Tagged Lungs

Think Like a Doctor: The Boy With Nighttime Fevers Solved!

Photo

Credit Andreas Samuelsson

On Thursday we asked Well readers to take on the case of a 7-year-old boy who’d been having fevers and drenching sweats nightly for over a month. More than 300 of you wrote in, and although 20 of you came up with the right diagnosis, only three of you figured out both the diagnosis and the test needed to confirm it.

The correct diagnosis is…

Coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever.

The diagnosis was made based on a lymph node biopsy.

The first reader to suggest this diagnosis and the test was Dr. Malkhaz Jalagonia, an internist from Zugdidi, in the Republic of Georgia. He says he’s never seen a case like this, but he’s fascinated by zebras and so recognized the disease immediately. Well done, Dr. Jalagonia!

One of the reasons I chose this case was that, although this diagnosis is rare in life, it was the most frequently suggested diagnosis in my last column – the one about the middle-aged man with a cough for over a year. I thought it would be fun to show what valley fever really looks like. Hope you did too.

The Diagnosis

Coccidioidomycosis is a lung infection usually caused by inhaling the spores of a tiny fungus called coccidioides. This organism grows as a mold, a few inches below the surface of the soil in deserts in parts of the southwestern United States, Mexico and other countries of Central America.

In dry conditions, the fungus becomes fragile and is easily broken up into tiny single-celled spores that can be sent airborne with even the slightest disturbance. And once these single cells are aloft they can remain suspended there for prolonged periods of time.

Infection is usually acquired by inhaling the spores. Once lodged in the lung, the organism begins to reproduce almost immediately. The time course between exposure and disease depends on the inhaled dose and the patient’s immune system.

Symptoms, or No Symptoms

Disease severity varies considerably. Nearly half of those who breathe in these spores have no symptoms, or symptoms are so mild they never visit the doctor’s office.

More severe infection usually takes the form of a slowly progressive pneumonia known as coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever. This illness is characterized by a cough, fevers, chest pain, fatigue and sometimes joint pain. Indeed, because of the prominent joint pain, in some cases — though not this one — the disease is also known as desert rheumatism.

Rashes are also seen in many patients. Those who get a rash seem to have a more benign course of illness. The thinking is that the skin symptoms are the result of an aggressive immune response in the host to the pathogen.

Symptoms can last for months, and in many cases they resolve without treatment. But in some cases they get worse.

Hard to Diagnose

Those who seek medical attention are often not diagnosed — or not diagnosed quickly — because the symptoms of valley fever are not very specific, and few of the tests that doctors usually order have features that are unusual enough to suggest the diagnosis.

Chest X-rays are often normal. Blood tests may be normal as well, though some patients, like this child, have an unusually high number of a type of white blood cell known as eosinophils. These cells are usually seen in allergic responses or with infections due to parasites.

The most important clue to the possibility of this infection is travel to one of the areas where the fungus lives. In the United States, valley fever is endemic primarily in Arizona and southern California, as well as parts of southern New Mexico and West Texas. Indeed, the name valley fever is a shorter and more general term for an earlier name, San Joaquin Valley fever, because it was so common in that part of California.

A Dramatic Rise

There has been a significant increase in the number of cases of coccidioidomycosis in the past 15 years, with nearly 10 times as many in areas where the fungus is found. Development in areas where the fungus is endemic is thought to be the primary cause. Better diagnostic testing may also play a role.

While this infection may cause only a minor illness in many, there are some – like this child – for whom the disease can spread beyond the lungs into the rest of the body. Disseminated coccidioidomycosis is usually seen in those with some problem with the immune system – an underlying disorder such as H.I.V., for example, or because someone is taking immune suppressing medications such as prednisone.

Once out of the lungs, the bugs can go anywhere in the body, though they seem to prefer joints, skin or bones. Those with disseminated disease have to be treated for a long time – often up to a year, or occasionally for life.

How the Diagnosis Was Made

The little boy had been sick for nearly a month, and his parents were getting quite worried. He was pale, thin and really, really tired.

With their pediatrician’s encouragement, they had gone on a long planned, much anticipated vacation to the mountains of Colorado. But the child wasn’t getting better, and so his mother took him to yet another doctor – this one in a walk-in clinic.

The results of some simple blood tests done at that visit worried the doctor, who suggested that the boy be taken to a hematologist, a specialist in diseases and cancers of the blood.

Now the parents were terrified. The mother faxed copies of the lab results to her brother, a researcher in immunology. He wasn’t a physician but showed the results to friends who were. They agreed with the doctor at the walk-in clinic: The boy needed to be seen by a hematologist.

A Series of Specialists

The next morning the family headed home to Minneapolis. They took the boy to his regular pediatrician, who sent them to a hematologist. It wasn’t cancer, that specialist told them. Maybe some kind of severe food allergy, he suggested, and referred them to a gastroenterologist.

Not a GI thing, that specialist told them, and he referred the now nearly frantic family to an infectious disease specialist and a rheumatologist.

Nearly 10 days after getting the alarming blood test results, the couple and their child found themselves in the office of Dr. Bazak Sharon, a specialist in infectious diseases in adults and children at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. After introducing himself, Dr. Sharon settled down to get a detailed history of the boy and the family.

A Desert Visit, but Other Possibilities

When Dr. Sharon heard that the family had spent a week at a ranch in the desert of Arizona, he immediately thought of coccidioidomycosis. The fungus isn’t found in Minnesota or Colorado – which is probably why other doctors hadn’t considered it. But it is all over the part of Arizona where they’d visited.

Still, there were other possibilities that had to be ruled out, including some types of cancer. After Dr. Sharon examined the boy, he sent the family to the lab for a chest X-ray and some blood tests.

The results of those tests were concerning. The child was getting worse. Dr. Sharon wasn’t going to be back in clinic for a week, and he was certain the child needed to be seen and diagnosed well before then. He called a friend and colleague who was taking care of patients in the hospital, Dr. Abraham Jacob, and asked if he would admit the child and coordinate the needed diagnostic workup for the boy.

First Some Answers, Then More Questions

Once in the hospital, the child had a chest CT scan. The results were frightening. The lymph nodes that surround the trachea, the tube that carries inspired air to the lungs, were hugely enlarged. They were so big that the trachea was almost completely blocked. The opening at one point was just two millimeters wide – basically the dimensions of a cocktail straw. Any worsening of his disease might cause the tube to close completely, making breathing impossible.

A pediatric surgeon was brought in immediately. The enlarged lymph nodes had to be removed. First in order to protect the child’s airways. And second because those nodes would reveal what the little boy had.

But trying to do surgery on a 7-year-old boy’s neck was complicated. Although the surgeon could easily feel the enlarged gland in his neck, it was close to many vital blood vessels, nerves and organs. The child had to lie perfectly still, and with most children that could only be guaranteed if they were under anesthesia.

Risky Surgery

When the anesthesiologist saw the CT scan, the doctors’ concern grew. They could put the child to sleep, but if anything went wrong during surgery and they had to put a tube down his throat into his lungs, they weren’t sure it would be able to fit.

The trachea was so small, there was no guarantee they could get the tube into place. In order to do this safely, they said they needed to use a technique known as ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – basically a machine that allows them to oxygenate blood without sending it to the lungs.

Rather than subject the child to this risky procedure, Dr. Jacob and the surgeon decided to just take a piece of the lymph node out in order to make the diagnosis. Treatment of whatever the boy had would bring the size of the lymph node down.

Don’t Make a Move

When the boy was brought to the procedure room, the surgeon explained that he was going to put numbing medicine all around the bump in the boy’s neck and take out a piece of it. The child listened calmly and agreed.

He wasn’t to move at all, the surgeon explained. The child nodded solemnly. He understood. The boy was remarkably mature and so brave throughout the entire process of anesthetizing the region that the surgeon thought he might be able to continue and get the entire node out.

He paused in his surgery and consulted the parents. Would they allow him to try this? Their son was doing so well he was sure he could get it. They agreed, and the surgeon returned to his task. The lymph node came out without difficulty.

Photo

Credit

It was sent to the lab and the answer came back almost immediately. The swollen tissue was filled with the tiny coccidioides. You can see a picture of these little critters here.

A Year of Medicine

The boy was started on an intravenous medicine for fungal infections. Then after a week it was changed to one he could take by mouth.

Because the infection had spread beyond the lungs, the child will have to take this medication for a year. After starting the medication, the child began to look a little better. Slowly he was less tired. Slowly he started to eat the way he used to.

It was a long road to the diagnosis, and an even longer road to cure, but at least they were on the right one.

A Perfect Storm?

The mother called the ranch in Arizona where they stayed to let them know what had happened.
The owner told them that their son was not the only person visiting then who got sick. At least one other guest, there at the same time, had come down with the disease.

Apparently the conditions for spread were perfect. Their stay had started off with some rain, followed by heat and some brisk wind. The moisture helped the fungus grow; the heat dried it out so that it could become easily airborne and inhaled when lifted by the wind.

Although the family has loved their visits to this ranch – this was their second year – the child’s mother tells me that she’s not sure she’ll be going back, at least for a couple of years. Most people exposed to valley fever become immune forever, but because her little boy was so very sick, she’s planning to wait a while before they return.

Think Like a Doctor: A Cough That Won’t Stop Solved!

Photo

Credit Andreas Samuelsson

On Thursday we asked Well readers to unravel the case of a middle-aged man who had a cough for over a year. He was just about to give up on finding a cause or cure when he started coughing up blood. A CT scan done at that point revealed a strange hole near the base of the right lung. Your challenge was to figure out what was going on.

The correct diagnosis is:

An aspiration of a foreign body

Over 400 of you wrote in and a handful of you figured it out. Anne Hartley was the first to suggest that the man inhaled a foreign object. She’s a general internist at Rush Medical College in Chicago. When I asked her how she figured it out she said it was easy. She has two small children and so, she told me, “foreign bodies are always on my mind.” Reading how healthy the patient appeared made it seem even more likely that he had accidentally inhaled something that was now lodged in his lungs. Strong work, Anne!

So he had inhaled something – but what? A couple of you even figured that out. A shout out to Toni Brisby of Britain, who was the first to suspect that the patient had inhaled a seed. Well done, Toni!

The Diagnosis:

The first successful removal of an aspirated object was published in 1897. A small bone was retrieved from the airways of a German farmer using a long metal tube and a set of tweezers. At that time, half of all people who accidentally aspirated objects into their lungs died. That changed dramatically over the next decades when an American ear, nose and throat specialist developed early versions of the tools used to remove such objects. That doctor, Chevalier Jackson, devoted his life to putting these tools to use. A collection of the several thousands objects he retrieved from airways of the children and adults who needed him is on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

These days foreign body aspiration is most common in boys between the ages of 1 and 2. The mortality rate is 7 percent in children younger than 4. Only a tiny fraction of aspirations (well under 1 percent) occur in adults, and most of those adults are either elderly or have some underlying condition that makes swallowing difficult – because of some neurological problem, like having a stroke, or because they are impaired by alcohol or drugs. What is aspirated also varies with age. In children, most of the aspirated objects are nuts or seeds.

In adults the most common objects fished out of the lungs were pins or small plastic objects. Foods were a distant second. Most adults sought medical care within 24 hours but some didn’t remember aspirating at all and others remembered only once the object was found, when a bronchoscopy was done to evaluate symptoms – as was the case here. Persistent cough was the most common symptom but recurrent infections were also seen. Presence of the object was often suspected from chest X-rays, which sometimes showed air trapping in the lung beyond the obstruction.

How the Diagnosis Was Made:

Dr. Karen Schmitz was the doctor caring for the 43-year-old man, who went to the hospital after two weeks of coughing up blood (hemoptysis) – the newest development in a cough that had lasted a year and a half. A CT scan showed a strange hole in the lower part of his right lung. Because tuberculosis could cause such holes as well as hemoptysis, he was in an isolation room until the doctors were sure he didn’t have it.

Still, TB seemed an unlikely diagnosis. He had never been exposed to TB and had no real risk factors. And even though he had an impressive cough, none of the usual symptoms of TB were present. He had no fever or night sweats, hadn’t lost weight, and he didn’t feel sick. So even before the tests came back the question became, if it wasn’t TB, what was causing this cough?

He was seen by an infectious disease specialist and Dr. Timothy Clark, a lung specialist. They agreed on the most likely culprits. It could be some kind of fungus – chronic fungal infections can cause few or even no symptoms. He had traveled in Southern California and Arizona, both places where a fungus called Coccidioides often caused asymptomatic disease. Blood tests were ordered to look for common fungi. There was also the possibility that it might be something worse – a lung cancer. Again he had no risk factors – he’d never smoked – but it was a possibility. So doctor and patient decided that the best course of action would be for the pulmonologist to look directly into the patient’s lungs. The test, called a bronchoscopy, was scheduled for the following morning.

The Doctor Is Surprised:

Early the next day the patient was taken to a procedure room to have his bronchoscopy. In this test a tiny camera is threaded into the lungs to look at the lesion using the CT scan to help navigate to the right spot.

The patient was lightly sedated, and moments later Dr. Clark inserted the scope. The lung specialist guided the instrument down the narrow pink corridors of the airways. The goal was to get as close as possible to the hole seen on the scan and take samples of the surrounding tissues. Suddenly the doctor stopped. He saw something – was it a tiny piece of metal? – sitting where the airway forked. He edged the scope a little closer. It was black and smooth with a shape that was strangely familiar. He threaded a tiny gripper through the scope, onto the end next to the camera, and pulled the object out.

“Is that a seed?” he asked. Suddenly the patient said in a slurred voice, “It’s a sunflower seed.” Dr. Clark dropped the tiny object into a specimen cup. “You’re right! It is a sunflower seed!”

Even under the influence of the sedative, the patient was able to remember when he’d inhaled the seed. It was at a baseball game he’d gone to with his older son. He’d bought a bag of sunflower seeds – his favorite snack — and was cracking them open with his teeth when suddenly one seed escaped and went down the wrong pipe. He started coughing immediately as his body fought to expel the foreign object. He coughed for what seemed to be a long time and while he never felt the seed come up, the spasm finally subsided. And he felt fine. He didn’t really think about it again until a couple of weeks later when he started coughing again. He told his first couple of doctors about it, but they pooh-poohed the notion. The interval between the choking event and the onset of the cough made aspiration much less likely. Besides, it’s usually only a problem for the very young or the very old — rarely for the perfectly healthy middle-aged guy.

Did the doctor think that this little seed could account for the coughing that had been killing him for the past 18 months? The doctor nodded. And if it was, he should get better within a couple of days.

The patient was ecstatic. Maybe it was just the relief of knowing that his 18 months of coughing were over or maybe it was the drugs they’d given him for the procedure, but the exuberant man found himself calling out as he was wheeled out the elevator to his hospital room: “Yay, I don’t have cancer. Yay, it was a seed.” He shook the cup with the retrieved seed in time with his chant.

As they watched the man roll out of the procedure room Dr. Clark turned to Dr. Schmitz. “You know I’ve seen this one other time. And it’s funny – we always forget to think of it.”

That was last December. After a couple of days, the cough was completely gone. And once baseball season started this spring, the man was able to enjoy his sunflower seeds just as he always had.

Ask Well: Exercising on ‘Smog Alert’ Days

Photo

Smog hangs over New York City in 1966.

Smog hangs over New York City in 1966.Credit Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Do you have a health question? Submit your question to Ask Well.

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No Such Thing as a Healthy Smoker

Photo

Credit Paul Rogers

Smokers who think they are escaping the lung-damaging effects of inhaled tobacco smoke may have to think again, according to the findings of two major new studies, one of which the author originally titled “Myth of the Healthy Smoker.”

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or C.O.P.D., may be among the best known dangers of smoking, and current and former smokers can be checked for that with a test called spirometry that measures how much air they can inhale and how much and how quickly they can exhale. Unfortunately, this simple test is often skipped during routine medical checkups of people with a history of smoking. But more important, even when spirometry is done, the new studies prove that the test often fails to detect serious lung abnormalities that cause chronic cough and sputum production and compromise a person’s breathing, energy level, risk of serious infections and quality of life.

“Current or former smokers without airflow obstruction may assume that they are disease-free,” but that’s not necessarily the case, one of the research teams pointed out. These researchers projected that there are 35 million current or former smokers older than 55 in the United States with unrecognized smoking-caused lung disease or impairments. Many, if not most, of these people could get worse with time, even if they have quit smoking. They are also unlikely to be referred for pulmonary rehabilitation, a treatment that can head off encroaching disability.

Perhaps most important, those currently smoking may be inclined to think they’ve dodged the bullet and so can continue to smoke with impunity. Doctors, who are often reluctant to urge patients with symptoms to quit smoking, may be even less likely to recommend smoking cessation to those with normal spirometry results.

Referring to C.O.P.D., one of the researchers, Dr. Elizabeth A. Regan, said, “Smoking is really taking a terrible toll on our society.” Dr. Regan, a clinical researcher at National Jewish Health in Denver, is the lead author of one of the new studies, published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine. “We live happily in the world thinking that only a small percentage of people who smoke get this devastating disease,” she said. “However, the lungs of millions of people in the United States are negatively impacted by smoking, and our methods for identifying their lung disease are relatively insensitive.”

Even when the results of spirometry are normal, Dr. Regan added, “a lot of smokers have respiratory symptoms. They get sick often, are more likely to be hospitalized with bronchitis or pneumonia, and have evidence on CT scans of thickened airway walls or emphysema that impair breathing.”

Dr. Prescott G. Woodruff, lead author of the other study, published May 12 in The New England Journal of Medicine, said in an interview, “Smokers have much more lung disease than we previously thought. The 15 to 20 percent who get C.O.P.D. is a gross underestimate.” Too often, Dr. Regan’s team pointed out, symptoms like shortness of breath and limits on exercise are “dismissed as normal aging.”

The multicenter study headed by Dr. Woodruff, a pulmonologist at the University of California, San Francisco, found that smokers with normal findings on spirometry nonetheless are likely to have chronic respiratory symptoms like cough, phlegm, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness; lower than normal exercise tolerance; and evidence on a CT scan of chronically inflamed airways in the lungs. They also use more antibiotics to control respiratory infections and drugs called glucocorticoids to alleviate breathing difficulty. They pay more visits to doctors and emergency rooms and have more hospital admissions because of a flare-up of respiratory symptoms.

In other words, they are far more prone than nonsmokers to experiencing terrifying episodes of troubled breathing.

Of course, while lung disease is most prevalent, it is hardly the only adverse health effect of smoking, a source of noxious substances that can damage almost every organ system in the body. The list of smoking-related diseases has grown exponentially since smoking was labeled a probable cause of lung cancer 52 years ago in the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health. The decades since have added many other deadly cancers, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blood clots, peripheral artery disease, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts and macular degeneration, as well as C.O.P.D.

The new findings by the two investigative teams prompted Dr. Leonardo M. Fabbri of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy to write an editorial accompanying the New England Journal study titled “Smoking, Not C.O.P.D., as the Disease.” He explained that the results of the two studies “suggest that smoking itself should be considered the disease and should be approached in all its complexity.”

The challenge ahead, Dr. Fabbri wrote, is to identify patients with smoking-related lung damage who do not yet have obstructive disease and devise ways to treat them to reduce their symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

A clinical trial to begin later this year, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, will examine whether treatments like use of a bronchodilator will help to alleviate symptoms in those without obstructive disease. Unfortunately, “the cost of bronchodilator medication has gone through the roof,” Dr. Woodruff said. Decades ago, people with breathing problems like asthma used aerosol bronchodilators that included chemicals called fluorocarbons. But these were banned for environmental reasons in the mid-1970s, and the replacements that drug manufacturers came up with are still not available in generic form, keeping prices high.

Dr. Woodruff said that rehabilitative exercise, one of the best treatments for C.O.P.D., should also help people with lung damage short of obstruction because it improves the ability of muscles to use available oxygen more efficiently.

To improve exercise tolerance, patients are encouraged to walk as fast as they can for as long as they can, rest, then walk some more. Most patients find this easiest to do on a treadmill, where speed and incline can be precisely regulated and the results measured. But if such equipment is unavailable or too costly to access, walking indoors or outdoors can be helpful if geared to a specific distance and speed that are gradually increased.

Most critical, of course, is for smokers with or without symptoms of lung disease to quit smoking, which can reduce the severity of respiratory symptoms and slow the decline in lung function, Dr. Regan’s team wrote. However, the team added, quitting smoking “does not eliminate the risk of progressive lung disease,” which means that the lungs of former smokers may need to be examined periodically.

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Think Like a Doctor: Drowning on Dry Land

The Challenge: A healthy 67-year-old man develops an annoying little cough that, over the course of a week, worsens and nearly takes his breath away. Can you figure out why?

Every month, the Diagnosis column of The New York Times Magazine challenges Well readers with a real-life diagnostic question. In this case, a retired Air Force officer shows up in an emergency room with chest pain so severe he can barely breathe.

I will provide you with the history, data and imaging available to the doctor who made the diagnosis. It’s up to you to make it all make sense.

The first person to identify the cause for these symptoms will win a copy of my book, “Every Patient Tells a Story.”

The Patient’s Story

“I think you’re dying,” the anxious wife told her husband of 38 years. Her 67-year-old spouse sat propped up at the head of the bed. His chin rested on his chest and his face bobbed up and down with each rapid fire breath. He gazed up at her from beneath his shaggy gray eyebrows.

“I’m going … to be … O.K.,” he panted in a whisper.

She didn’t think so, and she wasn’t alone. She had just spoken to one of his oldest friends, and he was worried too, she told her husband. The friend thought they should go to the hospital.

“Now?” the man breathed.

She nodded. He finally nodded in return. He would go.

A Knife in the Back

It all happened so fast. An annoying little tickle that started maybe a week before was now a great wracking cough. Every breath felt like a knife cutting through to his back. The pain was so severe he couldn’t take a deep breath, and he felt like there was so much stuff in his lungs that the little breaths he could take didn’t bring in enough air.

As he sat on his bed struggling to breathe, he suddenly flashed back to a morning many years ago when, as a small child, he’d fallen into the deep end of the pool. He sank to the bottom, arms and legs flailing, the need for breath overwhelming. Suddenly he saw an explosion of bubbles, then felt strong hands lift him up, back into the air. Back where he could breathe.

Now more than 60 years later he felt like he was struggling the same way. This time without the water, but still in need of rescue.

The 30-mile drive from their home to Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville, Ala., was mostly on the interstate, but every tiny bump or dip brought a soft grunt of pain. The man held onto the strap above the window, willing himself motionless.

His wife walked him into the emergency room, then hurried to park the car. By the time she got back he was already in a bed and, with oxygen piped into his nose, a little more comfortable.

Downhill at the Fishing Camp

Dr. Robert Centor, the attending physician on call at the hospital, had heard about the patient the night before and was eager to see him the next morning on rounds.

He’d started off with a little nothing of a cough, the man told Dr. Centor. He mentioned it to his own doctor just before he went out to his fishing camp with some pals. After listening to his lungs, his doctor had pronounced him “just fine.”

But the cough kept getting worse, going from occasional to constant practically overnight. He couldn’t read or eat or sleep. Lying down made it even harder to breathe, so he spent two nights in a recliner. And the friends who’d come to the camp with him got absolutely no sleep because of his persistent hacking.

The third day of their trip, his chest began to hurt. Every breath felt like a dagger. Moving made it worse. So did breathing. He got out of breath just walking to the kitchen. His friends were worried. And, finally, so was he.

As soon has he got home his wife took him to the local emergency room. A chest X-ray showed cloudy white patches over both lungs. He had no fever nor any sign of infection, and so the E.R. doctor figured it was probably his heart. The patient could stay in the hospital and see his doctor there or go home and see her in her office the next day.

It was an easy decision: He’d much rather go home. The E.R. doctor admonished the patient to see his doctor as soon as he could and let him leave.

A Problem Heart?

The patient saw his doctor a couple of days later, and a brief exam convinced her that the E.R. doctor was right: It probably was his heart. It was hard to imagine any other reason for there to be clouds all over both of his lungs. Not too many things could do that. You could see it with a whopping pneumonia – but he had no fever or other signs of infection. Or you could see it with something known as congestive heart failure, which is what the emergency room doc thought he had.

Congestive heart failure reflects a problem not with the lungs but with the muscle of the heart, the doctor explained. It gets injured somehow – maybe because of a heart attack or infection – and suddenly it can’t beat as strongly as it had. Fluid from the blood, which should have been pumped out into the body, was instead backing up into his lungs.

She sent him home on a powerful diuretic to help draw the water out of his chest and arranged for him to have an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of his heart, to confirm her diagnosis.

The diuretic kept him in the bathroom for much of the next two days, but it didn’t seem to help at all. And so his wife, with the support of his friends, finally convinced the breathless man not to wait for the “echo” but to go right then to the big university hospital in Huntsville.

A Healthy Guy, Until Now

As the man and his wife told their story, Dr. Centor took a good look at his new patient. He was tanned and trim – clearly not someone who spent much time being sick. But he coughed frequently, and every paroxysm brought a grimace of pain to his face.

Before this, the man told him, he’d been pretty healthy. He took a medication for high blood pressure and another for his heartburn. A month earlier, he’d had knee surgery, an operation that left him with a big pus-filled wound – red, hot and incredibly painful. So, for the past few weeks his wife had been injecting a syringe full of an antibiotic, called Cubicin, into an intravenous line he had snaking up through his left arm. It was clearly doing its job because, although his knee was still pretty sore, there was no more pus and it looked a whole lot better.

He quit smoking five years ago. He drank sometimes with his pals on special occasions but hadn’t had anything since he started taking the antibiotic. He exercised regularly, at least before the surgery.

The couple had a dog, but no birds or other pets. He had retired five years earlier, but during his career he had been assigned to bases all over the world – especially the Middle East. He spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. And he’d done some time as a pilot in Vietnam, where he’d been exposed to Agent Orange, the herbicide used there that had been associated with many health problems later in life.

Working to Breathe

On exam, the patient’s breathing and heart rate were high and his oxygen level was low – a bad combination.

Dr. Centor gently placed a hand on each side of the patient’s neck and could feel the strap muscles there tense with every breath. These muscles are recruited to help breathing when needed; they pull the rib cage up to help the patient suck in more air. And when Dr. Centor listened to the patient’s lungs he heard a cacophony of tiny snaps with every breath, as if inside his ribs a sheet of bubble wrap was exploding. His knee revealed a well healing surgical scar.

Dr. Centor had already seen the X-ray and CT scan done the day before. You can see the chest X-ray and the CT report here.

Photo

The chest X-ray showed cloudy white patches over both lungs.

The chest X-ray showed cloudy white patches over both lungs.Credit

The CT Report

Reviewing the Notes

The radiologist thought it was an infection, and so the patient had been started on the usual antibiotic combination for pneumonia. But why had this healthy retiree developed a whopping pneumonia – not in part of one lung, which is usually what occurs with pneumonia, but all over, and in both lungs?

Dr. Centor reviewed the notes from the E.R. and from his resident, and the data from the labs. You can see those notes and labs here.

Emergency Room Note

The Resident’s Note

The Lab Reports

Solving the Mystery

What was he missing? Dr. Centor asked himself.

He figured it out. Can you?

Submit your responses in the Comments section. As usual, the first person to figure out the diagnosis gets a copy of my book. And that warm satisfaction that comes from solving a mystery.


Rules and Regulations: Post your questions and diagnosis in the comments section below. The correct answer will appear Friday on Well. The winner will be contacted. Reader comments may also appear in a coming issue of The New York Times Magazine.