First, Do No Harm


On January 7, 2016, I arrived at my doctor’s office in Mount Dora, FL, for a routine appointment.  The receptionist informed me that my regular doctor, Gloria Hernandez, was out on maternity leave; another doctor would see me.

When asked how I was feeling, I explained to the doctor that I was concerned about a pattern of higher-than-usual blood sugars.  I am a diabetic. 

She agreed with my concern and prescribed Glimepiride to help lower my blood sugar.   I took the prescription to my usual drugstore, Walgreens pharmacy in Mount Dora, and had it filled.

At that time I had no way of knowing that Glimepiride is the generic name for Amaryl, an oral diabetes medicine that helps control blood sugar levels, but the doctor practicing medicine in that office, should have known.

Moreover, had she looked at my patient file, containing my list of allergies, she would have been aware not to prescribe Glimepiride.   I am allergic to all sulfa drugs; this fact has been known and documented for years.

The Walgreens pharmacist, a licensed, medical professional should also have known.  The patient file at Walgreens has all my allergies listed; their computer system should have flagged the prescription, stopping the pharmacist from dispensing the drug to me.  Did the pharmacist even look at my file?   I do not know. 

Yet, how could every safety feature of the Walgreens’ system have failed as badly as it did?    Or maybe, the system did not fail at all; it was the fault of the humans, who did not use the system properly.

My reactions to the drug, Glimepiride, were not immediately apparent; each day, however, the allergic reactions intensified.  By the time I realized I was in trouble and needed immediate medical attention, I was already aboard the Holland America ship, Veendam, on a vacation cruise. 

At first the ship’s medical staff suspected my symptoms of stomach cramps and copious diarrhea as indications of some sort of infectious disease.   Worried I would contaminate their other passengers, they hurriedly placed me in isolation / observation.   It was not until the staff could certify I was free of infectious disease, that they allowed me out of isolation.   By then I had missed out on excursions ashore — in particular, visiting Honduras, and the ancient Mayan ruins of Mexico, which were my main reasons for taking this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

During my stay in isolation, the medical staff aboard ship was unable to determine exactly what caused my symptoms.  However, once they ruled out infection, my traveling companions and I turned our attention to allergies.

Being the newest addition to my medications list, Glimepiride immediately became our number-one suspect. By now, my symptoms included headaches, fatigue, confusion and a bright red rash everywhere. Moreover, after four days of constant diarrhea, I was dehydrated and shaky. 

I stopped taking Glimepiride.  The next morning my symptoms started fading; by the time we disembarked at our home port, I was recovering. 

Once home I researched Glimepiride on the Internet. To my horror, I discovered that the brand name of Glimepiride was Amaryl!

This Glimepiride / Amaryl connection left me feeling betrayed and angry.   Immediately, I spoke to lawyers, but those conversations didn’t help.   While what happened is clearly medical malpractice, lawyers were not interested in handling the case.   Why?   There are two reasons: I didn’t die or suffer permanent disability.   In other words I did not suffer enough loss to make it worth their while.

This is when I realized just how succinct lawyers could be when a potential case fails to offer a substantial lucrative return.  The lawyers were polite and wished me the best of luck.  One even suggested small claims court, and I will probably check out that option.

One interesting conversation with a local lawyer revealed that he was aware of the “goings on in that medical practice.”   I was shocked!   I had not revealed the identity of the doctor in question, nevertheless, this local attorney was able to identify her name and location because he had already heard similar complaints from others in the area.   As interesting as the case was, however, it did not offer a large enough financial incentive for him to get involved.

I believe life’s experiences are lessons to be learned and shared.  Since I am also an idealist, believing the pen is mightier than the sword, I am unabashedly recording this very frightening experience and intend to share it with as many people as I can.

Firstly, the most important lesson of all:  We all need to be much more proactive than we are when it comes to our roles as patients.   Sure, we should trust our doctors, but only just so far.  We need to checkout doctors’ recommendations and prescriptions for ourselves; ask questions and demand explanations.

Secondly, if you have allergies, always check to make sure that the drug prescribed is not one to which you are allergic, being sold under a different name, as it was in my case.  In addition, make sure your doctor checks your list of allergies on file before he/she writes a prescription.  Remind your pharmacist to check your file’s allergy list, too.  Doctors and pharmacists may hate you for being pushy, but if being proactive saves you from experiencing a diarrhea marathon, or worse, it is well worth the effort.

If any medical professional is too busy and/or unwilling to listen to your questions, or concerns, find someone else.  Remember, if anything goes wrong, you’ll probably have little or no legal recourse unless you are permanently injured, impaired or dead.  But isn’t the point of medical care to prevent those horrible alternatives in the first place?

Some may consider the following cynical, yet it reflects the prevalent, materialistic nature of our contemporary society — No justice unless the payoff is big enough. 

I wish it weren’t true, but it is the truth as I’ve experienced it.  For me, it is also true that no pay off, no matter how huge, could ever erase the memory of that intensely violent and dangerous allergic reaction.  I will never forget the fear, and how helpless I felt.

In retrospect, it was, however, in many ways a defining moment, one forcing me to confront just how mortal and fragile we humans are.  I’d like to think I am stronger and wiser than I was before this all happened, unfortunately, that catharsis has not yet taken happened.  I am still angry and not yet in a forgiving mood.

One thing I do know for sure: I will no longer blindly trust doctors or pharmacists; they are only human, and humans are fallible.

Postscript:

Now, I am getting really angry.  Clearly, it is difficult to convince the Walgreens computer system that it is not prudent for me to take Glimepiride.  This weekend, I’ve received four phones calls reminding me to re-fill the prescription immediately.   I continue getting these calls although I’ve written to Walgreens, and I’ve spoken with them on the  telephone.

Lastly, I’ve just this minute (3.12.16 @ 5.20PM) received another robocall, this time from my insurance company, Freedom Health, reminding me to refill Glimepiride, and to emphasize the importance of taking my medication exactly as prescribed by my doctor. 

Honestly now, do I need to be scolded or reminded by non-human entities?

In any case, I will speak with Freedom Health customer Service once again.  Obviously, the first time I called they didn’t quite understand that I should never again take Glimepiride.  NO-WAY; NO-HOW! 

But, now they are closed for the weekend…

 

 

 

 

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