The Girl Who Cried Wolf

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    The Girl Who Cried Wolf A year ago, on Nov. 28, Wendy Scott and a small group of close friends gathered for lunch at the posh Dorchester Hotel in London to toast her 50th birthday. "The food was out of this world," recalls Mary Jane Lang, who was part of the festivities. "Later that evening we went down to the hotel bar where Wendy recognized a member of Parliament she pointed out to me. A wonderful 50th birthday. But even then Wendy was hurting and didn't know why." Scott suffered from acute abdominal pain, which had vexed her for about a year. And yet when she sought medical attention in the emergency rooms of London's hospitals, she was promptly given the heave-ho. Turns out she was denied treatment because her name appeared on what amounted to a blacklist?a Munchausen syndrome blacklist. You see, for 12 years, from 1967 to 1979, Scott roamed from European country to European country?11 in all?and hospital to hospital?by her own estimate more than 600?where she was poked and prodded and operated on 42 times for "abdominal pain." But there was absolutely nothing wrong with her, and she knew it.

    "She was a professional patient," notes Dr. Marc Feldman, medical director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Center for Psychiatric Medicine, and an expert in the field of "factitous disorders," including perhaps their most extreme manifestation, Munchausen syndrome, described in Patient or Pretender, which Feldman co-authored, as "Chronic factitious disorder in which feigning illness becomes the focus of the person's life. It is carried out until discovered, then begun anew elsewhere." Craving nurturance and emotional support, Munchausen patients wander from medical facility to medical facility.

    For a dozen years Wendy Scott, a native of Scotland, lived as the queen of Munchausen, exploiting Britain's system of socialized medicine and the UK's reciprocal agreement for free treatment with various European nations. Initially, Feldman explains, she went to emergency rooms and "grasped her belly and moaned and groaned." Tests turned up nothing. But when Scott insisted that her stomach was ready to explode, some physicians performed exploratory surgery. When she recovered?or when staffers deduced she was a faker?Scott checked out, moved on and checked into another hospital. "You go to enough healthcare facilities as a patient," Feldman observes, "and you acquire a great medical education. Unwittingly, she was trained by some excellent physicians."

    Scott's malady of choice became Crohn's disease?a persistent but fluctuating inflammation of the alimentary canal, particularly of the small intestine. "A wonderful choice in a perverse way," Feldman says, "because it would explain the necessity for repeated surgery." Back in those pre-MRI days, doctors relied more on their patients' word. Out came the scalpels. "She had scar after scar after scar, some overlapping others," Feldman recalls. "It was a classic Munchausen roadmap abdomen."

    Born on Scotland's North Sea coast, Scott endured a miserable childhood and teendom, including sexual abuse by her stepfather from age seven to 13. She dropped out of school at 15, working a succession of dispiriting jobs, first at a potato farm, then at a dairy and a bakery. Her mother snatched away nearly all of her meager wages. When she was 16, though, an extraordinary event occurred: she had an appendectomy. At the hospital she was treated kindly and respectfully. It stuck with her.

    Eventually she ran away, landing in London at 17, where she cleaned bathrooms in an exclusive hotel. But she soon grew sick of her drudge-like existence and, remembering her pleasant stay in the Scottish hospital, one day faked stomach pains, checking herself into a local facility. She repeated the stunt again and again, until ultimately it consumed her life.

    But in 1979 Scott experienced an epiphany while living in a London hostel for the homeless: When a kitten fell into her care, she gave up her Munchausen odyssey to attend to its needs, never succumbing to the syndrome again. Usually, Feldman explains, Munchausen sufferers pack in their chronic dissembling following the fortuitous intervention of a person or thing that provides the nurturing and affection that have been absent from their lives: meeting someone and developing a relationship, getting involved in church activities, whatever. For Scott it was the kitten. Briefly she worked in a pet shop, then at the London Zoo, but, weakened by emphysema and diabetes, she lost her zoo job in 1982 and went on the dole.

    She first came to Feldman's attention in April 1997, e-mailing him under the pseudonym "Catwoman" and offering to communicate with some of his Munchausen patients, making clear to them, as Feldman terms it, "that recovery is possible." One year later she begged off, Feldman notes, because "she said she could no longer even care for herself." Abdominal pain, she claimed?real pain.

    This past summer, while visiting Lang in Virginia, Scott phoned Feldman to ask his advice about checking into an emergency room in the U.S. Her pain was out of control. But she feared she'd be turned away, as she had been recently in England and in Australia, when doctors saw her bevy of scars. He told her to come to Birmingham. Twelve hours after arriving in the city, Scott?gray hair, cigarette burns on her fingers from a lifetime of constant smoking, appearing considerably older than 50?was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, saddled with a huge malignant tumor too far gone to be removed.

    That was in July. Resigned to her terminal condition, Scott returned home in September, spending the final nine days of her life in a South London hospice. Formerly a 220-plus-pounder, she weighed 120 pounds when she died last month. Thinking back on that birthday celebration at the Dorchester, Mary Jane Lang says: "At least during her lifetime Wendy went full circle from working at a place like that to living it up in one, even for just one night."

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