Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Munchausen Syndrome

A special education teacher in Pennsylvania has been charged with 12 felony forgery counts. She falsified medical documents, including forging a doctor's signature, in order to gain medical leave for an "inoperable brain tumor." When confronted, she resigned. Leslie Herneisey, 51, had been a teacher for 25 years, and had been nominated for Teacher Of The Year twice.

This story sounded familliar to me when I read it, because at different times I worked with two women, Brenda and Ann, who did something similar. Both told coworkers they had cancer, they needed time off for surgery and/or chemo, and yet they weren't really ill. Not physically, anyway. After exposure as frauds both of them left the school district, but in the case of Ann, not by being fired. The school district human resources office was advised by their lawyers that the woman was diagnosed with a mental illness. It's against the Americans With Disabilities Act to let someone go for mental illness. A year after being exposed as a fake and abuser of medical leave policy Ann finally quit. The school district got lucky with that. But it makes you wonder, mental illness or not, what the hell was she thinking?

Like the Herneisey woman in Pennsylvania, the other woman, Brenda, told everyone she had an inoperable brain tumor. She told everyone she had only weeks to live, even describing in great detail what stages she would go through, and by August "she'd be dead." Of course she was showered with love and attention but August came, then September, then it was Christmas, and Brenda was still among the living. She announced that her doctor said the tumor had shrunk away to nothing; she didn't have cancer anymore! A miracle! Well, that was all too much for the human resources department who did a bit of investigating and found out Brenda never had cancer, brain tumor or otherwise. So, she agreed to leave. Several incidents she was involved in after she left showed the rest of us how disturbed she was.

I did a little Internet research and came up with some interesting articles on the subject:

". . . why on earth would anyone actually pretend to have a serious illness?

Some do it simply for profit. Others have a disorder called Munchausen Syndrome - a mental condition whereby people feign illness in order to gain attention, or money or profit in some other way. The payoff is usually tremendous for the people faking the illness. They get a sympathetic ear, constant attention, gifts, cards, emails, money and the time and energy of medical professionals. An area where this syndrome is growing is the Internet. Support groups for people with hundreds of different diseases and conditions are easily accessible and the payoff is often just as good – and actual - as in real life. People have been sent checks, money orders, clothing and supplies, as well as endless on line hugs, emails, letters and attention.

No dummies are they! People who fake these illnesses are actually quite smart. They are well-read in the areas of their “conditions” and know how to talk the talk. They know how they should sound, feel and look. They use medical terms and go as far as to shave their heads and eyebrows to prove that they are receiving treatment."
". . . Often, of course, there are mixed motivations, and the person faking illness has many reasons to keep up the pretense of being sick for as long as possible. Some people really do have a disease — not cancer but a mental illness known as a factitious disorder. People with this disorder pretend to have an illness (usually a terminal one) and often go to great lengths to maintain the hoax."
As disturbing as it can be to be fooled, in some ways I understand people who have these syndromes and need what they get by claiming cancer. To fake it would take a special kind of person, in desperate need of something.

In the eyes of the law these fakers, if they forge documents, make false insurance claims or accept money under false pretenses, are guilty of a crime. And I'm aware that some people are pulling confidence games and scams. But there are a percentage of people who claim these things who are mentally ill. It's criminalizing mental illness I disagree with.

Cancer is bad, cancer is scary; we even have a visceral reaction when we hear the word. I can't imagine faking cancer, but I can't imagine what it must be like to be in the particular mental state of some of those who do. If Herneisey just did it get out of work then throw the book at her; if she's got a factitious disorder then she needs help, and I hope she gets it.

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