I just returned from a week of visiting family in North Carolina with my mother and up until yesterday, that’s what I intended to write about this week. Then the craziest thing happened. Angie and I stopped by my mom’s house to drop off her prescriptions. One was an antibiotic that she had taken previously without any problem. After taking one pill, Mom settled into her chair to eat a bowl of soup. Everything seemed normal and we were just about to head home when suddenly, she bolted from the chair and ran to the bathroom. At first, we thought the pill had hit her empty stomach, causing her to be nauseous. After a few minutes, she returned, her face the color of a stop sign. I quickly got a cold cloth to put on her and she leaned over in the chair to rest. Not even a minute later, her whole body turned red and blotchy and she started to breathe funny.
My mom is not someone who can be easily convinced to go to the ER. Once upon a time, she cut her shoulder on a window frame and had me assist in closing the 1-inch gash with tape and gauze because she didn’t want to go to the ER. Another time, she hobbled around on a broken foot for a week while on vacation because she didn’t want to go to a “strange” doctor. When I told her yesterday that she was going to the ER, she made no argument. That’s how serious this was.
We spent 4 hours in the ER last night because my mom had a severe allergic reaction to her medication. When the doctor came in to see her, she was purple and her blood pressure was 207/93. At 68 years old and in fair health to begin with, this reaction could have spelled disaster. And the kicker of it all – this did not have to happen.
Here’s how it started…
On Friday, we visited my mom’s urologist for her first bladder injection (to help with incontinence). The office was chaotic. With my mom on the exam table, people kept coming in and out of the room, grabbing supplies. Though they eventually told us there was an emergency with another patient, she still felt embarrassed and upset by the intrusion. At the end of the procedure, the doctor gave my mom a pill to take, with no explanation, just a glass of water and a prescription for more of the same pills. Having been a nurse all her working life, she reasoned the pill was either a preventative measure in case of infection, since the procedure was somewhat invasive, or treatment for a UTI (something that frequently occurs with incontinence). Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. We really don’t know.
We have been to this urologist’s office more than 15 times this year and have provided an extensive medical history, including all current medications and allergic or adverse reactions. The staff missed the fact that the drug they prescribed was listed as NOT TO BE TAKEN under any circumstances with another of my mom’s regular medications. The combination could be FATAL. The pharmacist also failed to mention this when he filled the prescription. I am eternally thankful that my mom always reads the literature with the medication. She immediately called the doctor’s office.
Though she asked twice, the office staff still did not tell my mom why she was prescribed an antibiotic. Yet, they called in a different prescription. This one had no interactions listed for her other medications, so it seemed safe enough. It was not. Why she had a reaction to a medication she had taken before, no one can say for sure. It’s something that can happen at any time, to anyone. Again, I am thankful that we were there. At the ER, they ran blood and urine tests. Both came back negative for infection. In all likelihood, the chaos at the urologist’s office may have led him to give my mom a prescription that she did not need (or perhaps was meant for someone else).
Angie and I have more than a few gripes about the healthcare industry in the first place…doctors over-prescribing medications, the complete disregard for the role that food and nutrition play in disease prevention, the lack of control patients have over their own care, and the insane number of TV and print advertisements that make it seem as if you can pick your medications like you pick your cereal! It’s enough to make you distrustful of the system, yet we are not. Medical professionals, like every other person on this Earth, are fallible human beings. They make mistakes. Sadly, those mistakes can often be a matter of life or death, which is why we always try to do our part to make their jobs easier. My mom taught me that…and that is probably why she is here right now.
We live in an era where knowledge surrounds us like air, yet many of us fail to utilize the tools in front of us. How many folks never bother to look at the paperwork that comes with a prescription? (The answer: 30% of patients do not read the medication leaflet with a new prescription, 64% do not read it when the prescription is a refill or taken previously.) How do I know this? I Googled it. The same way I Google everything I want to know. (If not Google, I’m pretty sure Alexa, Siri, and Cortana know the answer too.) Yes, there is misinformation out there but with a little patience I’m always able to find enough truth to piece together an answer that satisfies me.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, I’d say that it was this:
Practice self-advocacy. Learn how to speak up for yourself, learn how/where to get information so that you can have a better understanding of the issues that affect your health or well-being, and know your rights and responsibilities as a patient. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and if necessary, demand answers. Doctors are busy people but having a demanding job doesn’t make them any less accountable to the people they serve. You have the right to know what you are being treated for. You have the right to refuse treatment if the answer is not satisfactory to you. Read the literature you are given with a prescription. Though doctors and pharmacists try to be aware of potential interactions and adverse reactions, they can miss something. Be the gate-keeper of your own body. Don’t let anything in that you’re unsure of the safety of.
I’m glad that my mom is okay. I’m glad we were there with her when she had the allergic reaction. I’m glad that the ER staff was friendly and knowledgeable, which made her feel at ease in an uncomfortable situation. But for as happy as I am that everything worked out, I can’t help but think that if doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and well…everyone for that matter…just slowed down a bit and focused on the one thing in front of them at the time, this and other similar mistakes might not happen.