Medical Mystery: Doctor’s diagnosis drew laughs, but it saved woman’s life

Washington Post | December 7 – As the all-too-familiar number flashed on his cellphone shortly before 9 p.m., Dan Landrigan reflexively braced himself for bad news. The caller was one of the doctors treating his wife, Donna, who had been in a coma for four months. “She sounded pretty choked up,” Landrigan recalled.

“I think we’ve found out what’s making your wife sick,” the specialist at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital told him, as a wave of relief flooded his body. “I was completely shocked,” said the telecommunications executive, now 37. “My hope for so long was that this was the phone call I was going to get.”

Doctors at three Upstate New York hospitals had been stymied by Donna Landrigan, whose case was unlike any they had seen. The previously healthy 35-year-old mother of three had initially become so psychotic she had to be tied to her hospital bed to keep her from hurting herself or attacking others. A few weeks later she had been placed in a medically induced coma to protect her from the continuous seizures wracking her brain, spasms that could have killed her.

Every promising lead had seemed to turn into a dead end, and the dangers of prolonged coma, including severe brain damage, were mounting. Things looked so hopeless that doctors had begun discussing whether to suggest terminating life support.

That phone call on April 29, 2009, was the first good news in months. It represented both a turning point for the Landrigans and vindication for the second-year neurology resident who had closely followed Donna’s case since December 2008, when she was initially hospitalized. The startling diagnosis that Nicholas Johnson proposed, he recalled with understatement, had been met with “a little bit of laughter” by senior physicians, amused by the exotic and sometimes outlandish diagnoses made by residents.

This time Johnson’s spot-on deduction, and his persistence, not only solved the mystery but also saved Donna’s life. Her case, which made medical history, was recently described in the journal Neurology.


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