Drugging could be behind trend in unusual ER patients, Seton doctor says


AUSTIN (KXAN) — A physician who works at Dell Seton’s ER told KXAN that she and her colleagues have been noticing a trend: more ER patients coming from downtown bars and entertainment districts who display unusual, non-alcohol related symptoms. 

‘It’s definitely been appreciated from the bars and it’s been noticed from Rainey Street individuals specifically, but it’s also been noticed in other parts of the community,” said Hemali Patel, an Internal Medicine Physician with Seton. 

She explained that these patients experience a wide range of symptoms, from sedation and drowsiness to agitation and psychosis. At times, she said, these patients can become combative. 

Patel said she’s treated several of these cases herself and has talked with her colleagues in Austin healthcare about this trend they’re seeing. 

“These cases are different because it’s not the alcohol consumption in and of itself, there’s another substance at play,” Patel explained. “And I think oftentimes it potentially may be overlooked because a lot of these substances — like I mentioned — are not always detected on our typical urine drug screen, and because of the use of significant synthetic materials, we may never be able to detect what is causing the symptoms.”

She estimates that she sees one of these unusual patients a month, but hears of many others from her coworkers.  When these people are tested for drugs, she explained that their urine tests come back negative. Additionally, she said, many patients don’t try to do a follow-up toxicology test and their providers may forget to give them the option to do so. 

KXAN asked Patel if these unusual cases could be caused by people’s drinks being drugged. 

“Yes, I think it’s definitely possible based on professional incidences as well as personal anecdotes that I’ve heard in the community that this is potentially an issue that needs further inquiry,” she said. 

“I think it’s important to raise awareness if I’m seeing a trend and we’re seeing a trend,” Patel added. 

She hopes that those who go out to bars in Austin keep an eye out for things that look suspicious or make them uncomfortable.

“I think it may be hard to identify these symptoms in yourself, but if you notice someone around you that’s acting very abnormal, either they’re more sedated or somnolent than they should be based on how much they’ve consumed, or if they’re acting very agitated and unwell, those are signs that something is potentially going on and needs further evaluation,” Patel said. 

“Often times, we are quick to judge individuals who have potentially gone through these types of scenarios and we should take a look and really evaluate the whole situation before we do that and give people the benefit of the doubt,” she said. 

Austin woman believes she was drugged on Rainey Street earlier this month

Patel couldn’t speak in specifics about the case of an Austin woman who went out on Rainey Street last weekend and believes she was drugged there. 

That woman’s boyfriend told KXAN that she was treated at Dell Seton and that Dr. Patel was one of her doctors. 

This woman, who asked to remain anonymous, went out with her friends to two bars on Rainey Street on Sunday, February 17 at around 2:30 p.m on Sunday. 

The woman’s boyfriend recalls the group leaving Rainey Street at 6 p.m. It was around that time he noticed unusual behavior from his girlfriend. They took a rideshare to head downtown, but his girlfriend got very upset so they took a ride back to his house instead. 

“That’s when it escalated,” he said. “She was acting out and very agitated in the car which was very abnormal. She couldn’t move her arms or her legs, something was 100 percent off. She was going in and out of consciousness.”

They arrived back at his home in Austin at around 7 p.m., called 911, and EMS picked her up from his house.

“She was screaming out for help, she was going through these quick cycles of screaming out for help and passing out and all the while she can’t get out of the car cause she can’t move,” he said.

His girlfriend was hospitalized at Dell Seton Sunday night through midday on Monday and she had to be sedated to keep her calm. “It was not like anything I’ve ever seen before. Period.”

The panic her boyfriend and friends experienced while she went through this can be heard in the audio from the 9-1-1 call they made on her behalf. 

“My girlfriend got drugged downtown, I don’t know what’s going on, but she needs to go to the hospital,” her boyfriend can be heard saying on the 9-1-1 call as his girlfriend’s screams can be heard continually in the background. 

“She can’t move, we took an Uber from downtown and she can’t move anything,” her boyfriend told the dispatcher on the 9-1-1 call as he and a friend checked his girlfriend’s symptoms. “She’s completely not herself, this is not normal,” he told the dispatcher. 

In a social media post, after the incident, this woman said:

“Sadly this is not the first time this has happened on Rainey St and healthcare providers are seeing this happen repeatedly in that area. I am not looking for sorry’s or sympathy, but what I am looking for is for YOU to be mindful of your surroundings, stay away from Rainey Street, and please share my story. I am SO LUCKY to have been with a wonderful group of friends. If I wasn’t, I fear my outcome would not have been as bright.”

She explained that her initial urine screen came back normal, but she is having another test run to get more details about what might have happened to her. 

Austin Police are currently investigating her case. Last week, they told KXAN they do not have data available on assaults involving someone who has been drugged. 

“The incidents where an individual is drugged are typically accompanied by additional crime(s) like sexual assault or human trafficking,” an Austin Police spokesperson said in an email. 

The email continued, “that said, this is a valuable opportunity to remind individuals who are out at local bars or parties:

·         Never leave your drink unattended.

·         Only accept drinks from individuals you trust.

·         Don’t consume a drink that you haven’t kept in your possession.

·         Avoid sharing drinks.

·         If you feel unwell, ask someone you trust to move you to a safe place.

·         Watch out for your friends.

Others in Austin wonder if druggings impacted their loved ones 

The woman’s boyfriend said several people have contacted them since they went out to Rainey with similar stories.

One of those people was Mitchell Gutierrez, whose bother Martin disappeared in November after a night out on Rainey Street. Martin’s body was found in Lady Bird Lake one week later. 

Mitchell saw the woman’s post about her experience on Rainey Street.  He said it reminded him of the erratic and abnormal behavior his brother displayed in surveillance video just before he went missing. Martin and Mitchell lived together, they knew each other’s routines, which Mitchell describes as “boring.”

Mitchell added that this woman’s inability to remember, her out-of-character behavior and the agitation she experienced all seemed similar to what he believed his brother went through. 

The Travis County Medical Examiner’s office released Martin’s autopsy report on Monday, they concluded that Martin died of an accidental drowning. He had alcohol in his system, a noticeable bruise on the back of his head, and did not test positive for any drugs. 

Still, his family does not believe Martin’s death was an accident, and they think someone may have drugged him. A doctor with the ME’s office told the Gutierrez family that because Martin’s body was in the water was so long, it’s possible that traces of any drugs could have left his system. 

Austin Police said as of last week (when KXAN last checked with them on Martin’s case), that they did not suspect foul play was involved.  But Martin’s family also is not convinced of that. 

Mitchell believes his brother only had two drinks when he went out to Rainey Street. On surveillance video, Martin was seen “frolicking” out from a bar to find a ride home. He was behaving so strangely that the last bar he went to that bar staff declined to serve him. 

“When I saw that post, it just reminded me of the behavior similar to Martin as she described, and I wanted to report it so people could see it, and give another reminder to be safe out there,”  Mitchell said. “And I’m trying whatever I can do so that this doesn’t happen again, no more deaths.”

He wants to see more surveillance and changes downtown to prevent similar incidents. 

“I hope somebody finds something, I hope something gets done because it’s not happening people are getting hurt, and something needs to be done,” Mitchell said. 

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