A thirty-five-year-old man with a history of drug and alcohol abuse as well as mental illness, eloped from a long-term residential rehab facility in Georgia. He flew to our fair, California city to watch WrestleMania. I don’t know if he enjoyed the show or not but while here, he relapsed and fell into drinking excessively and taking methamphetamines.
This landed him in our emergency department, from which he was sent to psychiatry. There, he was evaluated and discharged. The psychiatrist said he could not be held against his will because he was not a danger to himself, a danger to others or gravely disabled. She noted he was sorry for what he had done. He promised to go to the airport, fly back to Georgia, return to his rehab and resume care with his psychiatrist.
If he really did make that promise to the psychiatrist, he didn’t follow through. In the subsequent week, he was kicked out of three different hotels because of problems caused by his excessive drug and alcohol abuse.
He was readmitted to our emergency department during my shift. In addition to being addled from methamphetamines, he also had severe conjunctivitis or eye infection. Both of his eyes were so swollen, red and yucky with dried discharge he was unable to open them. Usually, conjunctivitis is an annoyance. This man’s eye infection was particularly bad because his methamphetamine use caused him to dig and pick at his eyes constantly. He was aware enough to feel the irritation in his eyes but not aware enough to stop digging at them.
When we met, he was sleeping on a gurney in the hallway. I prodded him and called his name. He moaned and shifted a bit but was unable to talk. He was also unable to open his eyes because they were, literally, glued together with crusty yellow discharge. I had to pinch his upper and lower eyelids and pull them apart in order to see his red, swollen eyes underneath.
My plan was to observe him until his drugs wore off and then discharge him with antibiotics.
Over the next several hours, his mental status gradually improved and he was finally able to converse. He told me about coming to California because he loved WrestleMania. He admitted he had been drinking and doing drugs and, though he said he was sorry, he also admitted he had no plans to change any of his present behaviors when he left the emergency department. He also had no plans to return to Georgia any time soon. He denied having suicidal ideas, though he acknowledged that what he was doing was bad for his health. Though he was better, he was still not able to open his eyes or walk.
During this time, his mother called from Georgia. She demanded to talk with every staff person who would talk to her. Finally, it was my turn.
The mother made several demands. First, she wanted her son admitted to our hospital. To that, I explained he didn’t have any medical condition that would justify a medical admission. No one would admit him just because he was doing stupid things that were not good for him. As soon as he could walk, he would be ready for discharge.
She then demanded he be sent to psychiatry. She knew about his previous admission to that unit in our hospital. She told me the psychiatrist who discharged him said if he didn’t follow through on his promise to fly back to Georgia it would be proof he was a danger to himself and he would need to be committed.
I told her taking someone’s rights away is not something to be done lightly. We don’t do that just because someone is making very bad decisions, as in the case of her son. He would not be going back psychiatry.
She next insisted we call the police, have them take him to the airport and force him to get on the airplane home. I was amazed when I couldn’t get her to see there was no way the police would do that.
The mother consistently refused to accept any of my responses to her demands. She kept saying things like, “You just don’t understand. His life is in danger if you don’t do this.”
Things with the mother went from bad to worse when her son refused to get on the phone with her. “I don’t want to talk to her,” he said.
“Tell him I won’t scold him,” she assured me. That was not enough to get him on the phone with her.
I was unable to discharge the man before my shift came to an end. Though he had been in the emergency department for fifteen hours, he was unable to walk unassisted to the bathroom and he still could not keep his eyes open. I had to admit him.
After a day in the hospital, he was well enough to leave. The admitting doctor spoke to the patient’s mother on the telephone before discharging him. During that conversation, the mother threatened to sue the doctor and the hospital if they released her son. In part because of that threat, the doctor agreed to keep the patient one more day until the mother could fly out from Georgia to get him, which is exactly what happened. He was sent home the next day with his mother.