Treatment for Amnesia

Marissa Asks:

How do doctors proceed if they suspect amnesia? In my novel, the patient was brought to emergency after being found on the side of the road (in the snow.) The patient shows signs of physical torture: multiple rapes, bruises, lacerations, glass embedded mainly in his hands, hypothermia, and a cold (because obviously my character needs to be ill on top of everything).

burnout-384086_1920The patient has just woken up and had a panic attack. Been settled down. You asked for his name and he seemed uncertain as he gave his first name. You asked for his last name and the patient shook his head. What next? I mean obviously the glass would have been removed from his hands and a drip put in for painkillers but what next? Who does the nurse call? Or what does she ask now? And if memory loss is confirmed, how do they find out it’s amnesia like which SPECIFIC tests do they do? Who is contacted and brought in to liase?

I just sort of need a timeline rundown because my character is going to be going through that.

Jordyn Says:

Thanks so much for sending me your question. First of all, it sounds like this patient has a period of time where he is unconscious in the ER. You make it sound like he wakes up on his own and not in response to an exam by a doctor.

So an unconscious patient found with these injuries would have a CT scan of his head. Hypothermia could be determined simply by taking the patient’s temperature and warming him up with something as simple as warm blankets to more complex as heated IV fluids. Regarding the IV drip for pain— this is actually unlikely in the ER. This is referred to as a PCA pump (patient controlled analgesia) and I’ve never seen them used in any ER setting. Would we treat the patient’s pain? Yes. But, you might be surprised that we may choose not to use a narcotic (for many reasons) and instead try something like Toradol which is an IV form of an NSAID (which is in the same drug class as Ibuprofen.)

The glass embedded in his hands would be removed. The wounds irrigated and stitched closed if necessary. The lacerations would be treated the same way. Keep in mind, not all lacerations can be stitched closed if they’ve been open too long due to the risk of infection.This patient would also receive a tetanus booster if he hasn’t had one in the last five years (even if he can’t remember the last time he had a shot.) If anything looks infected, he would receive IV antibiotics.

If the patient wakes up and doesn’t know who he is (and doesn’t have any form of identification on him) then we would involve the police. Likely, they are probably already involved considering the circumstances— that he was found unconscious and beaten. Plus, you mention that the character has been raped several times so a sexual assault kit should be collected, but the patient’s consent is required, so we’d ask him if he wants this when he’s awake. Yet another reason the police would be involved.

If the doctors think the amnesia is related to a brain injury from the beating, they may just see if it improves with time.

I think it’s reasonable to admit this patient to the hospital and I speak a lot here about how it is actually rare to admit a patient with concussion, but considering the amnesia (it sounds like you want it to persist), the beating, the rapes, the wounds to his hands (as well as additional lacerations), and the hypothermia then some watchful observation is warranted. The doctors could consider a neurological and/or some type of psychological evaluation considering the circumstances of the case to see if his memory loss has a non-medical cause. Neuro might request an MRI of his brain to look for additional injuries not as easily discerned via CT scan.

In the end, if he never remembers, there’s little treatment to “correct” amnesia. This is good for the writer because you have a lot of leeway in what you want to happen to the character. Your time frame can be what you wish.

I think if he were stable in the hospital for a few days and the neurological/psychological evaluation didn’t warrant anything that required further inpatient treatment, he could be discharged home even if the amnesia persists with outpatient neurological follow-up and perhaps outpatient therapy if he consents.

Obviously the police would be very involved with this case.

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