To the Doctor Who Risked My Life on an Assumption

I know I must be the hundredth patient you’ve seen today. I know you’re overworked to the point beyond exhaustion. I know there are so many demands on your time that you don’t even have a moment to think which one to do next. I know this emergency room is full of people, some of them really sick, some of them not. I understand all of that. But I need you to pay attention to me for just a short time. Your full attention. I know you have a million nurses asking for a million consults and mine doesn’t “appear” urgent, so it falls to the bottom of the list.

You don’t know it, but I’ve been here for hours. The waiting room was full when we arrived. I completely understand that first you have to treat the people who are actively dying and work down from that. But just because a cursory glance seems OK doesn’t mean all is actually well.

You can’t have known the intake nurse already doubted my story, that when I couldn’t even answer her questions because I was so confused, I wasn’t doing it for attention. That my mum isn’t overbearing at all, she was just trying to explain something very complicated and serious in a very short space of time. People keep trying to tell her that her child is not ill when she knows she is. When you doubted what she said and looked to me for answers, I had absolutely no idea what you were saying. I could just about manage my name, date of birth and a pain rating.

I think the first words we said to you were, “They think she has encephalitis.” You didn’t scoff but you immediately looked unconvinced. I think there were comments about how unusual that was, what a rare condition it is. “Start some fluids and run bloods.” We didn’t see you again for quite some time.

When you said the bloods look normal, it felt like you were denying my illness. Like you couldn’t be convinced that all my symptoms weren’t just a bad virus. A few more fluids and you sent us home and told us to check up with my GP in a few days.

I’ll be blunt when I say this: in doing that, you were risking my life on an assumption. An assumption that a young, apparently healthy young woman couldn’t be suddenly struck by a deadly illness; and if she had been, the signs would be a bit more obvious.

Thankfully, we quickly found a team of doctors – professors in their fields – who confirmed our suspicions. Not only did I have encephalitis, I had meningitis as well. In sending me home, you risked me needing a ventilator, being paralyzed or even dying. I spent the next six months in bed; I live every day with the complications of my condition and may do so for the rest of my life. I remember almost nothing about that
period of time, but I do remember your dismissal of my illness.

It’s likely we’ll never meet again so I can’t tell you all about it. Maybe if you read this, you’ll realize medical unicorns do exist. Please for the next terrified, horribly ill young girl you meet, take what she is saying seriously. We went to the emergency room at the bidding of a senior GP and professor of neurology; it’s not something we undertook lightly.

My symptoms – I later discovered – were quite classic of meningoencephalitis:
confusion, increasing disorientation, excruciating head and neck pain, difficulty
walking and speaking, photophobia, fever, vomiting and loss of balance.
In fact, young adults are one of the groups at highest risk of meningitis. It should have been a serious option for diagnosis.

I don’t know if my outcome would have been different if you had managed to diagnose me instead of assuming my good health. I would have definitely have gotten intervention earlier; maybe you could have gotten my excruciating pain under control or reassured my distraught family that everything was being done to keep me alive. I am forever grateful for the group of private doctors who managed to diagnose and treat me before it was too late. I literally owe them my life.

But I often think back to that terrified girl on that rickety ER gurney, how my story was doubted from the beginning, how I was told I was making a fuss. That was the first time I trusted my gut to know something was terribly wrong, even if yours told you otherwise.

Thanks to you I now trust my instinct. I trust when my body is telling me something has changed or gone wrong. Since that fateful day, it’s served me many times.

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