Several years ago I was taking care of a pleasant elderly woman with a heart condition on an inpatient unit. One morning I went into her room to check on her and I found her sitting up in bed, clutching her purse and crying.
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Johnson?” I asked, perplexed.
She blew her nose in a Kleenex and replied, “Someone stole my insurance cards, my money, and my credit cards! They were in my wallet just yesterday evening – and this morning they’re gone.”
I paused for a moment, considering the order of priority in which she reported the missing items, glanced at her telemetry monitor (her rhythm was regular though her heart rate was elevated from crying), and asked if she knew how this might have happened.
She told me that she suspected that a certain patient had sneaked into her room in the middle of the night and removed the items from her wallet.
“How do you know it was that patient?” I asked, growing suspicious.
“I’ve seen her sneaking around at night in other people’s rooms – a couple of nights ago she was in here digging through my roommate’s dresser drawers.”
The suspect was a 38 year old woman with a known history of heroine abuse, who was admitted to the General Surgery service (conveniently boarded on our Internal Medicine floor) from the Emergency Department to complete an acute abdominal pain work up. This woman had already terrorized the surgical intern assigned to her case (as I had heard on rounds the day before) by chasing her around the hospital room with a hypodermic needle. Security had come to restore order and had found a stash of heroine and some needles in her bathroom that had been brought in by her visitors the night before. The team decided not to discharge her because they had discovered a large abscess on her ovary (from an advanced and untreated sexually transmitted disease) that they felt obligated to drain and treat her with antibiotics. Of course, on the morning of her scheduled surgery she ate breakfast, making it unsafe to put her under general anesthesia. These games continued (sneaking food before surgery, refusing surgery or medications, then changing her mind, then claiming to be homeless with no safe discharge plan, etc.) so that her length of stay grew from days to weeks.
“And now,” I thought to myself, “she’s using our hospital as a flop house, victimizing MY patients on the same floor – stealing their belongings in the middle of the night?!” This was the last straw. I told Mrs. Johnson that I would get to the bottom of the matter.
And so I waited for the victimizer to leave her hospital room for a scheduled test – I sneaked into her room and went through her bedside table drawers. Lo and behold, my patient’s ID and credit cards were stashed in a box with a bunch of other IDs that clearly didn’t belong to the woman.
I called hospital security, and we reviewed all the items that she had stolen. As it turned out, she was admitted to the hospital under a stolen Medicare card (the woman had claimed to be on disability). Her name matched with our records of a 67 year old woman, so we knew that she had been admitted under another’s name – and the admitting clerk had not noticed the age discrepancy. A careful record search turned up the drug user’s previous admissions under this alias. This predator had been gaming the system for years, eluding detection!
I asked the security guards to help me interview other patients on the inpatient unit to see if they had experienced anything out of the ordinary over the past few weeks. What we found was astounding. Several frail elderly patients described similar night terrors (being unable to stop the woman from going through their personal items at night) and one gentleman with advanced AIDS, who was admitted for treatment of severe pneumonia, reported that the woman had attempted to molest him in the middle of the night when she was high and in a hypersexual state.
Thanks to our investigation, many patients had their belongings returned to them (though some of their jewelry was not recovered – the woman probably sold it for heroine to her visiting dealer), and I heard that the predator was caught by the city police after choosing to leave the hospital against medical advice.
I don’t know what happened to this woman after that, and I doubt that the police were able to detain her for very long. I felt horrible for the patients who had been victimized in their ill and vulnerable states, and I wondered what kind of lasting psychological damage that this woman had inflicted upon them, especially poor Mrs. Johnson. I also felt frustrated and vulnerable – unable to really protect my hospital from future assaults. What could I do, stand in the Emergency Department each night to identify her if she chose to return? I can only imagine that this woman is still up to her old tricks at a neighboring inner city hospital near you…
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.