Rachel could not get to school. She was having such bad back pain. Her family doctor wrote an urgent referral. As she would not see the psychologist at school, school was considering taking mother to court.
There was a change in managing school refusal. Education Authorities suddenly turned trigger happy and all over the country parents were taken to court. I did wonder if this was due to a shortage of Educational Psychologists who were now too busy dealing with Formal Assessments as a result of the new Education Act, or whether it was due to years of public criticism of the inadequacy of the softly softly approach to the problem. There is some truth that there is a hard core of children whom no teacher really wants to see at school and the authorities are quite happy they are absent. These are children who are entitled to free meals and the hidden saving of them not attending school adds up to a pretty substantial sum. To assess them would take up precious Psychologist time and also may generate expenses in terms of ferrying these children by taxi to special tutorial units or schools.
But Rachel came from a professional family. Mother was a lawyer and father an insurance executive commuting to
. Yes, Rachel had some problems a year earlier because of her height. She did stop attending school for a while, claiming she had pain in her back. She was way over the 98th percentile for height. Some strong pain killer prescribed by her doctor seemed to have done the trick and she had not been absent until the present attack of pain. London
Clinical judgment is indeed a kind of “profiling”. We judge our patients from a variety of information and we “profile” them. It may not be correct but we do.
I had my suspicion that the Educational Psychologist never got to see her record to realise that she was not really the type anyone should ever dream of prosecuting.
The family doctor thought that I should be given a shot before anyone should have a go. Mother was told in no uncertain term that she needed to get Rachel to see me.
“But she was in such pain!” mother said. She did protest but in the end succumbed. With the help of a neighbour, they managed to get her to the clinic and she was lying down in our waiting area.
I had one look at Rachel, perhaps 6 ft tall, lying flat in the waiting area and asked my secretary to call an ambulance whilst I talked to the Radiology Consultant. An X-ray examination was ordered and if necessary an MRI scan.
How could I come to such a decision without even spending half a minute with mother or the patient? Was I being over dramatic? Or was it what we have been trained for? Was it why psychiatrists are trained as doctors first?
I could of course have been entirely wrong and the girl might really have been school phobic. Would I have subjected her to an unnecessary X-ray examination? Would my reputation suffer as a result?
The ambulance came. The paramedics were excellent. They treated it as potential spinal injury and transported her that way. I accompanied her onto the ambulance. You had to see her face to know you were right. She was grateful someone believed her. For me it was worth all the drama. My only wish was we were not too late that she might not be able to walk.
Mother too shook my hand as the ambulance got ready to go. I always told my juniors. “Trust them, most of the time.”
I left a message for the radiologist to call me.
The call came back from the radiologist. She had two collapsed vertebrae, a common condition among very tall children who have just had a growth spurt. The Orthopaedic Surgeon was preparing for an emergency operation.
“Good work.” The radiologist said.
I knew. He meant: “Good work for a psychiatrist, and a child psychiatrist at that.”
Some time later mother arranged to see me to tell me in detail what was done.
“She wants to thank you for believing her.”
I was just doing my job.