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A virus and the Munchausen effect

White lies are abundant in COVID-19 season, more so when people try to hide away from its tentacles

With COVID-19, the world has changed. Even the law-abiding, honest ordinary citizen has become a habitual liar.

With a tablet of paracetamol to suppress fever, a fake home address, an old undated doctor’s prescription or an “emergency” notice stuck on the car windscreen, he would stoop to any level to hoodwink the authorities, just to drive around for reasons as innocuous as shopping or a haircut.

Against such a background, here was a distinctly different gentleman. He came to the hospital casualty and made a detailed confession. He had travelled to Dubai and London and came back recently. He had asked the airport staff to check him and was willing to undergo quarantine, but somehow they felt he was fine and let him go. He came to our hospital ready for a two-week quarantine and asked us to admit him, if needed.

The casualty staff argued with him, but he would not budge.

“I know I am fine, but why take the risk for others in society? I am ready to pay the hospital bill. Please admit me,” he said. “I am a heart patient and had undergone angioplasty and ‘stenting’ procedure thrice in Mumbai.”

We understood the reason for his worry. Cardiac patients do badly when they get the virus.

He told us how during his last trip his baggage got misplaced and he lost all his medical records. But he gave the name of the hospital where the angioplasty was done and the name of the doctor. He also rattled out the names of his medicines.

“Don’t worry, we will take care of you,” a doctor comforted him.

He was admitted as a “COVID rule-out” case; the blood tests came back negative.

“I have heard that a second test may be positive; so I would rather take the quarantine,” he said.

On day 10, he complained of severe chest pain, but the ECG and blood tests turned out to be normal. On day 14, as we were planning to discharge him, something unusual happened.

At 6 p.m., his cousin visited him and left in a huff. He complained to the duty nurse, but by the time the nurse reached the room, the cousin was gone. Our patient was almost in tears. When questioned, he said the irresponsible cousin had come straight from a Mumbai hotspot. No one knew how she dodged the security guards and came in. This meant that the poor man’s hospital stay was going to be extended by another two weeks. Three days later, he got stomach pain, and that is when he revealed he had multiple kidney stones too. The scans were surprisingly normal.

War lore

That is when I remembered Baron Munchausen who came back from the Austrian-Russian-Turkish war in 1740. Over time, his stories became more eloquent and mesmerising, bordering on fantasy and delusion. The stories became more and more popular, and celebrities and dignitaries would opt to have dinner with him just to listen to them. However, it was only in 1785, when librarian-turned-author Rudolph Erich Rapse published a book titled Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, his character became iconic. The name Munchausen became synonymous with unreal stories so well-knit that they almost sounded real.

The Munchausen Syndrome is a rare condition that makes a person feign or exaggerate a mild or non-existent illness to continue to get medical attention and sympathy.

One of our duty nurses told us that the “Mumbai” hospital name mentioned by our patient did not have the facility for angiogram. Also, the doctor mentioned was a gastroenterologist.

“I had worked there,” she whispered.

The “truthful” man was discharged with a diagnosis of COVID-negative “Munchausen Syndrome”.

tinynair@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 12:17:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-virus-and-the-munchausen-effect/article31765560.ece

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