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When In Doubt, Ask A Family Member

Photo Cred: Max S. Gerber

I learned a valuable lesson recently about how difficult it can be to make the correct diagnosis when you see a patient for a very short period of time. In the acute rehab setting I admit patients who are recovering from severe, life-altering brain events such as strokes, head injuries, and complex medical illnesses. It is challenging to know what these patients’ usual mental function was prior to their injuries, and so I rely on my knowledge of neuroanatomy, infectious disease, and pharmacology to guide my work up. However, I have learned that asking the patient’s family members about what they were like (in their healthier state) is extremely important as well. Personality quirks, likes and dislikes, and psychiatric history all offer clues to ongoing behavioral challenges and mental status changes.

This fact was never clearer than when I met an elderly gentleman with a new stroke. He was extremely drowsy, non-participatory, and was not oriented to anything but his name. The stroke had occurred in a part of the brain that does not affect cognition, so I began to wonder if he had an infection or was having a reaction to a medication. I carefully ruled out all possible sources of infection, and I combed through his medication list and removed any potentially sedating drugs. His mental status remained unchanged for several days. I then began to wonder if perhaps he was suffering from significant dementia at baseline, and that he was living at home with more help from his family than they had initially reported. The therapy team and I began to consider a transfer to a nursing home. The family was horrified by the idea.

As it turned out, his grandson shared with me that he believed that the patient was autistic. Because his grandpa was elderly, he grew up in a time where not much was known about autism, and diagnoses of the condition was rarely made. He was therefore never formally diagnosed, but had many of the textbook characteristics. His stroke, combined with a sudden transfer to an inpatient hospital setting, was very distressing for the patient, and he had shut down to protect himself from the mental anguish. The “dementia-like” behavior that we were witnessing was merely an acute psychological reaction.

Armed with this new information, the therapy team requested family members to be present during all sessions – to encourage participation and to provide comfort and normalization of the transition from home to hospital. The patient responded beautifully, and made remarkable gains in his ability to walk and participate in self care activities.

I apologized profusely to the family for our period of confusion about his diagnosis and care needs, and offered reassurance that we would do our very best to help him recover from his stroke so that he could go home directly from the hospital. He did in fact return home, and with a little extra help from his daughters, he is enjoying his usual projects and activities.

As for me, I will never presume dementia without careful family confirmation again.


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One Response to “When In Doubt, Ask A Family Member”

  1. Alice Lucey says:

    I agree with your point about checking with a patient’s family members about what a patient was like in their healthier state. I am a Director of Care with Be Independent HomeCare and I see elderly patients in their homes on a daily basis. I think it is really important to assess the situation with the family members as it can be incredibly insightful in helping me form a proper assessment of the situation and the patient’s needs.

    Family members know the individual quirks of a particular patient’s personality or are familiar with the traits we might look at as symptoms of something else. I know it is easy to look for Dementia as its prevalence rate is on the rise with 7.7 million new cases annually, but I find family insight is great to rule out many possibilities that might otherwise be cause for alarm, most especially if the patient is new to you.

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