Amazing Medical Mysteries… Solved!

Debilitating pain, unbearable noises, constant retching: These patients vowed to go to any lengths to find a cure.

Amazing Medical Mysteries… Solved!Photograph by Robert Trachtenberg
For most of us, an illness or ache means a trip to the doctor, a diagnosis, and eventual relief. But sometimes symptoms stump even the best physicians. What these three cases have in common—besides very sick people and many mystified doctors—are the dogged persistence of the patients to get better and the compassionate care of the experts who successfully treated them.

The Patient’s Story: Tortured by a Heartbeat
Karrie Aitken, 46-year-old mother of three from Chatsworth, California—I woke up one morning to get the kids ready for school, and the room was spinning. I kept trying to stand, but I gave up and spent the whole day in bed. For a week, I felt dizzy; then my left ear started to feel odd, so my husband took me to the ER. The doctor did a CAT scan and said maybe I had just a virus when she couldn’t find anything wrong. I kept feeling off, so I went to my regular doctor. She asked me to walk in a straight line—and I couldn’t do it! That worried her, so she sent me to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, who discovered I’d lost hearing in both ears. He said the problem might be allergies or my sinuses, and he ordered another CAT scan, which also came back normal, and a balance test, which I passed.

About three months later, I woke up and completely freaked out because I could hear my heart beating in my left ear: boom, boom, boom. From that point on, I heard my heartbeat 24-7. It drowned out regular sounds—I’d have the TV volume all the way up, but my heartbeat still took over. And I started hearing my voice echo in my left ear, like I was in a barrel, so I began talking less. If I ate anything hard, like chips, the chewing sounded like a gun going off next to my ear. I was afraid to leave the house, I lost my appetite, and I cried constantly. I hated that my kids were seeing me like that.

I kept bouncing between my regular doctor, the ENT doctor, and the emergency room, but nobody had any answers. The ER doctors blamed everything on allergies or nerves and gave me anxiety pills and antihistamines. One of the ENT doctors suggested I get hearing aids and buy a white noise machine to drown out my heartbeat. Then, at the end of the month, I had a total mental breakdown. I was screaming, I was crying, I was begging God to help me—it was just horrible.

Four months after my ordeal began, I finally tried a different ENT doctor, who recommended an ear specialist at UCLA. That’s how I found the doctor who changed my life.

The Doctor’s Story
Quinton Gopen, MD, assistant professor of head and neck surgery, UCLA School of Medicine—Karrie was fairly debilitated and very depressed; she’d lost a lot of weight. Her hearing loss could have been caused by plenty of common things, but when she said she was dizzy and could hear her heartbeat, I was pretty confident she had a rare condition called superior semicircular canal dehiscence, which occurs when a pore the size of a pinhead forms in the inner ear. It can cause hearing loss, dizziness, and a strange amplification of internal sounds, so patients hear their own heartbeat or digestive noises—some even say they hear their eyes “squeaking” when they look around. The condition was discovered only in the late 1990s.

Content continues below ad

The CAT scan Karrie brought was poor quality, but we had another one done at UCLA. I showed it to her, pointed to the ear, and said, “Yup, there’s the hole.” Once the diagnosis was confirmed, we scheduled surgery. The procedure involved a neurosurgeon making an incision above the ear, cutting a window in the skull, and pushing the base of the brain out of the way to expose the inner ear. Then I took a tacky substance and gently plugged the hole. The results are pretty immediate, and the surgery is considered a cure.

Karrie’s New Life
I remember waking up after the surgery and listening to the machines beeping and the nurses talking and not hearing my heartbeat—and I just cried. I really thought this was a new start for me; my life was back.

I was in the hospital for about four days. I felt light-headed, but that eventually went away. And now I’m awesome. I put on enough weight that I’m telling myself I need to go on a diet! I appreciate everything more and enjoy things again, like swimming and roller-skating with my children. Now my kids say, “Mom’s back to normal!”

Next: The patient who couldn’t swallow.

Want to stay smart and healthy?

Get our weekly Health Reads newsletter

how we use your e-mail
We will use your email address to send you this newsletter. For more information please read our privacy policy.