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.

Author Question: Car versus Pedestrian

Alex Asks:

My character suffers the following injuries. I want the injuries to be severe enough that they require immediate surgery, but also that he recovers after about a month in the hospital and a stay in rehab.

carpedistrian1. Character is standing in the road, tries to run but is hit by the car front on.  Body smashes into the windscreen, sending him up into the air.

2. Hits his head on the pavement on landing and suffers broken bones as a result.

3. He blacks out from the impact and wakes up several hours later. In this instance, would he be able to survive for several hours with the kinds of injuries he could have?

4. Possible injuries I thought he could have included: bleeding on the brain, broken leg/s and/or arms, fractured ribs which could cause a puncture to one of his lungs.

5. As a result he suffers from retrograde amnesia when he wakes up at the scene because of the injuries to his brain. Cannot remember his name/where he is or other events in his memory. Again here I am not sure what kind of specific head trauma could cause this.

6. After surgery to the brain, he is put into an induced coma to monitor the swelling. He will eventually wake up from this about a month later.

Jordyn Says:

The accident you describe would include some very serious injuries— perhaps not even survivable. It’s not just the injuries the character suffers getting thrown from the impact onto the pavement, but also the injuries he suffers from getting hit by the car. An impact that is so violent that it throws someone into the air would also likely shatter the windshield indicating to EMS responders that there was a lot of violent energy associated with this collision— which means bad things for the patient.

My first opinion is if you want this character to wake up in a few hours would be that he doesn’t fall directly on his head after he’s thrown into the air from the first impact. Overall, for your scenario, you might want to lessen the violence of this crash if you want him up in a few hours. It wouldn’t be surprising for this patient to require surgery to fix broken bones and/or internal bleeding.

A pedestrian surviving this crash is not impossible but it is more on the improbable side. This patient will have a lengthy hospital stay. May not wake up for days or months— not just hours. What you outline is a high speed impact to a pedestrian.

To answer some of your medical questions— surgery may be required for the bleeding on the brain depending on its location. All patients who have a brain bleed do not necessarily go to surgery. A punctured lung will require a chest tube to be placed which further complicates your patient’s medical picture. This patient would be placed on a breathing machine for sure to stabilize him until all these injuries could be sorted out.

Could a patient with a significant brain bleed be conscious at the scene after the accident? Yes. There is a specific type of brain bleed that fits this scenario called an epidural bleed. It does have a characteristic lucid period before the patient becomes unconscious again. It does require surgery to correct. If no surgical intervention is done then the patient will likely die. Honestly, as a writer, you have a lot of leeway in regards to what to do with amnesia. Any type of traumatic brain injury (and this certainly qualifies) could cause amnesia.

Medically induced comas are used frequently in medicine as a way to help control brain swelling. However, the medicines are not used forever. Peak brain swelling usually occurs 48-72 hours after the injury. After this time has passed, the medical team will evaluate when to decrease the medications keeping the patient in the coma. Keep in mind, even after these medications are discontinued, the patient may never wake up. Further studies would need to be done to determine the extent of the damage to his brain. These changes will evolve over time becoming more stable the more time that goes on.

My recommendation would be to lessen the severity of the crash. The car hits him, he hit the windshield, breaks it and then falls to the ground. This alone could cause a femur fracture and brain injury for which he could suffer amnesia and require surgery. If it’s an epidural bleed then he gets surgery, perhaps with some swelling and therefore the medically induced coma, but wakes up in a month. The leg is set in surgery with pinning or a rod. I think just having these two things is enough for your scenario.

All the rest might prove too complicating.