8 Mysterious Medical Cases That Confound Doctors

  1. Mummified Fetus Born

Zahra Aboutalib went into labor in 1955 in Morocco and was rushed to a hospital to give birth, where she witnessed a woman die during a C-section. She immediately fled back to her small village and at some point the pains and kicking from her unborn baby ceased. Zahra considered it a “sleeping baby” which is a Moroccan folk belief that a baby can live inside the womb of a mother to protect her honor. When she was 75 years old, she went back to a hospital because of excruciating abdominal pains. After an ultrasound, doctors determined that Zahra had experienced an ectopic pregnancy and that the fetus had calcified to protect the body from infection. If not discovered in time, ectopic pregnancies usually cause a vital organ to burst, often killing the mother. What is unusual about Zahra’s case is that her body actually fused the calcified fetus with vital organs and her abdominal cavity and she was able to survive this way for 46 years. After a five-hour procedure doctors were able to remove the 7 lb stone-baby.  

Zahra's calcified fetus. Image from starwination.com

Zahra's calcified fetus. Image from starwination.com

  1. Pornography Headaches

In 2012 the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviorpublished a report about a man in India whose strange headaches created a most unusual case for doctors. According to Dr. Amy Gelfand, a neurologist at UCSF School of Medicine, headaches from sexual activity are rare but not unheard of. However, this man only experienced sex headaches from watching pornography videos—not from engaging in sexual activity or masturbation. The cause of this man’s weird headaches remains a mystery today, but doctors have hypothesized that it might have something to do with muscle contractions in the neck and jaw triggered from watching adult videos  

  1. Starry Eye

In 2013 the New England Journal of Medicine published an interesting case of a man who developed a star in his eye after being punched in the head. A strong shock to the face from impacts such as punches and even airbags has the ability to send intense shockwaves into the eye that can damage the lens and cause a cataract. The cataract that appeared in this 55 year-old man’s eye was indeed strange because it appeared as an intricate eight-legged star. Usually cataracts appear as a white or yellowish cloudy mass in the eye. They can be treated with surgery to restore the vision of the person.  

Image from New England Journal of Medicine

Image from New England Journal of Medicine

  1. The Boy With No Appetite

Landon Jones of Iowa is a normal 12-year-old boy except that he refuses to eat or drink since he experiences no hunger or thirst. These unusual symptoms began in October of 2014 after he was successfully treated for a bacterial lung infection. Since then, his parents have to beg him to eat and drink at all, and he has lost over 35 lbs. He has been subjected to a number of tests, from spinal taps to brain scans, to psychiatric evaluations but physicians cannot figure out what is behind this mysterious condition and they are at a loss for how to treat him. According to Dr. Marc Patterson, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, Landon’s case may be the very first of its kind. Landon’s parents have contacted the Undiagnosed Disease Program at the NIH in hopes that his case will be one of the 50-100 to be invited for evaluation by these diagnostic specialists where they might get to the root of the condition.  

  1. Hyper Empathy

A woman with severe epilepsy underwent a brain surgery to remove part of her amygdala and ended up having what is known as “hyper-empathy”, according to a 2014 report published in the journal Neurocase. The patient reported feeling a newfound emotional arousal of spectacular proportions, as well as experiencing physical effects that accompanied her emotions. For example, she would report feeling a "spin at the heart" or an "esophageal unpleasant feeling" when she experienced sadness or anger. This case is unusual because the amygdala is the part of the brain involved in recognizing emotions. Since she had part of hers removed, one would expect that it would become more difficult for her to read others' emotions, rather than amplifying her level of empathy.  

  1. Lead Appendix

In 2013 a report was published in the New England Journal of Medicine about an 8-year-old Australian boy who had unusually high levels of lead in his blood for two years. Doctors couldn’t find an explanation until the boy received an x-ray after coming down with an intense stomachache. The x-ray revealed a large number of small metal pellets inside the boy’s digestive tract, so they gave him a bowel washout to clear out any foreign objects inside the abdomen. However, a second x-ray showed that even after this bowel washout the objects remained in place. The doctors operated on the boy’s appendix and found that it weighed 5 times heavier than normal—it was filled with 57 lead pellets from a small hunting gun owned by the family, which the boy had consumed during a game with his siblings.

Image by James Heilman,MD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ]

Image by James Heilman,MD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ]

  1. Woman Left Blind Every 3 Days

Natalie Adler of Melbourne, Australia, had contracted a sinus and staph infection when she was in 11thgrade and woke up with swollen eyes. Since then she has been the victim of an extremely unusual disorder that causes her eyes to close involuntarily for three days at a time. At first the involuntary eye-clamping occurred at random intervals, but it eventually started a consistent 3-day cycle that leaves her blind 3 out of 6 days. She was seen by hundreds of eye specialists who ran numerous tests on her, but no doctor could find a cause, or a cure for the disorder. Natalie was able to improve her vision to see 5 days out of 6 by receiving Botox injections in her face, but reports say that this treatment no longer works for her. When she undergoes her involuntary blindness, Adler says, “My life is on hold -- I am unable to drive or work. In the beginning, I tried to ignore it but have now learnt to live with it."  

  1. The Miracle Walker

Mark Chenoweth spent ten years in a wheelchair as a result of spinal bifida, which he was born with. Despite this, he had always yearned to learn how to scuba dive, although his doctor understandably forbade him from taking lessons. Chenoweth somehow managed to convince a diving center in Minorca to give him lessons, when he dove to a depth of 55 ft underwater. After he surfaced he was able to walk for three days without a wheelchair. Eventually Chenoweth noticed that the deeper he dives, the longer he is able to go without a wheelchair afterwards. He now uses his wheelchair only twice a year. Doctors are conflicted about why this type of temporary recovery occurs, but a certain theory suggests that nerve cells damaged by spinal bifida are somehow temporarily affected by the high mix of oxygen in the aqualungs used by divers.

By G.P. Schmahl, Sanctuary Superintendent. Credit: NOAA/NOS/NMS/FGBNMS; National Marine Sanctuaries Media Library.

By G.P. Schmahl, Sanctuary Superintendent. Credit: NOAA/NOS/NMS/FGBNMS; National Marine Sanctuaries Media Library.    

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