You can imagine my feeling of ill-omen when, immediately before going into hospital overnight for further investigations into my pituitary tumour, I saw that the Mail's headline story was about Kane Gorny, a 22-year-old with a pituitary tumour who died of dehydration in hospital after nurses denied him his medication.
You can read the Mail's story online here. According to the Mail, it seems that after his entirely routine hip replacement surgery, nurses did not give Mr Gorny medication necessary for fluid retention; he became so agitated from dehydration that he called 999 in an attempt to get some water, but was sedated and left unattended overnight, despite his mother raising concerns. Even after his death, the attitude of some members of the nursing staff appears to have been appalling.
I thought I would tackle a couple of questions raised by the reporting on this terrible story, before moving on to look at it as a whole:
What was wrong with him?
Kane Gorny suffered from a pituitary tumour; that much is certain. The exact details of Mr Gorny's condition are still somewhat sketchy and vary depending on which paper you read, but I'm going to guess that he possibly had acromegaly or Cushing's Disease, from the statement of his endocrinologist that he had a "rare tumour", and the fact that he had joint problems.
Most papers have reported that he had a "malignant" brain tumour or "brain cancer". The tumour may well have been cancerous, but it should perhaps be noted that this extremely rare for pituitary tumours; they are sometimes misreported as malignant due to journalists misunderstanding the condition and the fact that a tumour labelled "benign" may still be very harmful. In any case, I'll be looking at the definition of malignancy/cancer with regard to pituitary tumours in a future post, hopefully within the next couple of weeks, because it's an interesting question.
Why did he need a hip replacement aged just 22?
After pituitary surgery, sometimes the healthy pituitary gland is damaged, leaving it unable to produce certain hormones, including ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone), which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the steroid hormone cortisol. Without cortisol in the body, you can die quite quickly - consequently, it is standard to give patients steroid pills after surgery until doctors are certain their pituitary gland is able to produce ACTH. If the pituitary gland has been damaged, patients will need to take these pills for life.
Most reports have stated that Mr Gorny's steroid treatment left him requiring a hip replacement; high levels of steroids in the body can lead to avascular necrosis (although not in "a couple of weeks" as one paper initially reported). Additionally, if he did indeed have Cushing's or acromegaly, both of these conditions can adversely affect joints.
How did he die of dehydration so quickly?
A healthy human can live for a couple of days without water, depending on exertion and environmental conditions. Kane Gorny could not. After his pituitary surgery, Mr Gorny was left with diabetes insipidus. This is a very different condition from what we refer to as "diabetes" (diabetes mellitus) and is caused by a deficiency in anti-diuretic hormone (ADH, or vasopressin). Anti-diuretic hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland and helps to control the body's fluid balance. In diabetes insipidus, the lack of this hormone means that the body cannot conserve much of the water which it takes in, and consequently the sufferer becomes extremely thirsty and needs to urinate frequently. Unfortunately, developing this condition is a fairly common side-effect of pituitary surgery and pituitary radiotherapy.
In order to treat his diabetes insipidus, Kane Gorny would have needed to take a drug called Desmopressin (DDAVP), which is a synthetic substitute for vasopressin. As long as he was taking this drug, his body would be able to retain a normal amount of the water he drank, and he would not become dehydrated. When the drug was witheld, his body could not remain hydrated, and he died.
How could the hospital get this so wrong?
Unfortunately this is the question that can't be answered. Kane Gorny's death appears to have been preceeded by a number of absolutely catastrophic blunders at the hospital. His endocrinologists were not informed that he was in the hospital for surgery; his surgeon was entirely unaware of his condition; nurses did not read his notes; no-one listened to his mother's concerns; the list goes on.
Diabetes insipidus is a common problem among pituitary patients, but far more rare in the general population. Endocrine and neurosurgery nurses would likely be familiar with the condition, the importance of the medication Mr Gorny was taking, and the crucial need to monitor his fluid balance. The nurses actually looking after him knew almost nothing about it.
It's a sad fact that there are a hell of a lot of medical conditions in the world. Patients with diabetes insipidus or the inability to produce steroid hormones are encouraged to wear MedicAlert jewellery to alert paramedics and medical staff to their conditions in case of emergency, yet it seems even when medical staff have access to full notes on a patient they can go unheeded.
Sometimes it gets frustrating when you're in hospital or go to the doctors and are asked for the thousandth time to explain what's wrong with you. In the future I'll try to be more grateful that someone is checking...
Kane Gorny's brother is fundraising for CLIC Sargent. You can donate here.