As a Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, my office receives a lot of phone calls from patients and family members who had terrible experiences in the mental health system.
The stories of two different clients who recently hired Painter Law Firm to investigate the way they were treated by mental health professionals will show you what I mean by “terrible.”
In my experience, many people are surprised by how easy it is to get caught up in the mental health system as an incidental part of receiving healthcare. The frightening part of this is what happens when a healthcare provider makes a mistake. If the patient says, “I don’t have a mental health problem,” the psychologist, psychiatrist, physician, or nurse may consider the statement a denial of the fact, which can only compound the situation. Unlike other types of health care, once you are in a mental health treatment facility, you often do not have the option or ability to get up and walk away.
One of our clients was a college student at a local university. He had a generous scholarship and moved here from out of state. After Hurricane Harvey, he started having flare-ups of asthma, a pre-existing lifelong condition of his. He went to the on-campus student health clinic and was prescribed a steroid medication called prednisone.
Prednisone is frequently used in these situations to reduce inflammation in the airways. One of the little-known, but well documented, side effects of prednisone is that it can induce a temporary condition called steroid mania. Steroid mania is basically a form of bipolar disorder.
This student started showing signs of steroid mania, including rapid speech, jittery levels of energy, and the inability to sleep. The on-campus health staff did not seem to notice what was going on until too late. Instead, they treated him with Benadryl. The university ended up having the on-campus police take him to a hospital psychiatric unit in the Texas Medical Center for evaluation. The student was left alone at the hospital, with his family in a distant state.
The hospital went to a Harris County court and obtained an involuntary commitment order. In my experience, if a hospital or physician seeks a court order of this nature, they almost always get it.
Fortunately, the prednisone effects wore off and the student’s mental health status returned to normal. Unfortunately, he was suspended from the university for an indeterminate amount of time—maybe permanently—and has also apparently lost a lucrative scholarship that he spent his life earning.
I am investigating another case for client who suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being attacked by a man who dragged her back into a building for some horrible purpose. She escaped, but was understandably left traumatized by the whole experience. Since this happened 20 years ago, she gets highly anxious quickly and has been followed by a psychiatrist who placed her on an anti-anxiety medication called clonazepam.
Recently, she received dreaded news from her physician that she has aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy. Within a few hours, she went into a panic attack. She called a patient advocate at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, where she had been treated, to see if she could see a psychologist or doctor to talk her through the situation.
She called for an ambulance, explained the situation, and asked to be taken to Methodist Willowbrook. The ambulance crew told her that they had to take her to the nearest hospital, which was in The Woodlands. Ambulance crews are required by law to take patients to the nearest appropriate hospital in many circumstances, whether for mental health problems or medical conditions like a stroke.
By the time she was dropped off at the hospital, the two clonazepam tablets that she had taken earlier had relieved the symptoms of the panic attack. She was calmly sitting in the lobby waiting for a doctor to see her. Then, suddenly, a nurse rushed her into a padded room with cameras and told her to change into the rubber scrubs that were provided. The nurse removed all of her belongings and phone.
The patient was surprised by what was going on, considering that she had voluntarily asked to go to a hospital to speak with the doctor. A short time later, an orderly showed up and yelled that if she did not change into the scrubs immediately, he would Taser her.
She sat in the padded room for about six hours, and then a hospital employee came into the room and asked the patient why she was there. After she explained everything that happened, the hospital employee said that there had been a misunderstanding and asked her to leave the hospital. The hospital staff returned her belongings, but her phone was missing. Left without a phone and unable to call for transportation, she was essentially pushed out onto the street.
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Robert Painter is a medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits against hospitals, physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers. In 2017, H Texas magazine named him one of Houston’s top lawyers. In May 2018, the Better Business Bureau recognized Painter Law Firm PLLC with its Award of Distinction.