A diagnosis of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection is not something to be taken lightly. It has the potential to become a life-threatening condition and intensive treatment with antibiotics will be required. However, there is another side to the diagnosis which is rarely talked about. There is the stigma attached to having an infectious condition and it forms a significant part of the MRSA journey. Hospital staff are best trained to deal with medical emergencies but their management of patients with an infectious status sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.
When I was first diagnosed with MRSA I was treated with the utmost urgency and received excellent care. I was barrier nursed in isolation whilst undergoing intensive intravenous antibiotic therapy. This involuntary withdrawal from the world took some getting used to but I quickly developed my own coping mechanisms to get through that lonely time. However the ‘fun’ really starts when a patient has to come out of isolation for investigation or treatment. When an MRSA infection is confirmed by laboratory tests, a patient’s hospital chart is labelled with a luminous sticker proclaiming their infectious status. This is a method of alerting staff to take the necessary precautions to minimise the spread of infection. Hospital staff however should be aware of the sensitivities involved for MRSA infected patients.
I had to be taken to theatre for some minor surgery while still being treated in isolation. Patients with a positive MRSA status have to wait until last in the queue to go for surgery because of the very real potential of contaminating an operating theatre. So after a very long wait while fasting all day for the general anaesthetic, a porter finally arrived to transport me on a trolley to my destiny. We were escorted to theatre by a very junior nurse who was given the task of carrying my hospital chart. I was duly lined up in the pre-anaesthetic area alongside a row of other similarly nervous patients to await my turn in theatre. My surgeon and his surgical team appeared briefly in an open doorway and made encouraging faces at me. Suddenly, a loud shout came from another direction and to my horror, I heard the theatre sister roar from a distance “get that MRSA patient out of there, NOW!”. I saw the surgeon raise his eyebrows in disbelief at what had been heard and in an attempt to lighten the moment, we exchanged grins about ‘SHE who must be obeyed!’. The theatre sister however continued to loudly remonstrate the junior nurse for accompanying me (the infectious patient) to the wrong location and any humour in the situation, rapidly dissipated. The junior nurse was mortified to receive such a public dressing-down and I felt very humiliated to be treated like a leper in front of all the other patients and staff. It was as if I didn’t exist as a person – I was purely seen as a health hazard which had to be quickly removed. A nice welcome back to the ‘real’ world after spending so much time alone.
I have since sat in crowded out-patient clinics and had the clinic nurse make insensitive enquiries in front of everyone else. You do get better at handling the ignorance surrounding MRSA but you never get used to it. MRSA patients have enough problems to contend with without having to tackle the issue of stigma as well. The sticker on a hospital chart may change colour once MRSA clearance has been obtained but it appears that you remain a ‘labelled’ patient for evermore. The legacy lives on.