No joy in this victory — (The News & Observer)

Original article no longer available

The News & Observer

Ruth Sheehan, Staff Writer

A week ago Monday, a state law was changed thanks to Maggy Lewis of Durham.

She has been choking back tears, however, not sipping champagne.

The law she helped rewrite opens up the complaint process at the N.C. Medical Board. But the handling of her own husband’s death will remain under wraps.

It was about four years ago that Lewis’ husband, Mark, grew depressed after being laid off from a job he truly loved.

He had survived other job losses over the years, the deaths of both his parents and the dissolution of his previous marriage.

But this layoff threw him for a loop.

He went to a psychiatrist for help.

The doctor prescribed an antidepressant. And then, another, and another, and another.

After about a year and a half, Lewis’ husband was on seven drugs simultaneously, five of which increase the amount of serotonin in the brain.

He shook, sweated, grew confused and slept poorly. His mood became erratic.

Finally, Mark took his own life.

Maggy Lewis was crushed. She blamed her husband’s psychiatrist for prescribing so many drugs and changing the doses abruptly.

Lewis briefly looked into suing but decided against it.

During the research, however, she had four medical experts review her husband’s files. Each independently found that his prescribed medications had induced serotonin syndrome, a well-documented syndrome caused by an overload of drugs that increase serotonin.

Lewis filed a complaint with the state medical board.

She was curious to see what the doctor’s response was. Turns out she will never know.

Lewis came up against the hard fact that North Carolina law allows the doctor’s response to a complaint to remain secret. Ditto the board’s response — unless direct action such as suspension of a doctor’s license is involved.

Incredulous, Lewis contacted her state representative, Paul Luebke, to see about getting the law changed.

The medical board’s openness was already under review, and to the board’s credit, it supported opening up the complaint process.

When the bill passed in August, it seemed like a true victory. Under the rewritten law, patients have the right to know how the board handled their complaints and how it reached its decisions. The complaining patient or loved one also can request and receive a copy of the doctor’s official response.

It was a few weeks later in August that Lewis received a letter from the medical board noting that her complaint had been “handled appropriately.” Had the doctor been chastised? Had the doctor told the whole truth to the board?

Lewis appealed to the board for more information.

“I appealed to their basic decency,” she said.

The week before the rewritten law went into effect, however, she got a final answer from the board: “No.”

“I have no way of knowing what the doctor said in response, what she said about my husband,” Lewis said. “The board members sat in a room and discussed my husband for hours, and I have no way of knowing what was said.”

So, no, Lewis isn’t celebrating — though, for her legislative “victory,” all of us owe her a debt of thanks.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4828