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The Case Of Two Accidental Suicides


My worst night as a doctor was during my residency.  I was working the pediatric ICU and admitted a young teenager who had tried to kill herself.  Well, she didn’t really try to kill herself; she took a handful of Tylenol (acetaminophen) because some other girls had teased her.

On that night I watched as she went from a frightened girl who carried on a conversation, through agitation and into coma, and finally to death by morning.  We did everything we could to keep her alive, but without a liver there is no chance of survival.

Over ten years later, I was called to the emergency room for a girl who was nauseated and a little confused, with elevated liver tests.  I told the ER doctor to check an acetaminophen level and, sadly, it was elevated.  She too had taken a handful of acetaminophen at an earlier time.  She too was lucid and scared at the start of the evening.  The last I saw of her was on the next day before she was sent to a specialty hospital for a liver transplant.  I got the call later that next day with the bad news: she died.

The saddest thing about both of these kids is that they both thought they were safe.  The handful of pills was a gesture, not meant to harm themselves.  They were like most people; they didn’t know that this medication that is ubiquitous and reportedly safe can be so deadly.  But when they finally learned this, it was too late.  They are both dead.  Suicides?  Technically, but not in reality.

For these children the problem was that symptoms of toxicity may not show up until it is too late.  People often get nausea and vomiting with acute overdose, but if the treatment isn’t initiated within 8-10 hours, the risk of going to liver failure is high.  Once enough time passes, it is rare that the person can be cured without liver transplant.

Acetaminophen overdose is the #1 cause of liver failure in the US.  According to a Reuters article, there are 1600 cases of liver failure from this drug per year (2007).  This is a huge number.  In comparison consider that the cholesterol drug Cerivastatin (Baycol) was withdrawn from the market when there were 31 deaths from rhabdomyalysis (severe muscle break-down, which is far more common than liver failure in these drugs).  These happened mainly when the drug was used in combination with another cholesterol drug.

Should the drug be pulled from the market?  No, it is safe when used properly.  The toxic dose is generally 10 times the therapeutic dose.  My complaint is not that they have dangerous drugs available; ALL drugs should be considered dangerous.  Aspirin, decongestants, anti-inflammatories, and even antacids can be toxic if taken in high dose.  The problems with acetaminophen stem from several factors:

  1. Most people don’t realize the danger.
  2. There has been very little public education and no significant warning labels on the packages.
  3. The drug is often hidden in combination with other drugs, including prescription narcotics and over-the-counter cold medications.  This means that a person can take excess medication without knowing it.

I would advocate putting warning labels on medications containing this drug.  I am sure this doesn’t thrill the drug manufacturers, but the goal is not to make them happy.  I have thought this since that terrible night during residency.  If there was such a warning, perhaps she wouldn’t have died.

It seems a bit silly that this action by the FDA is coming after their pulling of children’s cough/cold medications. Those drugs have very small numbers of true harmful overdoses.  The reason they were pulled was probably more that they didn’t do anything over the fact that they were dangerous.  Acetaminophen, on the other hand, can be deadly.

Just ask the parents of my two patients.

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*

Book Review: Seductive Delusions – How Everyday People Catch STDs

file0002I recently met the author (Dr. Jill Grimes) of Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STDs at the AMA’s 29th Annual Medical Communications Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jill is a family physician in Austin, Texas, with a kind and down-to-earth demeanor. Jill is the type of doctor you like immediately – she makes you feel at ease because of her unpretentiousness.

Jill told me that she wrote Seductive Delusions out of sadness and frustration with her inability to protect young people from STDs. Jill saw new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in her patients every week, and wanted very badly to reverse this trend. No amount of counseling “after the fact” had a sufficient effect on new cases, so she decided to launch a preemptive strike: an educational book targeting those who never thought they could contract an STD.

Seductive Delusions uses a “case based learning” approach to educating readers about STDs. Each chapter begins with two true life stories about young people who succumb to STDs. Characters are based upon the lives of patients whom Jill has treated over the years, but stories are blended to protect anonymity. The story-telling format (followed by fact-based summaries) makes the content more entertaining and engaging to read. I doubt that a textbook could hold readers’ attention as effectively as Seductive Delusions does.

I chose to read Seductive Delusions cover-to-cover in 2 sittings, and such a concentrated dose of horror stories made me feel hesitant about ever having sex again. I can also say that there was one uncomfortable moment in an airplane (I read the book on the way back from Albuquerque) when the man sitting next to me glanced at the cover and gave me a very shifty look, and spent the rest of the flight leaning noticeably towards the seat on the opposite side.

That being said, I did enjoy the book. Jill’s characters have an innocent quality to them – like the cast from “Leave It To Beaver.” And I think that was exactly her point – you’d never expect the Cleaver family to be touched by STDs, and yet the truth is that they are succumbing to them in record numbers. Part of the danger of being one of those supposedly “low risk” individuals is that sufficient precautions against STDs are not taken due to a false sense of security.

I had assumed from the title of the book that “everyday people” would include a wider range of characters than were presented. I have been concerned about the reemergence of STDs, for example, in the retiree community in Florida, and thought that Seductive Delusions might touch on that unexpected risk group. However, the target demographic for the book is the late teen to thirty-something heterosexual male and female. I agree with Jill that there’s an educational gap there – but I would have enjoyed her casting a wider net.

The other potential short coming of the book is that the narratives describing how the various characters contracted an STD are so engaging that the reader is left disappointed at never hearing about the long-term outcomes for these individuals. I became emotionally invested in the story (for example) of how Evan contracted HIV from his very first girlfriend (a woman who had been with a man who used IV drugs prior to dating Evan). I felt as if I were there with Evan when he received the devastating news about being HIV positive, and then he drifted away from the pages of the book never to be heard from again. The lack of resolution left me with an uneasy feeling – probably the same feeling that Emergency Medicine physicians experience at the end of each shift.

Nonetheless, I would highly recommend this book to all sexually active young people. It is eye-opening and disturbing in the right sort of way. It’s the kind of book that will help people think twice before they become intimate with others, and take stock of the true health risks involved. I can only hope, along with Jill, that this book will reach the right eyeballs at the right time – and reduce the devastating spread of sexually transmitted diseases in America and beyond.

Hepatitis A Spread by a Bartender in New York City?

Some Hollywood celebrities are up in arms after having been notified of their exposure to hepatitis A through an infected bartender at a trendy New York City club. Those who come in contact with a known virus carrier may prevent infection if they’re vaccinated early. Hepatitis A causes less severe liver disease than its blood-bourne cousin, hepatitis C, but it’s still a formidable foe. (For more information about hepatitis A and its symptoms, check out this article.)

I interviewed Revolution Health consultant and world-renowned liver expert, Dr. Emmet Keeffe, about this outbreak:

Dr. Val: What is the likelihood that people could catch hepatitis A from an infected bartender?

Dr. Keeffe: The hepatitis A virus is transmitted between persons by the fecal-oral route (think unwashed hands after a bathroom break, or drinking water that has come in contact with human sewage). Also this particular virus is very hardy and can live on counter tops and surfaces outside the body for longer than many viruses. Because hepatitis A is found in very high concentrations in an infected persons’ stool, a tiny bit of stool on the hands actually contains large amounts of the virus and can therefore be quite infectious. Although previous outbreaks have primarily been associated with food handlers, there is no reason why a bartender might not also spread hepatitis A virus.

Dr. Val: Yuck. Would a vaccine be effective in preventing hepatitis A after someone’s already been exposed? How quickly after exposure should one get the vaccine?

Dr. Keeffe: The standard recommendation for individuals potentially exposed to hepatitis A is passive immunization using immune globulin administered within 2 weeks of exposure, which is 85% effective in protecting against illness. This is the recommendation for household or sexual exposure, but not generally recommended for “common source outbreaks” (like exposure to food handlers or bartenders), which are usually recognized only after they are well into their course. However, with early recognition, such as the NY case, immune globulin may make good sense. After hepatitis A vaccination, protective levels of antibodies to hepatitis A virus do not appear until 2-4 weeks after vaccination. Thus, active immunization with hepatitis A is used for preexposure prophyaxis, such as in international travelers to areas where hepatitis A is common, but not for postexposure prophylaxis.

Dr. Val: What is the hepatitis A vaccine exactly?

Dr. Keeffe: Hepatitis A vaccine is an injection, which is administered at baseline followed by a booster in 6 to 18 months. Two relatively similar and effective vaccines are licensed in the United States: Havrix and Vaqta.

Dr. Val: What should the bartender do if he has hepatitis A? Can he still work? When can he come back to work?

Dr. Keeffe: To protect the public, the bartender should not work until he has fully recovered. He is most infectious during the late incubation and early illness stage, when excretion of hepatitis A virus in feces is the highest.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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