During their many years of training, doctors around the world are instilled with the famous adage, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras” – meaning that most patient’s symptoms are caused by common conditions or diseases, and that providers shouldn’t consider the possibility of rare or exotic illnesses until the more mundane ones have been ruled out.
But of course, sometimes it really is a zebra. And thanks to case studies and the Internet, we lay people get to hear about the wackiest, weirdest, and most challenging medical occurrences faced by physicians. And because this year is almost over, we at IFLScience think it’s time to look back on the most unsettling medical stories of 2018.
Young Man Dies From Brain Parasite Contracted At Water ParkIn September, a New Jersey native named Fabrizio Stabile passed away from an infection with the “brain-eating amoeba” Naegleria fowleri. The team treating Mr Stabile – who presented to the hospital with a severe headache, fever, lack of motor control, and confusion – traced the amoeba back to a Waco, Texas, pool surfing park that the man had visited several days prior.
When Stabile was first admitted, his symptoms immediately pointed doctors toward bacterial meningitis, so they initiated an intensive regime of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories while performing a litany of tests to identify what microorganism was responsible. Four days later, a cerebrospinal fluid test came back positive for Naegleria fowleri, yet by then Stabile had sustained too much brain damage for doctors to attempt a specialized treatment. He died the next day.
Primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), as this disease is called, is both highly fatal and incredibly rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that only 143 cases (144 if you count Mr Stabile) have been documented in the United States. About 98 percent of these individuals passed away.
However, our frequent contact with the amoeba is usually unremarkable because it has no harmful effects when accidentally ingested. PAM can only arise when the organism is introduced into neural tissue through the nose and sinuses. This is why you should always hold your nose when swimming in fresh water and never, ever, EVER wash out your sinuses with unsterilized water.