Author Question: Management of Unusual Patients

Amy Asks:


I hope you can address this. Or, if not, point me at a resource that can. I am writing a short horror story in which a patient complains about not being able to get clean. She washes and then within an hour, she’s dirty again. And if she doesn’t wash, the dirt just accumulates. She’s a magnet for dirt. The patient is not complaining of Morgellons and has no history of drug abuse. Neither does she have a history of (or current problems with) OCD behavior.

My assumption is that the doctor would review proper hygiene with herand then find a tactful way to make a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist. Is that correct?

What questions would the doctor ask? What language would she use when documenting this meeting? And what would she do when more patients start presenting with the same complaint?

In my story, the complaint becomes a pandemic. With this illness, it’s always possible to wash away the dirt, you just can’t keep it away. What are the long-term health consequences of not being able to remain clean? I know that it will increase the possibility of local infections but can you become ill from simply being dirty? (This hypothetical illness would only attract dirt, not pests. But would being dirty make it easier to attract and harbor fleas, ticks and lice?)

Thank you for any help you may be able to provide me!


Jordyn Says:

Wow, Amy. This is a very intriguing question.

I’ll have to take it from an ER nurse’s standpoint. A patient who presents with a complaint of dirt accumulation despite showering definitely raises some eyebrows. If the patient is not expressing wanting to kill themselves or others—then there’s no immediate need to involve psychiatric services. The doctor may say something akin to, “I don’t think this has a medical cause. I think it might be best to follow-up with your regular physician for a referral to a mental health professional.”

Mental health evaluations are rarely done in the ED by an ER physician. These services are likely contracted out or handled by someone else other than the ER physician. You may have heard this phrase about ER docs, “Knowledge of all. Master of none.”—Meaning they have a significant knowledge base but are not specialists. Their job entails identifying a true medical emergency and managing that—so in absence of that, they’ll refer on.

I would say localized infection from open wounds is the biggest risk. As far as attracting other pests—what kind of environment do they live in? Just because you have extra dirt on you doesn’t mean you’ll have lice, etc.


I also ran you question by friend, author and ER physician Braxton DeGarmo.

Braxton says:

I cannot think of a single scientific way that someone could become a dirt “magnet.” As such, the idea of a pandemic in which people can’t keep clean would very much require some sort of fringe science explanation and to pull the plot off you’d have to build that idea in bits and pieces to make it believable—much like Crichton did for re-building ancient DNA from amber to clone dinosaurs.

Now, as a psychiatric condition, this is very plausible. I’ve taken care of people who thought they were shrinking and that snakes were under their skin. All of these were manifestations of a psychotic break. So, yes, a tactful referral to psych would be warranted. It would be easier to come up with something that causes such a psych pandemic than one where people keep attracting dirt and grime.

The problem, though, is that everyone’s psychotic break would be different. So, again, you’d have to build some case where they all share OCD or the opposite, an attraction to dirt to where they purposefully seek to get dirty. Both scenarios will require some work to build scientifically plausible causes.

Perhaps, there could be an illness that leads to a specific deficiency and the dirt they instinctively “collect” somehow fills this need and is absorbed through the skin. To the casual observer, they just look dirty, but a closer look finds common mineral “X” or whatever, within everyone’s grime. And it’s the only common factor, thus leading the protagonist or someone to figure it out.


Most folks have heard of people with certain deficiencies sharing a common trait, such as pica to fill an iron deficiency. So, this might be an easier way to build plausibility.
 


As for the specific questions, yes, local skin infections might become more of a problem, but not necessarily any systemic issues. Likewise, with fleas and such. Degree of skin cleanliness has nothing really to do with such infestations. 

Best of luck with this novel! Very intriguing idea. 


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