I MET Kathleen Monahan* just days after she had suffered a stroke.
In our previous phone communication since her case had landed on my desk, her speech was normal but now half her face was slack and her speech was slurred around her misshapen lips.
She apologised for her appearance, and told me it usually took a few months for her face to go back to normal.
Across a table in an empty cafe she told a tale with more twists than a Tarantino movie, but she looked into my eyes, held my gaze firmly and spoke with quiet determination.
"If I was guilty and had done these things and had been caught, I'd say 'fair enough,' put my hands up and face the consequences, but I'm not guilty so I need to fight to clear my name before I die and they win," she said.
At first, I didn't know what to believe but after sifting through mounds of paperwork, and having many hours of conversations with officials, hospitals, and lawyers over two years, I discovered there is a monumental injustice occurring in Australia.
After a lifetime of mysterious and varied illnesses, Kathleen is accused of having Munchausen's Syndrome, also known as factitious disorder. People with Munchausen's purportedly induce illness in themselves for attention and sympathy.
This accusation, which she has never had the opportunity to fight in court, has ruined Kathleen's life.
One cold Tasmanian afternoon, her husband, son and mother assisted the blonde-haired Kathleen as she stumbled down the driveway at Launceston Hospital. The left side of her face had sagged as though melted and her left leg dragged behind her.
They were not strangers at the emergency ward, and they had a suspicion of how this would play out, but a fear of death drove them here regardless. Although it was clear that Kathleen had suffered a major stroke, hospital staff turned her away before she even took a seat in the waiting room. There was no treatment for her here.
This was not the first time Kathleen had been denied medical attention and it would not be the last. General practitioners, medical centres, hospitals and chemists have all washed their hands of her ongoing ailments. Kathleen Monahan is a branded woman.
"To think that I would do this to myself is ludicrous. Every minute of every day is affected. I'm in constant chronic pain, and I live in fear of death," tells Kathleen.
"I am a pariah in my community. Everywhere I turn for help just calls me a liar. They say I am self-harming and malingering for attention, but who would do that to themselves? It has cost me everything."
It was when Kathleen found Sydney general practitioner, who specialises in integrative medicine, Dr Michael Bolt*, that she thought she found hope.
"I seems to me that there's a ready-made view that if a person doesn't fit into a category or has a lot of extreme illnesses you end up blaming the person rather than the particular susceptibilities or health problems they acquire," says Dr Bolt who is keeping his identity anonymous for fear of repercussions to his career.
Extensive testing revealed an unfortunate combination of unrelated genetic conditions and low-functioning variants of normal genes that predisposed Kathleen to a broad range of diseases, which resulted in her complex illness.
"I looked at the illnesses that she was complaining of, and they were pretty easily explainable with the pathology testing we did. She has a very unusual combination of issues with split genes and susceptibility making her one in 500,000 or so, which has left doctors in the position of believing that her odd issues are inexplicable therefore she must have Munchausen's or Munchausen's-by-proxy," says Dr. Bolt.
Munchausen's-by-proxy is when someone induces illness in another, most often a mother in her child.
Kathleen's children have also endured a lifetime of mysterious and curious ailments ranging from severe allergies, bruising, susceptibility to infection, and ocular and metabolic problems. Rather than medical curiosity wanting to get to the bottom of things, the Munchausen-by-proxy charge stood firm and Kathleen's children were removed from her care six years ago.
"I was 13 when I was taken away from my mum," says Christopher Monahan*, now 19.
"They told us that mum was sick and would not be able to look after us anymore. We were put into a care facility, where we stayed for eight months before being fostered out. My little brother, Jonathan*, and I weren't allowed to see our mum for many months at a time and we were so scared and confused. They were telling us that our mum was hurting us but I knew it was absolute rubbish. She has never done anything to harm us," says Christopher.
"If there is a change in circumstances we assess and consider it," says Tasmania's Child Protection Services. "Our priority is the safety and stability of the children. That's got to be our prime motivating factor."
Interestingly, Christopher and his brother, Jonathon's, health did not thrive away from their mother, and subsequent testing on Christopher has revealed he has inherited his mother's genetic issues. Jonathan has not been tested.
Dr Bolt's diagnosis should have emancipated Kathleen from the shackles that divided her family, and saw her medical needs ignored, however the Children's Court refused to reverse their findings. The family appealed to the Supreme Court in Tasmania however the medical findings were not permitted in court.
Kathleen has been travelling for her medical needs as regularly as health and her disability pension permits. The journey from Tasmania to New South Wales is precarious in her condition, and most recently she travelled by boat and train, unable to fly because of deep vein thrombosis.
She has no choice, because without blood thinning medication it is believed she may die in just days. Her prescription is running out, and now her only lifeline has been cut off.
Dr Bolt's insurance company has informed him he can no longer treat her across state lines. With her deep vein thrombosis, cellulitis and ongoing minor and major strokes, she must move states and be even further from her children or risk death.
"I feel like the only way this will end is if I die and then there will be a coronial inquiry that will finally reveal the truth. I'm genuinely sick and I'm so scared I'll die before I can be together with my family and clear my name," tells Kathleen.
"I see these poor women all the time," says Dr Hayward-Brown. "I get multiple women a week contacting me from all around the world who are fighting to clear their names and keep their families together."
"In nearly every case where a woman comes to me for help I discover their innocence. I get into the documentation and medical records to get to the heart of the story but I generally find women who are fighting the loudest and with outrage have nothing to hide. They are looking for assistance in defending their case against a system that is much stronger than they are."
There is no happy ending here, Kathleen's youngest child is still in state custody, her doctor is fearful that because he is speaking out in her defence they will take his license - and she still can't get the medical care she desperately needs.
Launceston Hospital has been contacted by news.com.au for comment.
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