Which Way is Home?



While doing my emergency medicine training, I worked in a hospital in Slidell, Louisiana. There, I helped care for a middle-aged woman who was passing through town when she, her young adult son and his wife stopped in town for lunch. Coming out of the restaurant, the lady fell and injured her ankle. X-rays showed a fracture so I splinted her leg, got her some crutches and gave her a dose of pain medicine. She was discharged with a prescription for more pain medicine and instructions to follow up with her doctor in Mississippi. We helped her get into the back seat of the car and prop up her leg. Off they went.

About four hours later, the nurse came to me to ask for help. The lady’s son was there, asking if we could give his mother another dose of pain medicine to help her get home, where they could fill her prescription. It had been my impression that they were headed straight home when they left the emergency department, so I was really puzzled as to where they had been.

It took a while for me to get the clear picture of what had happened and it is still hard to even believe. Rather than head north on I-10, which would have had them in Mississippi within a few minutes, they went south. Thirty-seven miles later, they had crossed the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain and arrived in New Orleans. There, I-10 turns west. When they got to Baton Rouge, 81 miles later, they finally recognized they were going the wrong way. They turned around and by the time they got back to Slidell, the lady’s pain medication had worn off and her ankle was killing her so they stopped in for her next dose.

Going south instead of north on the interstate could happen to anyone. But how could someone drive, in broad daylight, on a 24-mile bridge over a lake, through a major metropolitan area and continue for another hour and half before recognizing that he was heading the wrong direction?

I told you that story in order to tell you this one:

A 53-year-old woman was taken by ambulance to the emergency department in San Jose, California. She had been found driving the wrong way, at 2:00 in the morning, on a freeway going through town. The highway patrol felt she had a medical problem so they sent her to the hospital rather than take her to jail.

The lady was primarily Russian speaking so her broken English and accent made it a bit hard to understand her. In addition, she had schizophrenia. This made it hard to figure out what part of her story was real and what part was a result of her mental illness. So, her story didn’t seem to make any sense and it took quite a while to understand just what had happened to her.

She lived in Yuba City with her brother and elderly mother. Yuba City is about forty-five miles north of Sacramento. The day before, she had driven to Sacramento to visit her brother who was a patient at the UC Davis Medical Center.

After her visit, she had headed west and south for 120 miles to San Jose rather than drive the 45 miles north back to Yuba City.

By the time she got to San Jose, she recognized she was lost. She got scared when she saw the low fuel light go on in her car. Then, “a spirit” appeared in her car and did something to the car. She ended up on the wrong side of the freeway because of the presence of the spirit. That is when she was discovered by highway patrol.

Since she had no medical problems, she sat in the emergency department until the social worker arrived in the morning. The social worker was the one who finally was able to make sense of the whole story. She called the brother, still in the hospital, who confirmed the patient had left there the day before. She called the mother and talked with a sheriff deputy who had been called by the family to help find the lady when she didn’t return to Yuba City after visiting her brother. Her family was very relieved to find that she was alive and well in San Jose.

The woman was obviously not in any condition to drive home. Since her brother was in the hospital and her mother didn’t drive, the patient was put in an ambulance and sent back on the three-hour drive to Yuba City. The car was towed home and the department of motor vehicles was advised of a need to reconsider her driving privileges.




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