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The Correct Diagnosis – Ten Years Later

Wanda has been my patient for over ten years. She has these spells that nobody could figure out. She had seen a couple of the doctors in our clinic and at least two neurologists. She was even admitted to a hospital a hundred miles away for EEGs and videotaping of her spells.

When I first met Wanda, she described spells of confusion accompanied by a slight headache, severe anxiety, nausea made worse by the smell of food and abdominal cramps. Her husband wouldn’t be able to talk with her, and she would have trouble remembering the entire episode after it was over.  The episodes often occurred during her period. The neurologists suspected seizures, but the video-EEG showed rather bizarre moaning and groaning with a normal EEG, so the conclusion was that she had pseudoseizures. This is a condition that basically falls under anxiety disorders.

None of the anxiety medicines did anything for Wanda and she insisted she wasn’t anxious. She is an accomplished businesswoman who travels, gives presentations and generally seems to be at ease with everything she does.

Wanda is not a complainer, so years went by without her bringing up her spells. She would come in for routine things and occasional minor illnesses, but she never spoke much about the spells.

Then one busy Friday she turned up as my 4:30 patient with the purpose of the visit stated as “spells”. Looking at my schedule that morning I had remembered how none of her doctors had been able to help her. I was tired and running late because of a couple of late-day emergencies, so it was about fifteen minutes of five when I knocked and entered her exam room. I was not in high hopes of solving her problem before 5 pm.

When you get stuck in a diagnostic dilemma you have two ways of approaching the problem. You can dig deeper and meticulously go over all the tests that have been done so far, looking for anything that could have been missed. You can also do the opposite, step back, clear your mind and listen to the patient’s story all over again. It is a little bit like those pictures in psychology class; the more you stare at them, the less likely you are to see the hidden image. Sometimes if you squint, you can see it right away.

Given the time available and also the amount of time that had passed since Wanda had anything done to figure out these spells, I chose the latter course. Instead of acting frustrated that I had an unsolvable problem at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon, I sat back, took a deep breath and asked Wanda to start from the beginning.

As I listened, I started to think that all of these symptoms sounded a little like migraines, except that the headaches were mild and sometimes absent. Some people have neurological symptoms with migraines. The nausea and abdominal pain, which she now described as bloating, sometimes followed by diarrhea, can be seen with migraines. There is a rare form of migraines called abdominal migraines or Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome, usually found in children. Her spells were getting a little less severe as she was approaching menopause, but they were interfering with her work, especially as she had to travel more in recent years. Migraines are more likely to occur when people aren’t following their normal routines – missed meals, lack of sleep and jet lag are all migraine triggers. There is also the phenomenon of “weekend migraines”.

I told Wanda that her story made me think of migraines. She lit up. It made sense to her and she was pleased that I was willing to go in a different direction. I gave her samples of Imitrex to be taken with attacks and a prescription for a common blood pressure medication that is often used for migraine prophylaxis. 

Within a month Wanda was almost free of the severe attacks, and she had stopped a couple of spells by taking the Imitrex. With her permission I sent copies of her records to a migraine specialist in Boston for his review. He confided in me that he had always been sceptical of abdominal migraines in adults, but agreed that I seemed to be on the right track. We are now adjusting her preventive medication because of side effects.

It took ten years to make the correct diagnosis – or, should I say, ten years and fifteen minutes. I can certainly not pat myself on the back for getting it right without feeling very humble about how we all missed what was going on for so long. Sometimes when you’re tired your mind can work more intuitively, and I think that is what happened here.

Adverse Effects

Doctors hate it when patients say: “Doc, I don’t want to take this medicine, because it causes all these side effects – just look at this list I got from the pharmacist (or off the internet).”

As allopathic physicians, we are at a disadvantage because our medicines come with warnings about every side effect ever reported, even if no one has ever proven it was actually caused by the medication.

Everyone knows about the placebo effect, the healing caused by a patient’s expectation that a medication will work. The package inserts we get today bring on the nocebo effect, which is the creation of discomfort by negative expectations.

Practitioners of alternative medicine have it easy; they can take full advantage of the placebo effect without the nocebo effect caused by pharmacists, the FDA, the legal climate or the Internet.

Adverse effects can be very real and frightening, though. I have seen plenty of them, and it does make me careful. This is the age of information and Informed Consent, and we have to be very careful to tell patients about possible adverse effects when we prescribe.

I have seen a woman’s bone marrow almost shut down from a week of sulfa for a urinary tract infection. One man lost the use of his right arm for months due to rotator cuff inflammation after taking Cipro for a sinus infection. Another man developed horrendous sunburn while taking doxycycline for a prostate infection. Several patients have developed allergic rashes and tongue swelling.

I have seen people go into heart failure from Avandia, a once-popular diabetes medicine and I have seen people use my prescriptions to try to do themselves in.

But adverse effects can be caused by non-pharmacological treatments also. Sometimes a doctor’s words or demeanor can have unintended, even devastating effects.

One successful business woman told me once that she had felt terrible the whole time between two appointments because she had got the impression I thought she was foolish, and I couldn’t even remember what had happened. A few times I have had to undo damage I caused by being in a hurry when dealing with a patient who was afraid or anxious. 

A physician’s demeanor is part of the treatment. I know they teach empathy in medical school these days – to the extent this is something that can be taught.

William Sykes was told by his pulmonologist that he had eighteen months to live when he was diagnosed with alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. He became severely depressed. The antidepressants and steroids I prescribed made him manic for a while, but we got through it. I promised him the pulmonologist didn’t really know how long he would live. The specialist did fire William as a patient because he cancelled a couple of follow-up appointments, so it was “him and me” and the occasional Hospitalist for a few days of “pulmonary toilet”.

William lived almost ten years longer than predicted, even got married and adopted an old parrot, which learned to imitate the sound of the oxygen truck backing into the driveway. But he never got over the words of the pulmonologist.


Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

BOOKS BY HANS DUVEFELT, MD

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