M and M was never fun. Sometimes I would walk out feeling I’d just escaped by the skin of my teeth. Sometimes I would feel like my teeth had had too close a shave. But once…just once, it could have been worse.
It was a pretty standard call. It was very busy. In the early evening I was called to casualties for a patient with severe abdominal pain. When I examined him it was clear there was something seriously wrong inside. He had a classical acute abdomen with board like rigidity. He clearly had a perforated peptic ulcer and needed surgery. I set my house doctor to work to get him admitted and on the list. Meanwhile I went back to theater to work through the number of equally critical patients already on the list.
Things then settled down into a rhythm. I was in theater with a student operating the cases one after the other while the house doctor separated the corn from the chaff in casualties. Finally it was time to do the laparotomy for the guy with the acute abdomen. I needed to shoot through casualties before we started so I decided to swing past the ward and make sure the guy was still ok.
The ward was dark. Pretty much everyone was asleep. Without wanting to wake the other patients I turned on the small bedside light of my patient. Even in that dim light I could see a bit of oral thrush. I was surprised. I was thinking to myself how the hell did I miss that in casualties. I felt his abdomen. It was no longer quite so tender. I turned to the student.
“See why it is important to make your decision before giving opioids?” I said with an air of authority. “Now he is actually not so tender but he definitely had an acute abdomen. We must go ahead with the operation.”
I quickly felt for lymph nodes. He had them everywhere. Once again I was quietly thinking that my clinical skills must be slipping because that I also didn’t pick up in casualties. I kept this new information to myself. Imagine the shock to the student if he realised I was not all knowing. i just didn’t want to be responsible for that level of devastation in his life. But I started considering other causes for his condition. It was clear he had AIDS and TB abdomen started looking like a possibility.
While we were still with the patient, the theater personnel arrived to take him to theater. I told them to get things going so long while I quickly shot down to casualties to evaluate a patient the house doctor was unsure about. And off I went at a brisk walk.
I walked into casualties. The house doctor led me to the patient in question, but as we approached his bed my blood went cold. In the exact bed where my acute abdomen had been lying about four hours previously was my acute abdomen still lying there!! I turned and ran back to theater. Fortunately I was in time.
Later I found out what had happened. Once we had admitted the acute abdomen, the porter had come in to take him to the ward. One of the patients lying in casualties was a guy that had just come in. His HIV had wreaked havoc in his life causing a number of unpleasant things, including AIDS dementia syndrome. The exchange went something like this;
“Timothy Mokoena? Is there a Timothy Mokoena here?” the porter called out.
“Here I am, but it’s not Mokoena. It’s Magagula.”
“Ok, Timothy Magagula, I’m going to take you to the ward.”
“Ok, but it’s not Timothy. It’s Michael.”
“Ok, Michael Magagula. Let’s go.”
And thus Michael Magagula, the AIDS dementia patient (not to be confused with Timothy Mokoena, the acute abdomen patient), thinking he had just jumped the queue to see a doctor was carted off to the ward and prepared for theater. He even signed for a laparotomy without even having seen a doctor.
In the end it all turned out well. Timothy got his operation and the hole in his stomach was patched. Michael was referred appropriately to the physicians. But I couldn’t help wondering how this could have looked in the next M and M meeting.
“Well, prof, the patient died on the table basically because I operated him unnecessarily.”
“And how is the other patient? The one you should have operated?”
“Well, he died too because I didn’t operate him.”
200% mortality for one operation. Not easy to achieve.
*This blog post was originally published at other things amanzi*