Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Munchhausen Syndrome and Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy

Always a Dangerous Mother?

Gallaudet University
Gallaudet University

The abuse of children doesn't necessarily end when the children grow up. I received this call during my normal business hours as an interpreter. A young man had been rushed over from Gallaudet University . He had total kidney failure. When I arrived in the ICU, this handsome young man was lying comatose, hooked up to a kidney machine that was keeping him alive. He was a healthy-looking young eighteen-year-old, except for the fact he was dying. The doctors were puzzled over his condition. Friends had told the physicians caring for him that the kid was as clean-cut as they come; he didn't do drugs, he didn't drink, he didn't do anything harmful. He was an athlete and an outstanding student. The best the doctors could come up with was that perhaps he had an allergic reaction to garbanzo beans served at the college cafeteria.

I spent the week with this young man. I didn't see any relatives on the first day, but I was told that the student was from a foreign country and his family wasn't in the area. Finally, the mother was located in another state. The hospital called her, and when the nurse got off the phone, she looked angry.

"Problem?" I inquired.

"I talked to his mom ," the nurse said. "I told her he was in a critical condition. She asked me if I thought she should come to Washington DC . What kind of mother asks if she should come visit her dying son?"

That was a darned good question. What kind of mother indeed?

Mom did show up a couple of days later after a 600-mile bus ride.

"Hullo! I am Manny's mother. Which room is he in?" She was a big, bustling woman with a broad smile on her face.

"Oh, is this the machine that is cleaning his kidneys? How does it work?" She started in right away questioning the nurses about the procedures." Oh, and thank you so much for taking such good care of my son. You are all such wonderful people."

Mom sat down beside her son and refused to leave the room, even to eat. She was ever-vigilant, which would have been heartwarming except for the fact she never actually paid any attention to her son. When her son regained some sort of consciousness, he looked away from her as if she was a loathsome bug.

I sat in the room and started adding up what was wrong with this picture. Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy came immediately to mind. The woman was more interested in medical procedures than she was in her son's life. She was more thrilled with the attention she received than the actual medical attention her son was getting. But how could she have anything to do with her son's condition? She lived in another city!

I made friendly conversation with her. Then I asked her, "Are you a nurse, by any chance?" I knew that women with Munchausen's Syndrome and MSBP often worked in medical institutions, usually as nurse's aides and patient-care positions that required limited schooling.

She smiled broadly. "Oh, yes, as a matter-of-fact, I am!"

"Nursing home?
She looked surprised. "Why, yes!"

"Graveyard shift?"

She now looked a little uneasy. "Yes, I do work the night shift."

Now, I was really creeped out. Still it meant nothing. Mom and son lived five states apart. At least, I found out the next day, they did most of the time. The son had just come back from a school break the day he became ill. Where had he been? At his mother's house.

I asked the hospital if they had checked his system for drugs used in a nursing home. They told me no; they had no reason to do that.

By now, I was rather sick of the Code of Ethics for interpreters. Were we supposed to stand by and be accomplices to murder? I decided I had had enough. I went to the administration and told them what I thought about the possibility that this mother had poisoned her son while he was visiting her. I asked them what they knew about MSBP. They showed me the door. They considered me a nut. I was just a sign language interpreter, not a medical professional.

Thank God the boy survived. At least from the way he looked at his mother while she sat next to him, I doubted he was going to go home for Christmas.