WESTLAND, Massachusetts. Fall in New England means cool temperatures, perfect for the many 5 kilometer runs and walk-a-thons that are a staple of fourth-quarter fund-raising by the region’s many non-profits.
“It’s a real incentive after a hot summer,” says Myrtle Gallo, executive director for the Massachusetts Munchausen Association, a charity that raises funds to fight the deadly if feigned disorder whose causes are obscure to doctors, but obvious to laypeople. “People love to get out in the crisp autumn air for a good cause, even if it’s a fake one.”
But race organizers had their hands full today, with medical aid tents overwhelmed by injuries and ailments suffered by runners who appeared to be perfectly fine to the doctors who volunteered their time.
“Where, exactly, does it hurt?” asks Dr. Linda Semolini, an orthopedist at St. Swithin’s Hospital in Brighton, Mass.
“Everywhere!” screams Mike Tikamoyer as he grabs his right calf muscle and grimaces in pain.
“What kind of pain are you feeling,” Semolini asks as she checks his vital signs.
“It’s sharp and shooting, like somebody stabbed me with a knife,” he says. “Also dull and throbbing, like when you’re hit with a blunt object.”
“Munchausen Syndrome” is the name given to a factitious disorder on self, whose victims claim to be suffering in order to draw attention to or sympathy for themselves; it is named after Baron Munchausen, a fictional character created by Rudolf Erich Raspe who was modeled after a real 18th century German baron known for telling exaggerated tales about his military career. “Munchausen Syndrome is tough to treat,” says Dr. Morton Shusterberg, Professor of Fictitious Infectious Diseases at the New England School of Medicine. “Thankfully, even if we can’t cure a victim, we can double-bill for the treatment since it has both a physical and a psychological side.”
But that is no solace for Gallo, who finds herself scrambling from one water station to another to keep things moving while many of those who signed up to run drop out, lie injured beside the road, or simply whine. “Can somebody please help me!” a 42-year-old sufferer named Carl Dunbar cries out as he stumbles to the shoulder of state route 135.
“What’s wrong?” asks Carol Shimkus, a student at nearby Wellesley College who will receive credit in a political activism course for the time she spends help out today.
“I’ve got a fictional disease,” Dunbar says, “and it really, really hurts!”