Medicine
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Baffling Medical Mysteries That Defy All Logic

Updated October 8, 2021 9k votes 1.5k voters 98.5k views12 items

List RulesVote up the strangest symptoms that science can't explain.

While many medical conditions are well known and easy to diagnose, others remain total mysteries. Some cases might seem mundane at first, only to end up baffling doctors and other medical professionals for decades, if not centuries.

From waking up one day with a foreign accent to remaining trapped in the body and mind of a toddler even as a person ages, these weird, unexplained conditions are a reminder of how difficult it can be to fully understand how the human body works. And sometimes what we do learn is disturbing - especially when there is no known cure.

We present a dozen rare medical conditions that have challenged and baffled the medical world. 

Photo:
  • Photo: Martin Pistorius / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
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    Martin Pistorius Spent 12 Years Trapped In His Own Body, Unable To Communicate

    In the late 1980s at age 12, Martin Pistorius of South Africa came down with a strange illness. His doctors weren't sure what it was, but the prevailing thought was cryptococcal meningitis. He got progressively worse: first he lost the ability to move by himself, then his ability to make eye contact, and finally his ability to speak. His parents were told their son was essentially in a vegetative state, that he wasn't "really there," and would die soon.

    But he didn't die. For the next 12 years, his parents took care of him - bathing, dressing, and feeding. One day, not knowing her son could hear her, Joan Pistorius told him: "'I hope you die.' I know that's a horrible thing to say," she told NPR in 2015. "I just wanted some sort of relief."

    But he did hear her. Pistorius began to wake up between the ages of 14 and 16. "I was aware of everything, just like any normal person," he later recalled. His condition is known as locked-in syndrome, which can be caused by a stroke, traumatic brain injury, infection, or drug overdose. There is no known cure.

    Although Pistorius could see, hear, and understand everything, he couldn't move his body. "Everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn't notice when I began to be present again," he told NPR. "The stark reality hit me that I was going to spend the rest of my life like that - totally alone."

    He explained that he would disengage from his thoughts as a way to cope. Oddly, it was his hatred of the children's TV show Barney, which he was forced to watch daily at the care center where he spent much of his time, that led him to start reengaging with his thoughts in an attempt to take some control of his life. 

    As his thoughts improved, so did his body. It was a relief worker at his daycare center who noticed his slight movements and realized Pistorius could communicate. She encouraged his parents to get another evaluation, where his consciousness was finally realized. By age 26, he could use a computer to communicate. He eventually enrolled in college to study computer science and started a company online. In 2011, he published his memoir, Ghost Boy. He is now married and a father of one.

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  • When Brooke Greenberg was born in 1993, she weighed just four pounds. Aside from her anterior hip dislocation, which was corrected through surgery, she appeared to be a normal child. But as she aged, her mind and body remained those of a toddler.

    For the first few years of her life, Brooke grew a bit. "But age 4, 4 to 5, she stopped," Greenberg's father Howard told Katie Couric on Katie in 2013.

    At the time of that TV appearance, the 20-year-old girl stood less than three feet tall and weighed around 16 pounds. Because of her small esophagus, she had to get nutrition through a feeding tube. She wore diapers and communicated as if she were still a baby of six months, according to her mother Melanie. "If she's happy, she'll giggle and laugh," she explained.

    The Greenbergs visited dozens of specialists over the years, looking for answers about their daughter's condition. But the doctors were baffled, telling the couple that they knew of no other person with the same condition. 

    "[The specialists] just said she’ll catch up. Then we went to the nutritionist, the endocrinologist. We tried the growth hormone," Melanie told NBC News in 2005. It was after the growth hormone failed to produce any results that the family started hearing "Syndrome X," the term at the time for Brooke's unknown syndrome.

    In addition to not developing mentally or physically, Brooke experienced numerous other serious medical problems, including a stroke and a brain tumor, both of which amazingly resolved with apparently no damage. More than once, her family was told to prepare themselves for her death.

    Brooke lived until Oct 24, 2013, when she passed at age 20 due to bronchomalacia, a weakening of cartilage in the lungs' bronchial tubes. In 2017, her condition was renamed neotenic complex syndrome, and a few other children have been discovered with it.

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  • 3

    Gary Dockery Woke Up From A 7-Year Coma, Started Talking, And Fell Back Into A Coma

    Video: YouTube

    On September 17, 1988, Gary Dockery, a police officer in Walden, TN, responded to a 911 call, only to be shot point-blank in the head. The shooter, Samuel Frank Downey, told the police he had made the fake 911 call to get revenge for being reprimanded for making too much noise. 

    For the next seven years, Dockery lay in what was thought to be a coma, or perhaps a persistent vegetative state, occasionally grunting or blinking his eyes. About 20% of his brain had been destroyed in the shooting. 

    Early in February 1996, Dockery's family learned he had pneumonia and would likely die if he didn't have surgery. He was transferred to a Chattanooga hospital and put on antibiotics after having fluid removed from his lungs. His sister was at his bedside when she noticed something was different - his eyes were wide open.

    After she told him she was his sister, they then shared this exchange, according to the AP:

    "Uh-huh," he responded.

    "You’re talking!" she exclaimed.

    "I sure am," he answered brightly.

    Dockery thought it was still 1988, and didn't remember being shot, but amazed his family and doctors by how much recall he had about his life. "He talked himself to death that day,″ his son Shane said. "It was unbelievable.″

    When they heard about his recovery, neurologists who knew about his case doubted that he'd been in a persistent vegetative state. The fact that he'd been able to blink "yes" or "no" suggested he'd been in a state of some awareness - a condition called a minimally responsive state or minimally conscious state.

    The family's joy at his recovery was short-lived. Dockery woke up on a Monday, but by Wednesday of that week, he had stopped talking. He survived the surgery to clear out his lungs but remained paralyzed and gradually fell back into a semiconscious state. He passed in April 1997 at the age of 43.

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  • 4

    Karen Keegan's DNA Said She Wasn't Related To Her Own Sons

    When Karen Keegan was tested to see if any of her three sons was a potential match for her second kidney transplant (the first one had failed), the results showed that while the three were brothers, two of them weren't Keegan's biological sons.

    "We thought there was a problem with testing; that there was a mistake. So we had her retested and examined and... it showed the same thing,” said Lynne Uhl, a transfusion medicine specialist at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "We knew this woman very well and knew without any doubt that she was the mother of these kids. That prompted us to look more carefully for an explanation for this finding."

    Further testing revealed Keegan was a chimera - a person composed of two genetically distinct cellular lines. Chimeras who are not born with an actual twin are thought to possess cells from a twin who died early in gestation. In Keegan's case, Uhl said,

    We hypothesized that two eggs were fertilized and very early on fused together. It wasn't that there actually was a twin that went fairly far along in development, then was resorbed, but more likely that very early on the two fertilized eggs fused together.

    Human chimeras like Keegan are very rare; as of 2014, only around 100 cases had been officially recorded.

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