2019 has truly been the year of too much. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the bizarre medical cases that made the news this year. So let’s go ahead and take a trip down memory lane, just in case you were hoping to get a good night’s sleep ever again.
Self-medicating is always a dicey proposition. For one 33-year-old man in Ireland, an especially, ah, creative attempt to treat his own pain landed him in the hospital.
In January, doctors reported that the man had spent at least 18 months injecting himself with his own sperm using a hypodermic needle he bought online, in a completely baffling effort to cure his chronic lower back pain. Not only did the home remedy not appear to work, but his last attempt left him needing immediate hospitalisation to treat the arm he had inadvertently infected.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the doctors were unable to find any other similar case of someone trying to treat their back pain with a sperm injection, nor could they even find a hint of reason online why the man thought it would work. Just imagine: an idea so beyond the pale that no one on the internet had ever suggested it before.
The man and his back did get better, though once his pain dissipated, he discharged himself from the hospital, leaving behind a mystery that might never be solved.
The schizophrenia-causing cat
In March, doctors reported a frightening case of a 14-year-old boy who was likely driven mad after contracting an acute bacterial infection found in cats.
Over a period of 18 months, the once-healthy boy spiraled into depression, suicidal ideation, and psychosis. He suffered hallucinations that made him violent and homicidal, and his family eventually gave away their pets, fearing he might hurt them. Though initially diagnosed with schizophrenia, the boy failed to respond to antipsychotic medication.
It wasn’t until early 2017, when a doctor spotted “stretch mark” lesions during an examination, that the true cause of his suffering was uncovered: His brain had been infected by a kind of bacteria spread by cats and other animals called Bartonella. Indeed, the specific, usually mild infection he had gotten is often known as cat scratch fever.
After his family reached out to one of the few experts on Bartonella in the country, doctors were able to successfully treat the infection. Ultimately, the boy was able to fully recover physically and mentally.
It’s likely that the boy’s case was a rare complication of Bartonella infection. But because the bacteria is so understudied, case study author Ed Breitschwerdt told Gizmodo, there’s really no knowing how often people can become seriously sick from it or how exactly the bug affected the boy’s brain.
In May, doctors in the UK reported the sort of story that could only be funny years after it happened to you. Their 35-year-old male patient ended up in the emergency room with a Grade IV erection—an absolute real medical term—that had lasted for nine days.
Most cases of too-persistent erection happen because of a blockage of the blood vessels leading to the penis. But the man’s predicament was the result of him having fallen off his moped and bruising the area between his junk and anus, commonly called the “taint.” The injury ruptured nearby blood vessels, which caused blood to pool around his genitals and created new connections that redirected the blood to his penis.
Thankfully, doctors were able to plug up the leaky genital plumbing and stop the erection. While it did take some time to recover, the man’s normal sexual function returned within a year.
There’s no mystery surrounding this next one.
In May, health officials in Hawaii were forced to issue a warning to tourists that they should refrain from eating raw slugs, even on a dare. The slimy creatures just might infect you with the parasitic rat lungworm, or Angiostrongylus cantonensis.
As the name implies, humans aren’t typically on the worm’s menu. The worms set up shop in a rat’s lungs, where they cause enough misery that the rat tries to cough them out, only to ingest them back in through the digestive system, where they get pooped out. Slugs and snails then eat these tainted rat faeces, or the worms bury themselves into slugs that come in close contact with the poop. Finally, other rats eat the slugs and the cycle begins anew.
But sometimes people get in the middle of this majestic dance of life and eat the slugs instead. Though we’re a dead end for the worms, and they soon die off, they can still cause a serious, life-threatening brain infection called meningitis.
Typically, this is a complete accident. People often get infected by eating vegetables contaminated with snail or slug debris. But in at least one case, health officials reported that a person had gotten sick last December by “purposely eating a slug on a dare.”
While the rat lungworm is commonly found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Basin, there’s indications that its territory is starting into expand to the U.S., as the warming climate has made more areas hospitable to the many slugs capable of hosting the worm.
The hills have eye worms
There are few combinations of words that are a viscerally repellant as “a cloud of face flies.” But alas, that’s the reality that Dianne Travers-Gustafson, a retired medical anthropologist and public health researcher from Nebraska, had to confront while jogging along a California trail in February 2018. Worse still, the experience left her with an almost unprecedented infestation of eye worms.
Her ordeal was detailed this October in a case report she co-authored with her doctors. While the report doesn’t name her as the patient, Travers-Gustafson later agreed to share her story directly.
“We live on a farm, and we’ve had cattle, so it’s not that we don’t have flies… But I’d never seen anything quite like this,” she told Gizmodo.
A month after her encounter with the face flies, her eyes were constantly watering, leading her to look more closely with a pen light and magnifying mirror. In her right eye, she unmistakably saw “three little glittering, translucent things” moving around.
Travers-Gustafson, as she came to find out, became only the second person ever known to be infested by the cattle eye worm. The worm is spread by a species of fly that typically drinks the tears of large animals like horses and cattle. But the sheer mass of flies she encountered that day must have given them ample time to infect her with worm larvae. While the worms can cause more serious damage in animals, Travers-Gustafson was able to remove them all (a fourth was suspected in her left eye) with no lasting complications.
Being a scientist, she felt compelled to publicise her plight, in hopes of raising awareness of what might be an emerging, if still very rare, disease in the U.S. We have to applaud Travers-Gustafson for her remarkable cool-headedness about the ordeal.
“My first actual thought was, ‘Wow, fascinating. This is interesting. What in the world is going on here?’ Then a second later, I was like, ‘Yikes, I’m a host,’” she said.