A patient named Anna Brown was unhappy with the care she received at several hospital emergency departments. When she was discharged from the last emergency department, she refused to leave. Police were called and the patient was carried to a police car. She said that she couldn’t walk. Police took her to jail, carried her into the cell and left her laying on the floor. About an hour later, she was still laying there … dead.
From the public’s point of view, the case appears outrageous. But as I read through the description of what happened and thought about what could have been done different, from a physician’s point of view, I’m not sure what else could have been done.
Christine Byers wrote an excellent article describing events that took place, and then wrote a follow up article in which the hospital defended its care. I’m hoping that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch commends her for her work. She did a great job with the stories.
A summary taken from Ms. Byers’ article shows that Anna Brown was admitted to the hospital for spraining her ankle while walking near a ditch. EKGs, blood tests, and lab work were performed. Ms. Brown was in the hospital from Sept 13 to Sept 15 and then discharged. She walked on crutches after her discharge.
Early in the morning of September 20, 2011 Ms. Brown returned to the hospital complaining of knee and ankle pain. X-rays were taken and were negative. She was discharged with a prescription for pain medicine, but refused to leave.
At 5AM she wheeled herself next door to the children’s hospital. Doctors there found tenderness in her legs, but did not want to treat her since she was an adult seeking care at a children’s hospital. Ms. Brown demanded to be sent to a “better hospital.” She was then transferred to a third hospital.
She arrived at the third hospital at 11:45 AM. At the third hospital, her left ankle was swollen. During this visit, ultrasounds were performed on both of her legs and showed no blood clots. A nurse witnessed the patient standing. Ms. Brown was discharged at about 7PM.
At roughly 3AM the following morning, Ms. Brown came to the third hospital again by ambulance, this time complaining of abdominal pain. Some reports also state that she was continuing to complain of leg pain. She was in the emergency department for another 4 hours and was then discharged at approximately 7AM. The article did not mention if or what type of testing the patient may have had on that visit. She refused to sign discharge papers.
By 10 AM, Ms. Brown was complaining to a security guard that she “did not receive adequate medical attention” and therefore did not wish to leave. Police came to the scene and Ms. Brown was told to leave or she would be arrested for trespassing. Ms. Brown yelled that “You can’t arrest me … I can’t even stand up!”
At 12:30 PM, Ms. Brown had been re-examined by a physician and the physician completed a “fit for confinement” report. Police stated that Ms. Brown yelled “My legs don’t work!” while she was being wheeled from the room.
Police then took Ms. Brown to jail. She refused to get out of the vehicle, stating “I can’t put pressure on my legs.” Officers then carried her into a jail cell and left her laying on the floor.
At around 2 PM, Ms. Brown was found dead. Cause of death was pulmonary emboli – blood clots from her legs that dislodged and went to her lungs.
An investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services did not find any violations involving Ms. Brown’s treatment.
There are other issues with Ms. Brown, but I think that they tend to detract from the issues regarding her medical care. Ms. Brown was homeless. She had lost custody of her children. She had nine other siblings with whom she did not live during her homelessness. After being admitted to the hospital for spraining her ankle, she resisted discharge at that time as well. Ms. Brown also had potential psychiatric problems and refused some psychiatric testing a court had ordered relating to her child custody problems.
There were also questions about the appropriateness of police leaving Ms. Brown laying on the floor instead of putting her on the bed when she arrived at jail.
As I looked through the newspaper article, I kept asking myself: What I would have done differently while she was in the emergency department. I couldn’t think of much.
Ms. Brown had been evaluated by multiple physicians for her complaints. She received x-rays, blood tests, EKGs, and even a cardiology evaluation. An ultrasound performed less than a day before she died excluded the very disease process that ended up killing her – even though she had the same complaints for more than a week.
Did Ms. Brown receive appropriate medical care?
Many people who commented on Ms. Byers’ article stated that animals get better treatment than Ms. Brown received. I disagree. She received multiple evaluations from multiple physicians for her complaints. No emergency was found. Hospitals can’t admit people just because they might develop a disease in the future.
Probably the most troubling part of this case for many people was that Ms. Brown died from a problem related to her repeated complaints of leg pain. To those people who suggest that additional evaluation was needed, I ask what should have been done? Another ultrasound? How often should patients who have leg pain and swelling receive ultrasounds? Daily? Weekly? Hourly? How many ultrasounds should every patient with these symptoms receive in order to exclude a blood clot in the legs? It is easy to look back and say “they should have done this differently.” But to be fair, we have to look forward and ask ourselves what medical care is appropriate for all patients with similar complaints.
Retrospective bias is a powerful contaminant in Ms. Brown’s case. The autopsy showed that she died from a blood clot which was presumably in one of her legs and which presumably dislodged and went to her lungs at the time of her death. Therefore, many people who know the end result think that there is no way the blood clot should have gone undiagnosed. However, Ms. Brown didn’t come in complaining of a “blood clot.” She complained of leg pain and swelling after having suffered a leg injury the week prior and received multiple evaluations and tests to address those complaints. There is no medical evidence that all patients with leg pain and swelling should receive multiple ultrasounds on their legs to rule out DVTs. Without some type of scientific evidence as substantiation, allegations that the medical providers “didn’t do enough” for Ms. Brown really don’t hold much water.
Was Ms. Brown treated inappropriately?
This is a difficult question. Of course she could have been treated more humanely, but we also have to consider the events leading up to her treatment that day. She had multiple tests performed at multiple hospitals to evaluate her complaints. Those tests did not reveal a cause for her problems. When asked to leave, she became uncooperative with the police. Unfortunately, many patients feign illness when faced with the possibility of being incarcerated. This may have caused some bias in the minds of the police officers, thinking that Ms. Brown was feigning illness as well. Even so, police acted appropriately by requesting that Ms. Brown receive medical clearance before being taken to jail.
Should Ms. Brown have been left on the floor of the jail? Not really a medical issue, but what if the police put Ms. Brown on the bed and she fell off the bed and injured herself? If there is a bad outcome, police are going to be blamed for inappropriate behavior as well. Again, retrospective bias creeps in.
What should have been done differently?
Before answering in the comments, I want you to consider whether you would still feel that way if Ms. Brown had instead been complaining for several days at a restaurant because the food was poisoned, at a department store because a display was dangerous, or at a place of business because the services weren’t performed properly, and those complaints were properly investigated by the involved business. If it were your business or your home and the circumstances were the same, would there be any change in the expectations of how Ms. Brown should be treated? Remember, you need to look at the case prospectively, not retrospectively.
One reader sent me an e-mail that summarized this case better than I could ever do. “This case was the perfect storm of homeless woman perceived to be crazy who had a serious medical condition that didn’t show up on diagnostics, who was arrested by indifferent police officers, and which included a series of personal circumstances that would have driven anybody nuts.”