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World Health Day: A stitch in time

World Health Day: A stitch in time

Clare Eves

As a lawyer and the department manager of Shine Lawyers' Medical Law team, Friday's World Health Day marks a special day on the calendar to celebrate how far some of our clients have come on their road to recovery, writes Clare Eves.

It’s also an important day to raise awareness on the importance of achieving and maintaining a healthy body and mind.

There are many factors within our control that are conducive to healthy living, and can improve our physical, mental and emotional health. However, there are times when our health fails us – from a minor illness to a significant health injury that completely derails us.

One of the common complaints I see is misdiagnosis or a delay in diagnosis of a medical condition, leading to significant life changes. The delay in diagnosis of certain conditions can lead to an exacerbation of the condition, and at times irreversible damage can occur which may impact on a person’s ability to engage in daily living or worse, their ability to work and care for themselves.

With chronic illness or injury, secondary conditions such as depression often arise, and an individual’s hope of returning to their pre-injury life becomes more remote. The family dynamics shift drastically, and at times, marital relationships break down altogether.

Our own health is our own responsibility. However, when we suffer from ill health, our reliance shifts to those who are qualified to deal with our health complaints. It is during these times that we seek reliance on the professionals, on those who have dedicated most of their educational and professional lives to learning about and practising medicine.

It is at our most vulnerable times when we are forced to put our full faith and trust in others, whom we believe will know what to do, who will consider all symptoms, and only when satisfied, will provide a diagnosis and treatment regime.

At no point do we consider our trust and reliance in a medical health professional will be misplaced. Although I am contacted regularly with such complaints, and while I work with, know and respect many health professionals in the industry, I also regularly see instances where a delay in diagnosis of a serious medical condition, such as cancer, infections, meningitis, spinal conditions or obstetric complications, occur. This can have devastating consequences, and in some cases, mean the condition progresses to become terminal.

At Shine Lawyers, we once represented an individual who had a delay in diagnosis of fungal meningitis, and as a consequence, suffered from stroke and brain damage, with ongoing problems of memory and concentration deficits, and an altered ability to make rational decisions, as well as issues with his vision and speech.

This individual was a young man with a partner and a young child. At the time his medical condition developed, he was navigating life well, juggling work and caring for his newborn son.

He started to experience headaches, which gradually got worse over time, for which he consulted with his general practitioner. His general practitioner did not think it was serious and only prescribed some medication.

Over the following week, his headaches increased in severity and so he'd gone to the hospital. Due to the severity and type of symptoms he was experiencing, meningitis was considered as a diagnosis, and he was told he would need to have a lumbar puncture as it was the only definitive way to test for meningitis. He was prescribed antibiotics as a precaution to treat any infection or meningitis (if it was in fact bacterial).

The lumbar puncture was attempted and unfortunately it was abandoned on account of pain. He spent a total of 11 days in the hospital, and the lumbar puncture was not re-attempted, thus no diagnosis was ever made. His symptoms got worse, and he suffered from severe headaches and sensitivity to light. His symptoms were dismissed as stemming from a psychiatric cause or other lifestyle-related choices, such as possible past substance abuse.

In fact this individual had fungal meningitis, which was not diagnosed or treated. After leaving the hospital he continued on pain relief medication and saw his general practitioner. A few days later, he had a severe stroke on account of his fungal meningitis remaining untreated. He was then admitted to a different hospital, where his condition was finally diagnosed and intensive treatment was provided.

Due to increased pressure in the brain from his untreated fungal meningitis, he needed a shunt inserted into into it and had a complex and lengthy course of treatment.

He now suffers from many ongoing symptoms, and the stress and difficulty of living with his current condition has caused his relationship with his partner to fall apart. He can no longer care for his son on his own. He now lives with his mother, whom he is reliant upon for care and assistance. He can never return to work or to his previous lifestyle.

The cases I see often reiterate that we know our bodies better than anyone else. If we think something is not right, it is generally not. Some aspects of this are subjective, such as pain. Some aspects are more objective, and we need to be alive to realise what health risks we face. This World Health Day, I want to remind you all to ask questions, to try to understand what is happening in your body, and to know what tests are being done and why, if we do get sick. If you are not satisfied with the answers you are getting, I want you to use this global initiative to challenge the answer and not to fear asking for a second opinion.

The aftermath of World Health Day on 7 April represents a great opportunity to take stock of your health and address that niggling health complaint that has been forced to the back of your mind, or follow up that outstanding appointment or test. There is nothing more valuable than your health; both you and your loved ones depend on it.

Clare Eves is a lawyer and the department manager of Shine Lawyers' Medical Law team.

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