A patient I met and, in the wash of clerkships, left behind, left an incredible impression on me even though I barely knew her. Almost every detail about this person is altered to protect her.
"Stacy" was a middle-aged woman who became pregnant under extremely bad circumstances. Her family started to notice that she was acting strange. To their alarm, she began to tell them she saw and heard things they could not see or hear: she was hallucinating. The duress of her pregnancy had affected her so severely that she had become disconnected with reality. She went to the emergency room after suffering a psychogenic seizure, and I rounded on her her shortly thereafter.
As I flipped through her chart before going to see her, I asked the nurse what was going on.
"It's crazy," the nurse said, speaking of the situation. She gave me more and more details as I went through the records, underlining hCG values and the ER course. "And her family doesn't want to keep it," the nurse finished.
I froze. Doesn't want to keep it. They wanted an abortion.
"What does she want?" I asked.
The nurse shrugged. "She can't say, most of the time. She has these good times when she makes sense, but sometimes she babbles and acts bizarre. Sometimes she doesn't know she's pregnant when you ask her."
I continued reviewing records mechanically, and went to see the patient, wondering what I could do. The first time I spoke with Stacy was during one of her lucid times. After introducing myself and seating us in a private and comfortable place, I told her I wanted to talk with her briefly and then gently asked her, "What brought you here?"
She gazed at me innocently, almost emptily, with warm brown eyes. "I'm pregnant," she said simply.
"That's right," I said.
"I'm eight weeks," she added.
"Exactly," I said with a smile. "Do you know what that means?"
She shook her head.
"It means your baby's heart is beating," I said, "and he has all his fingers and toes."
"Oh," she said, her voice inflecting for the first time, a little flicker of a healthy mind. "Maybe I'll keep it."
Those were her exact words, and I cannot forget them. The interview went on, and I wrote my progress note and left. At rounds a few minutes later, the story became even more nightmarish as I discovered that my attending and my fellow students were all hoping that she could get an abortion. Perversely, we carefully looked up what psychiatric drugs she should most safely take in pregnancy and consulted a psychiatrist with experience in that. Even as we hoped that Stacy's embryo would be eradicated, we protected that embryo from possible adverse effects of the medicines we prescribed.
The week churned on and I moved away from Stacy's floor while other students worked on her care. I heard new of her remotely when students would talk about her, and the reports were not good: she had fewer lucid times and finally none at all despite changing her medicines. Meanwhile, her family was trying to arrange for an abortion. I stormed heaven and asked friends and family to do the same.
Stacy's case became very complex and the hospital system ethics committee met over a weekend, weeks after her admission, to decide whether she could have an abortion. Her case was described in detail at our rotation's grand rounds, where another student
presented and the general feeling among my peers and professors was annoyance that the "stupid" hospital was keeping this woman from her healthcare. I felt dizzy sitting with them, as if I were in a horror movie or some barbaric country.
After that rotation ended, I texted Stacy's attending and asked about Stacy. It was then that I discovered that the first ethics committee did not approve her abortion, but she ended up having one somewhere else.
I have so many sad thoughts about this case, including things like, should I have insisted on seeing Stacy beyond my time on her ward? It wouldn't have been impossible. Should I have talked with her more about her baby? I didn't want to be coercive but I might have saved a life. Should I have at least documented her desire to keep the pregnancy? I'm sure it might have meant something to the ethics committee if it didn't to her attending and my peers. I was afraid to write it, because I worried that her flip-flopping between options would be seen as a sign of worsening psychosis (which wouldn't be good for the baby's survival or for her), and because I didn't want to be accused of disturbing her "decision."
What a hard case! Please pray for "Stacy" and her family, and her little child. She is apparently back to her normal self and out of her psychosis, but she is not finished dealing with what happened to her this year.
This post was a draft for over a year. I marked it as a "perpetual draft," one of a set of posts that will never be released to protect my career and to protect vulnerable patients. But I decided to release it after I matched, and since it has been such a long time since this occurred.
This post was a draft because I experienced a bit of resistance in my psychiatry clerkship from a pro-choice fourth year (who couldn't believe someone wouldn't do this patient's abortion) and from professors (who called me into an impromptu meeting when I asked too many questions about homosexuality and gender identity disorder). Now, I'm putting it out.