The 10 Strangest Medical Cases of 2021

The 10 Strangest Medical Cases of 2021
Usually, teeth grow inside the mouth — but not always. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images)

While the covid-19 pandemic has dominated headlines this past year, other maladies continued to trouble humanity — and some of them were extremely bizarre. In a few cases, a person’s own unfortunate decisions landed them in the pages of a medical journal; in others, it was sheer bad luck. Warning: some of the stories here are a little gruesome.

The Vertically Broken Penis

Photo: Hollie Adams, Getty Images Photo: Hollie Adams, Getty Images

A man in the UK became a medical first for one of the most groan-worthy reasons imaginable: an uniquely broken penis. The man, as detailed by his doctors in a case report this summer, had somehow torn the protective layer of his penis vertically, as opposed to the horizontal kind of tear that’s typically reported. As with most broken penises, the injury occurred during sex.

On the positive side, the man’s ordeal might have been slightly less horrifying, since his tear wasn’t accompanied by the characteristic loud popping sound that often happens with a penis break. The vertical injury may have been less damaging than usual, too. His doctors successfully treated the fracture via surgery with no complications, and by the six-month mark he was able to have sex again with no issues. The anonymous patient’s injury didn’t go unnoticed by the world though — TV host Stephen Colbert even cited our article on the case during his monologue that week.

The Mushroom Man

Photo: Peter Dejong, AP Photo: Peter Dejong, AP

In mid-January, doctors described a patient who developed a life-threatening infection after he injected a homemade concoction of psychedelic mushrooms into his bloodstream. According to the doctors, the man had been struggling with depression for a while. So he decided to self-medicate with mushrooms, which have legitimately shown some promise as a depression treatment. However, for some reason, he chose to boil the mushrooms he obtained into a “tea,” then filtered the mixture through a cotton swab and injected it intravenously. Within days, he ended up in the emergency room vomiting blood alongside symptoms of lethargy, jaundice, and diarrhoea.

Tests showed that he had both a bacterial and fungal infection in his blood. The fungal species found in his blood matched the mushrooms he had taken, leading doctors to conclude that his body had indeed become a breeding ground for the mushrooms. After a month in the hospital, including a week in the ICU, the man did pull through, though he continued to need long-term antimicrobial therapy.

Overdosing on Fake Medicine

Atropa belladonna, aka the belladonna plant. (Photo: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova/ Wikimedia Commons) Atropa belladonna, aka the belladonna plant. (Photo: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova/ Wikimedia Commons)

This poisoning case is only strange because of the medical quackery underlying it. In June, doctors in Germany reported that a patient of theirs had overdosed on a homeopathic remedy derived from the belladonna plant. He developed confusion, anxiety, slurred speech, and ataxia (the loss of muscle control and coordination).

Homeopathic drugs, for those not in the know, are alleged to work by diluting a substance in water to the point where virtually none of the original substance remains. The “memory” of the water, which can be taken as is or dropped onto a pill, is then responsible for the claimed effects of the treatment. This is, of course, absolute bunk that should have been left behind in the 18th century when it was first “discovered.” Most of the time, they’re just a fancy-sounding placebo, but sometimes, these barely regulated products can actually carry enough real poison to cause some harm. Thankfully, this man’s illness was brief, and he recovered with no lasting issues.

A Pain in the Arse

Photo: Gausanchennai/Wikimedia Commons Photo: Gausanchennai/Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a case with an important lesson at the heart of it: Don’t eat sharp pointy things.

The medical tale was reported by doctors in Japan. A 67-year-old man had visited them after experiencing two months of pain along his right buttock and thigh. Suspecting that he had a spinal condition known as stenosis, doctors prepared to perform surgery. But just before the procedure, a CT scan revealed a 7-centimeter “rod” lodged in his rectrum. The man’s pain then worsened, and doctors quickly worked to remove the object, which turned out to be a toothpick. With the literal pain in his arse gone, the man’s symptoms disappeared as well. According to the doctors, this sort of predicament is likely to be “extremely rare.”

Covid Mix-Ups

Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Anyone who’s woken up with a tickle in their throat or other flu-like symptoms over the past two years has likely worried that they’ve contracted covid-19. And while a lot of those suspicions have proven correct, sometimes the cause of covid-like illness can turn out to be much stranger.

Doctors in July reported that a patient of theirs initially hospitalized for covid-19 was actually suffering from another respiratory illness, one that had made headlines two years earlier: a lung condition caused by tainted vaping devices, officially called “E-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury” or EVALI. The woman’s symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, and recurrent fever, along with abdominal pain, vomiting, and headaches, can unfortunately happen during both covid-19 and EVALI, which contributed to the confusion. Nearly all cases of EVALI have been traced to vaping devices used to consume THC that have been laced with oily additives like vitamin E. The woman did report vaping THC, but it’s not completely certain whether tainted THC was the culprit here, the doctors said.

Also this summer, a California woman’s suspected case of covid-19 had its own left-field explanation: a rare infection of flea-borne typhus, one that she had likely caught from handling a dead rat recently.

A Tropical Disease Mystery

Some of the brands implicated in the aromatherapy melioidosis outbreak.  (Photo: Consumer Safety Products Consmissions) Some of the brands implicated in the aromatherapy melioidosis outbreak. (Photo: Consumer Safety Products Consmissions)

A small but alarming outbreak this year left even the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention initially baffled. In July, the CDC reported that three patients in different states had all contracted the tropical bacterial disease melioidosis; eventually, a fourth case was found, and two people subsequently died.

Melioidosis is endemic in the dirt and water of the warmer areas of the world, and though it can be treated with antibiotics, it’s often hard to diagnose, and up to 40% of those infected die. The cases were mysterious because melioidosis isn’t supposed to be native to the U.S., yet none of the victims had recently travelled elsewhere. By late October, the CDC had finally cracked the case. The culprit: contaminated bottles of an aromatherapy spray sold exclusively at Walmart. Testing confirmed that the bacteria found in a bottle belonging to one victim matched the bacteria that had sickened all four patients. The products were recalled, and no further cases have been reported since.

Interestingly enough, there was another unusual case of melioidosis reported in the U.S. this year, though it actually took place in 2019. A different group of CDC scientists reported that a Maryland woman contracted melioidosis through contaminated water from her home freshwater aquarium. The woman survived, and no further cases connected to the pet store where the water came from were identified.

Plague Cats

Photo: Soe Than Win/AFP, Getty Images Photo: Soe Than Win/AFP, Getty Images

Plague is an ancient bacterial enemy of humankind, responsible for killing countless people and dooming a civilisation or two. Antibiotics and better sanitation have thankfully made it rare these days, particularly in countries like the U.S. But plenty of animals can carry the bacteria, and it still occasionally sickens people here. In September, Wyoming health officials reported that a woman had contracted plague — only the seventh case reported in the state since 1978. They suspect that she caught it from “sick pet cats.”

Unfortunately, she developed pneumonic plague, a rare but life-threatening form of the infection. Though pneumonic plague can be treated with antibiotics, officials told Gizmodo at the time that the women remained in serious condition. And it seems there have been no updates on her case since then.

Post-Covid Psychosis

A MRI scan of one of the patients, with the arrow pointing to a suspected lesion. (Image: Bartley CM, et al/JAMA Neurology) A MRI scan of one of the patients, with the arrow pointing to a suspected lesion. (Image: Bartley CM, et al/JAMA Neurology)

Even when covid-19 causes seemingly mild illness, some patients can end up with serious and strange complications.

In late October, doctors in California published a case report detailing two teen patients who developed severe psychiatric symptoms, including extreme mood swings, paranoid delusions, and suicidal ideation, following a bout of mild covid-19. In the spinal fluid of both patients, they also found antibodies to the coronavirus as well as autoantibodies to the nervous system. They theorise that the infection triggered a self-destructive immune response that went after the brain, leading to these symptoms. Both patients were treated with immunotherapy, which did seem to help, but one patient continued to have memory problems and trouble concentrating six months later. And the team notes that there have been other similar cases reported in adult covid-19 patients as well.

Research into the chronic symptoms reported by some survivors of covid-19, typically known as long covid, is still ongoing. There are important questions left to be answered, including how often it happens and whether there are multiple ways that the infection can leave a lasting impact.

The Nose Tooth

Photo: Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images Photo: Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images

Doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine recently reported on an unusual case in which a patient had a tooth growing into his nose (a photo can be seen here). The man had spent years with a stuffed-up right nostril by the time he visited them, and a rhinoscopy revealed a rare ectopic tooth.

Gnarly as a nose tooth might be, the man wasn’t cursed to live with it forever. The doctors surgically removed the 14-centimeter-long chomper, and the man’s nasal congestion cleared up soon after. No word on whether he was able to keep the tooth.

An IUD Left in for Way Too Long

The left image is a CT scan taken of the patient, with the arrow pointing to her IUD and the asterisk denoting an nearby abscess. The right image is of the IUD after removal, with the yellow substance thought to be the bacteria that caused her infection. (Photo: Noriko Arakaki and Yusuke Oshiro/NEJM) The left image is a CT scan taken of the patient, with the arrow pointing to her IUD and the asterisk denoting an nearby abscess. The right image is of the IUD after removal, with the yellow substance thought to be the bacteria that caused her infection. (Photo: Noriko Arakaki and Yusuke Oshiro/NEJM)

Doctors in Japan recently described a serious infection that was likely caused by an intrauterine device left inside a woman’s body for 20 years. The woman visited the ER after months of experiencing fever, weight loss, and eventually abdominal pain and difficulty walking. Tests soon confirmed an infection throughout her pelvis that extended out to her left hip joint. Right in the middle of the grisly action was the woman’s IUD, seemingly surrounded by pockets of pus and bacteria. When the doctors drained her abscesses, they removed the IUD. Once they did, they saw clear as day that it was coated in a gold-coloured growth that’s associated with rod-shaped bacteria known as actinomyces. Sure enough, the same bacteria was found in fluid samples from the woman’s infection.

Certain types of IUDs can safely stay in the body for as long as 12 years. But the woman’s plastic, non-hormonal device should have been removed after five years at the latest, and doctors should have been keeping an eye on it at least annually. It’s not certain why the woman kept the IUD as long as she did, though she did admit to not liking hospitals.

Fortunately, the doctors were able to treat her infection successfully, with no major complications afterward.