On June 1, 2011, a patient diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG) died after falling in Wellington Regional Hospital in New Zealand.
Those are the basic facts, but behind this tragedy lies something much more complicated: a fatal case of “he said, she said.”
“She” was a 39-year-old woman by the name of Tracy Lee Whitchelo. Having lived with MG, Whitchelo suffered well-documented muscle weakness and a propensity for falling.
Actually, a bad fall at home was the very reason Whitchelo was in the hospital. She was afraid her MG was worsening and turned to Wellington Regional Hospital for care.
“Care” isn’t exactly what she received. According to Whitchelo in texts to her father, despite the fact that she was admitted for an MG-related fall, she was forced to stand, walk, even crawl unsupported, “falling [repeatedly] face first onto the disgusting floor.”
This all culminated with Whitchelo being made to stand one-footed one day. She tipped backwards during the exercise and cracked her head against that same, disgusting floor.
Doctors predicted brain damage from the resulting bleed and Whitchelo’s family made the difficult decision to remove her from life support.
They believe that it was the hospital’s gross misconduct that led to Whitchelo’s death and are desperate for an apology from hospital staff.
But that apology is not forthcoming.
The “he” of the case, Whitchelo’s doctor, disputes the idea that he and the hospital were negligent or not supportive when it came to Whitchelo’s MG. Instead, he claims that MG wasn’t the problem at all: he believed Whitchelo displayed “abnormal illness behavior.”
In other words, he basically thought she was faking her symptoms while in the hospital.
He and a nurse who also handled Whitchelo’s care, described Whitchelo as being pre-occupied (i.e. obsessed) with her MG, which wasn’t worsening.
The doctor in particular claimed she was manipulative with staff, hoarded medication, and didn’t “fall” on that fateful day: She threw herself.
With such differing accounts, a formal coroner’s inquest had to be made. Unfortunately, the verdict hadn’t been made publicly available when I wrote this.
Which only leaves us with “he said’s,” “she said’s,” and a very bad taste in our mouths.
I can’t say for sure what happened in that hospital, but I can say this: the doctor’s words are deeply disturbing to me.
If it’s true that Whitchelo was experiencing “abnormal illness behavior” in addition to her MG: Is he telling me that that’s why this woman deserved to feel unsafe in his care?
Abnormal illness behavior isn’t malicious or conscious, but rather a subconscious response to psycho-social distress.
How is that “manipulative?”
Shouldn’t a person facing not one but two conditions—one mental, one physical—be given careful support?
But the hospital didn’t do that.
They left Whitchelo on the floor and now, her family is left with nothing.
We all deserve better than that. I hope when it comes to your care, you have a team that offers you all the support and guidance you need.
What do you think hospital administrative needs to do to stop this situation from happening again? Discuss below!