an incurable, autoimmune disease which can cause a myriad of symptoms, including tissue damage throughout the body. Two years ago, Mrs. Hand was given two additional diagnoses. The first was end-stage pulmonary hypertension, giving her about six months to live. A few weeks later she received, from another doctor, a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer - usually fatal within a short period of time.

Blood and heart related problems are very common for those who suffer certain stages of Lupus, especially those who have had the disease over a long period of time. Symptoms brought on by Lupus are often very similar to those of heart and blood related diseases - as well as problems with other organs. Medications used to treat Lupus can mask symptoms of some diseases and exacerbate symptoms of others. The bottom line is diagnoses are difficult for any patient with multiple, serious health problems.

Hand gave up.

She planned her own funeral, down to the tea sandwiches. Ministers visited her at home to give last rites. Friends said goodbye. Her sons grappled with the pending loss.

"It was like life ended. It was like we weren't even a family anymore. All we talked about was medicine," Hand said in an interview this week. "I just wanted it to end because I didn't want to put the family through anything anymore."

She says she started taking morphine, stopped taking care of herself and in many ways stopped living. She waited for death to come.

And waited and waited.

Her family thought her demise might come by Halloween, so they canceled a Halloween party. Then they thought the end would come by Thanksgiving. That came and went.

Maybe Christmas. Surely by New Year's Day, they thought.

The turning point came around Valentine's Day. Hand was actually starting to feel better. Problems with breathing and fatigue had faded, even though she stopped treating her lupus.

Mrs. Hand states the eventual good news brought some relief, but she feels she wasted nine months waiting to die - that's understandable. She also has lost much of her relationship with her son. She's suing for medical malpractice, but a lawyer, unrelated to the case, states, "A medical malpractice case, by definition, is a doctor not complying with a standard of care. This causes injuries to the patient. You don't really injure patients when you tell them something they don't really have. The only damages the patient has in the case you're talking about is the worry about dying."

With Lupus, that is already a large concern.

Hand said her son, Bryan, "still believes I made it all up and believes I'm a raging hypochondriac." Reached in California this week, he declined to comment.

This is also understandable, if one is taking morphine for symptoms which should be present, but are not.

What is not understandable is why Mrs. Hand would sue someone for her good fate; the ability to mend fences and enjoy what's left of life.

God Bless America.


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