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Friday, January 28, 2011

I'm happy to give you a free blood test: A tetanus shot injection error

Ellen Kagan's story:
At the end of my visit with my new primary care doctor, he asked me if I wanted a tetanus shot. I acquiesced. He went to get the syringe and came back very quickly, shoving it into my arm. Pulling it out as if he had hit a live wire, he exclaimed, "My God! I forgot the serum!"

I stared at him blankly, totally losing my ability to breathe and to comprehend what he had just said to me. Then I started to understand and I became terrified, starting to shake uncontrollably, in my Johnny and my legs dangling over the side of the table. All I could think was, "Where did that needle come from? Did he just give me AIDS?" And, unbelievably, because my mind was completely frozen, I allowed him to come back and insert another needle into my arm, this time with serum.

Dazed, I quickly got dressed and met him in his office, where he told me that I was in great condition. "Sure," I thought, "if you didn't kill me just now!" I could hardly say a word to him – I think I responded in monosyllables – and then ran as fast as I could out of his building.

I was so traumatized that I did not tell anyone what had happened to me. I just could not process it and felt sure that I was going to die. AIDS was a major topic at this time – 1993 – and everyone had heard horror stories of patients, as well as doctors and nurses, contracting it through contaminated needles.

Finally, three weeks later, unthinking, I blurted it out to my friend, Joe, who was stunned and cried, "My God, Ellen, that doctor could have killed you. That's how prisoners get rid of themselves in jail. They inject air into their veins!" Luckily for me, the tetanus shot goes into your muscle or I would have been dead instantaneously in the office of my doctor, a Harvard Medical School Professor of Medicine.

Later, to get my medical record, I made the trek back to his office, a place that I never wanted to see again. When I arrived, he was innocence itself when he greeted me and, instinctively, I understood that his attitude was a cover of his fear of what I would do about the tetanus shot. Focusing all his attention on me, he asked, "Why don't you want to come back to me, Ellen?"

I was certain that he already knew my answer, but that he was hoping that I had brushed off the terrifying incident. Moreover, by questioning me in front of his patients, I believed that he hoped that I would be too embarrassed to confront him. Clearly, he did not know me, and, undaunted, I said in as loud a voice as I could summon, "Well, Doctor, you almost gave me a heart attack when your tetanus shot had no serum. I was scared stiff – I still am – that you gave me AIDS. Where did your needle come from?"

Calmly and coolly, as if he were asked this question every day – and maybe he was – he said, "Oh, Ellen, that needle was perfectly fine. To prove it, I'm happy to give you a free blood test!" I looked at him in amazement. Did he really think that I would let him near me again and that I would trust his results? I declined his offer and was out of his office as soon as possible, grateful that I was still alive to tell the tale.

I have one regret about this incident: I did not report the doctor to the Mass. Board of Registration in Medicine. My beloved doctor Hank had protected me from the dark side of medicine, and I was a novice in Medicaland. As a result, I believed that the tetanus shot mistake was an aberration and that it would never happen again.

Today, though, I know that these horrors happen all the time. Therefore, I would be proactive and make public these terrible events. By not taking such a stance, I allowed an incompetent doctor to continue to practice very bad medicine and, perhaps, cause grievous harm to many more of his patients.

Read a story about a vastly different way that another culture prevents tetanus.

Thanks to Ellen Kagan for authorization to reprint this excerpt from her book, Ellen in Medicaland: True Stories of How I Fell Down Medicine's Black Hole and Still Lived After All.

1 comment:

Eye on the Ward said...

Just highlights the audacity of some medical professionals when us mere mortals dare to question their actions! They are human and the sooner they accept they make mistakes and own up to them, rather than try to convince everyone they are the only people on earth who are infallable the better.