Lee, a primary care doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, was scheduled to see the patient in three days.
“I was horrified,” he says. The patient had been in his 80s, and his wife had died a few months before. “And everyone in medicine knows that when someone dies, there’s an increase in risk of death for their spouse over the next six months.”
He wanted to know what had happened, but he couldn’t find anything in the medical records or in a Web search. “I just felt really guilty that I had not pushed harder to get him in sooner,” says Lee. When he couldn’t find out anything, he decided to phone the man’s house to offer condolences — maybe even to apologize.
“So I called, and to my shock he answered,” says Lee. It was the patient, a retired professor living in Boston.
“I assume you’re calling about my death,” the man said.
“It gave me goose bumps,” says Lee. “I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’ And then he explained to me what had happened.”
The professor explained that he’d been dealing with his own death for the past two weeks. It all started when he went to the ATM, only to find that he no longer had access to his bank account. When he went to the pharmacy to pick up his medicine, he found he no longer had health insurance.
Soon after, he got a letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration offering condolences about his recent loss of life and informing him that his monthly payments would end and that payments made since his “death” a few months prior would be removed from his bank account.
Because of a clerical error, the Social Security Administration believed he had died in December. That information had quickly spread …