How a TV Show Helped Solve a Real-Life Medical Mystery

Feb 7, 2014  •  Post A Comment

Two top medical journals published case studies Thursday about a medical mystery, with one of the physicians diagnosing the arcane ailment based on clues in an episode of the Fox television show “House,” reports The New York Times.

“It turned out that Dr. Gregory House, the cantankerous, fictional diagnostician modeled on Sherlock Holmes, had used his powers of deduction to diagnose the very same ailment in a woman played by the actress Candice Bergen on an episode that first aired in 2011,” the story notes.

The case involved a man in Germany who sought an explanation for his ailments, which included a fever, inflammation of his esophagus, low thyroid hormone levels and loss of vision and hearing. On top of that, his heart had weakened, although his arteries were fine, which stumped doctors.

Dr. Juergen R. Schaefer of University of Marburg, a big fan of “House,” recalled an episode of the show in which Bergen’s character suffered from similar symptoms. The cause: cobalt poisoning from her artificial metal hip, the story notes.

“Dr. Schaefer’s patient had had an artificial ceramic hip that failed, and it was replaced with a metal one in November 2010, shortly before his symptoms began. So Dr. Schaefer tested the man’s cobalt level and discovered it was a thousand times the level considered normal,” the piece adds.

The man’s metal hip was eroded by tiny particles from the broken ceramic hip that had been removed previously, which rubbed against the metal parts like sandpaper, the story notes.

After the patient had his hip replaced with another ceramic model, his cobalt levels declined and his heart improved, although he still required a defibrillator. Still, his hearing and eyesight didn’t much improve, the piece adds.

The other case, which involved another hip transplant and cobalt poisoning, was solved after routine blood tests detected high cobalt levels, although her doctor, Larry A. Allen, had been initially stumped.

The patient had both hips replaced with ones with a polyethylene liner, and her cobalt levels have declined, the piece notes. Allen said that he would have considered cobalt earlier if he had seen “House.”

“Unfortunately,” he told The Times, “I have seen about two half-episodes of ‘House.’”


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