A 47-year-old woman came into the emergency department one evening. The “Chief Complaint,” as recorded by the nurse, was “Pain in the neck for 3-4 years. Wants x-ray done.”
She told me this all started about three-and-a-half years ago when she woke up in the morning with a “slit” in her left neck. She said she didn’t really think anything about it at the time. Since then, however, she has been having several troubling symptoms, making her think a chip had been implanted in her neck that night. She had been seeing strange flashes of light. Other than that, her symptoms were vague. She said she had “weird things happening all the time.” She had some vague discomfort in the neck but not really any pain. This was the first time she had sought medical attention for this problem. She couldn’t give me a reason why she decided to get checked out that day. She would not offer any idea of who might have implanted a chip in her neck or why. She had no medical history other than hypothyroidism. She denied any history of mental illness or substance abuse.
Her physical exam was unremarkable. Her neck was normal. I noted a lack of any scar. She behaved completely normally with no evidence of obvious psychiatric disorder.
There are many reasons for me to not believe what she was saying was true. I didn’t believe in a “chip” that could alter her behavior. I saw no reason someone would sneak into her bedroom one night and implant a chip in her neck. I don’t know how someone would do so without her waking up. I don’t know why she would not have freaked out if she woke with a slit in her neck that appeared while she slept. I don’t know how having a chip under her skin would cause her to see flashing lights and have all kinds of weird things happen to her. Though I didn’t believe she had an implanted chip I did believe she thought it was true.
So, my diagnosis was “delusion.” Here is one definition for a delusion: an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.
This fits her perfectly. Her belief certainly was idiosyncratic. She firmly held it to be true. Most people would generally agree her belief was not in keeping with reality. She was not open to any rational argument used to try to convince her otherwise.
What kind of delusional patients might an emergency physician deal with? I had an elderly man who believed all our laws were invalid since they were not based on English Common Law. I have seen several people who believed they had chips implanted in them by the CIA. I have seen patients who have delusions of religious persecutions. Toxic vapors and molds pervade the delusions of many patients. People irrationally believe their neighbors are pestering them. Delusional parasitosis, where people believe they are infested, inside and/or out, by vermin is rather common. I had one patient who was convinced our doctors were using “Mexican children” as “guinea pigs,” performing unnecessary tests on them. People sometimes feel persecuted or, the opposite, have delusions of grandeur where they think they are very important and due more respect than they are provided by society. They sometimes believe they have an illness causing their symptoms, even an illness not known to medical science. They sometimes have body image issues. Sometimes these delusions are wide-ranging and associated with paranoias. In other cases, they are limited and specific. Delusions can range from offering mild amusement to the outside observer, to severe, socially incapacitating conditions.
As with any medical abnormality, a doctor caring for such a patient wants to provide treatment. Many treatments have been shown to help with delusional disorder, though with various degrees of effectiveness. Treatments include medications and various types of behavioral therapies. One big problem in getting them help is they don’t want psychiatric help. They know what they are suffering from is not a psychiatric problem and they resent any insinuation they are crazy. So, they are often resistant to any recommendations for psychiatric intervention.
With that background, how should I deal with this patient? Within a short time of talking with her, I was sure she was delusional and I was not going to be able to “fix” her problem. I focused on listening, making sure she knew I was on her side. I recognized that one of the reasons she had come in was to get “an x-ray.” I was sure no imaging would show a chip in her neck but, in order to show I was interested in helping her, I ordered an ultrasound, explaining to her why I thought that would be better than a regular x-ray in identifying something that might be implanted in her neck.
When the ultrasound report came back negative, it was time for her to leave. I went over things, explaining that any chip in her neck would have shown up on the ultrasound. The problem with this disorder is that, by definition, it is resistant to logical evidence. I knew she would leave with her delusion intact, even with my reassurances about her ultrasound. I told her she needed to make an appointment with her primary care physician for further evaluation and treatment.
Some might say that punting to the primary care doctor is a lame way for me to escape a difficult situation but this patient needed a lot more help than what she might get from one visit to the emergency department. In reality, I had no treatment to offer her.
How the patient reacts to all of this helps determine how honest I would be with her. If she says, “Thank you very much” and leaves, I am done. But sometimes these people will not do that. Often, they have been to many doctors, including their primary care doctor and no one has done anything. Sometimes they say something like, “I know I have a chip in my neck but you just think I’m crazy!”
When I am pushed into this situation, I usually resort to is something like: “I can tell you are upset and I understand why. You know you have a chip in your neck and I know you don’t. There is nothing I can do to get you to believe there is no chip and there is nothing you can do to get me to believe there is. So, we are just going to have to agree to disagree and you will need to look elsewhere for further care.”
Even after that, often the patient will just start over again with their arguments trying to convince me. Sometimes, they will get angry and storm out, threatening to sue me or report me to the Medical Board. I never know when I enter into this last part of the visit whether the patient will walk out quietly with my sympathy or angrily with shouted threats.
Being an emergency physician, I never know what happens to delusional patients I have seen. How many of them work things out and get back to normal? How may carry on with their delusion giving them some trouble for a long, long time? How many degrade and become diagnosed with severe mental illness? I never know.
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