Have a Story to Tell? Had a medical error?

This blog is about patient safety, medical malpractice, staying healthy, and preventing future errors. Help & empower someone else, Teach a lesson, Bear witness, Build our community - Email us or call 781-444-5525.

Frustrated with a health problem?

Need an ally in your health crisis? Call 781-444-5525, or learn more.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

He Was Judge, Victim, and Addict: An adverse drug reaction

This story may seem too wild to be true, but was based on physicians’ testimony and records, as reported by NPR, Fox News, and others.

Unexpected harmful reactions to drugs (“adverse drug reactions”) can sometimes land a person in the hospital. Sometimes the damage is self-inflicted.

For 10 years or more, William Rehnquist, the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, had been taking Placidyl. Placidyl is usually prescribed for insomnia; others describe it as a prescription pain-killer. Known as a habit-forming drug, it is recommended for no more than nightly use, usually for no more than a week. Rehnquist had been taking two to three times the prescribed dose, for many years. Apparently this was deliberate; he may have consistently filled a three-month prescription each month. The prescribed dose itself was nearly toxic, so much so that an investigating physician considered the prescribing physician’s behavior to be “borderline malpractice.” One reason: overdoses of Placidyl can create severe drowsiness, continuing confusion, and slurred speech, among other symptoms. Rehnquist was admitted to a hospital, claiming stress and anxiety. The doctor’s diagnosis was delirium, brought on by the overdosing. Rehnquist hallucinated that he was hearing others plotting against him, including the CIA. A doctor reported that he tried to flee the hospital in his pajamas. During his week-long hospital stay, doctors gradually reduced his drug level, and substituted an anti-psychotic drug.

Tough advice for spouses: If you are worried that your spouse is abusing a medicine that may be addictive, look at the dates and the prescribing doctors on the drug labels. You may need to have a difficult conversation with the pharmacist, psychiatrist, doctor, or your spouse.

Read another story of a famous person’s medical error or hear Nina Totenberg’s report on National Public Radio.