Friday, April 3, 2015

Three Medical Myths Perpetuated in Writing

It still amazes me how often I see the following myths perpetuated in novels, television, and movies. I’ve even tried to find the genesis of some of them with little success. The problem becomes that anything written or seen is generally believed to be true and I feel we have a great responsibility as authors to write truth even if we write fiction.

So please, join me on my crusade to dispel these medical myths once and for all. I know some of you will still want to cling to them . . . but really, it’s okay to let these ones go.

  1. The head injured patient must be kept awake. In all honesty, these make for terrific scenes, right? A character is gravely injured and (typically a loved one or stressed out medical person) is clinging to their hand begging them to keep their eyes open and don’t go toward the light. For us in medicine, we don’t care if a person with a head injury sleeps. What we are concerned with is will they wake up when we want them to. Let’s take this out to its logical conclusion. How long should we keep them awake? Hours? Days? What’s the appropriate amount of time? The truth is, the brain rests by sleeping. This is how it resets itself after injury. What do we tell you to do when you injure your ankle? Get off of it. Rest it. Same is true with the brain. Most often, people with concussion feel much better after a nap.
  2. Fever causes brain damage. This is patently false. In the normally functioning brain, fever, in and of itself does not cause brain damage. I’ve seen fever over 106 degrees that we’ve treated and sent home. Now, what is causing the fever may cause brain damage (such as bacterial meningitis) but the fever is the body’s response to fight infection. Also, the height of the fever doesn’t tell us how serious the infection is. I’ve taken care of babies in fulminate sepsis that actually had lower than normal body temperature. Our concern in the ER is what is causing the fever and does that need to be treated. We don’t thrust kids into ice cold bathwater either but undressing down to a diaper and giving a fever reducing medicine is preferred—mostly so they’ll be less fussy and drink to stay hydrated.
Keep in mind, fever is different from heat stroke. Heat stroke is when the body’s protective cooling mechanisms are overwhelmed. This is the child getting locked in a hot car. Also, some severely brain injured patients can damage the area of their brain that controls body temperature as well. Treating these patients is different than treating the patient with fever from illness.  
  1. Vaccines cause autism. This is not true and even Autism Speaks, a major autism advocacy group, has released a statement stating this and encouraging parents to vaccinate their children. Can children have vaccine reactions? Yes, they can. I agree that if your child has demonstrated a particular reaction to a vaccine that is verified by a licensed physician then it’s reasonable to withhold it in the future. Overall, the problem is this myth is causing hundreds of children to be sickened every year as evidenced by the recent measles outbreak that originated in Disneyland, CA as this Harvard Gazette piece from March 20, 2015 highlights. Measles is highly contagious. You need 96-99% of people vaccinated to protect a community against measles. Vaccine rates in communities where measles have spread have been 50-86%.

Are you a believer in any of these myths? Where did your first learn about them? Do you still believe them today?  

Pediatric ER nurse by day. Suspense novelist by night. Jordyn hosts Redwood's Medical Edge-- a medical blog for historical and contemporary authors to help them write medically accurate fiction. Her medical thrillers, Proof and Poison, received starred reviews from Library Journal and were nominated for multiple awards. Her next novel, The Cipher's String, will release Fall 2015.


Mary Vee Writer said...

Excellent report, Jordyn.
My hubby also works in an ER and finds the medical TV shows to be comedies. Other times he can't watch them because the inaccuracies bother him.
I didn't know two of the three you mentioned in the post today. I knew the vaccine one.
Thanks for informing us. I think we all need to spend some time at your blog because every genre tends to have something medical happen in the story and we want to make sure we get our facts right.
Loved having you on the Alley today!

Pepper Basham said...

Thanks so much for this, Jordyn!! I know a lot of the 'medical' myths I've heard come from my Appalachian culture, but it's interesting to note they carry over culture too (especially the fever and head ones)

ASD and vaccines...woohoo, you've opened up a box there...and during Autism Awareness Month too :-)

I really appreciate your post. As I'm working on my current historical one of my characters is going to have shell-shock as well as vitamin deficiency which causes a mild TBI + temporary amnesia (treated this in one of my clients before and it was fascinating how memories returned), but because I'm not an expert in TBI I'm having one of my colleagues (who is) read over the scenes to make sure I get it pretty close to right :-) (with a tad bit of literary license sprinkled in)

Joan Hall said...

Great post, Jordyn. I work in a hospital and as a healthcare worker, we are required to get vaccines. Serious reactions are rare. It amazes me at the number of patients who refuse flu shots.

You can count on me to never put these myths in my writing.

Peter Leavell said...

Love this! Great stuff!

Jason said...


Good items here. A common thing I find isn't necessarily a medical field issue, but just how people treat injuries. Someone hurts their ankle escaping out of a broken window, then they are running on it a page later. Make your injuries consistent people. It helps with the conflict anyway.

And don't get me started on medicine on TV. My favorite show this week had a character in the hospital as a subplot (no, not a soap). I was going nuts.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Love this!! So happy to have you on our alley!

Redwood's Medical Edge said...

Thanks everyone for all your great comments!! I loved being here.

Mary-- Hope to see you lots over at Redwood's.

Pepper-- I hadn't ever heard that about the Appalachian culture. Might have to do some looking into that.

Joan-- Than you for joining me in my crusade!

Jason-- I know. Medicine on TV really does make for great laughs at times.

Amy-- so honored to be here!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Jordan, I love your common sense! You made me smile and it's a great reminder of the myths we perpetuate with old or mis-information....

Wonderfully stated, thank you!