Hurting Your Child for Attention

Some question whether Munchausen syndrome by proxy is real.

October 26, 2008, 11:36 AM

Oct. 26, 2008 — -- When Julie Gregory thinks about her childhood, it's always the doctors' visits that come to mind.

"We had migraine headaches. We had sore throats," she said. "[Then we had] intestinal issues. I had to drink barium meals."

And always by her side was her mother, whose sole purpose seemed to be — as Gregory remembers her saying — "getting to the bottom" of the sickness.

"Sometimes I'd wake up and she'd say, 'You're sick and you're not going to school,'" Gregory said. "Sometimes I would just get an announcement over the loudspeaker and the principal would say, 'Julie Gregory, your mom is here to pick you up.'"

But no matter how many doctors she saw, Gregory never felt any better. She said her mother became obsessed with the idea that she had a heart problem and even convinced a cardiologist to operate.

"When I was 13, I was cut open for a heart catheterization," Gregory said. "I didn't know I was in the hospital for an actual surgery."

When the nurse arrived, Gregory said she "freaked out.

"I blurted out that my mother was making me sick," she said.

It's a charge Gregory's mother strongly denies. She said she was only trying to help her daughter and that Gregory made up stories of abuse as an adult to make money by publishing a book about her childhood.

But Gregory said it was only as an adult that she learned a name for what she said happened to her: Munchausen syndrome by proxy. It's a rare form of child abuse in which a parent — usually the mother — causes her own child to become sick to get attention for herself.

"Munchausen by proxy is perhaps the single most lethal form of child abuse," said Dr. Marc Feldman, who has studied the syndrome for 20 years. "These kids may undergo immense numbers of diagnostic tests, medical procedures, and medication trials, with all of the risks that go along with that."

Feldman said it's not as hard to trick a doctor as you might think.

"We're taught that the single most important information we can get about what's going wrong with the patient is what the patient or the family tells us," he said. But some say Munchausen by proxy doesn't even exist. Groups like Mothers Against Munchausen Allegations — said doctors make such accusations when they cannot find the cause of a chronic illness or when they're just tired of what they may see as a troublesome mom.

"Because of this whole witch hunt that is going on," said activist for accused mothers Penny Mellor in the Munchausen by Proxy documentary Mama/M.A.M.A., "what they're actually doing is, they're taking the babies away from the parents."

But Dr. Feldman, who has testified both for and against parents accused of Munchausen by proxy, says if anything, the real number of cases is far more than the number reported — in part because doctors who make an allegation risk their reputations.

"The parents plead ignorance. The tears flow," Feldman said. "They mobilize the media."

"And all that time the doctor isn't really allowed to talk about that case," he added.

For Gregory, now a mother herself, there is no excuse for possibly leaving a child in harm's way.

"I get letters all the time from physicians and case workers that really want to help a child," Gregory said. "I just do whatever I can to make sure that people understand," she said, "that every day that that child is with the perpetrator is a day that that child is in danger. "

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