Stories about: mystery illness


Playing Dr. Miranda Bailey on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, actress Chandra Wilson has seen plenty of staged medical emergencies over the past six years. But Wilson recently faced a real-life medical drama that hit very close to home. Seemingly out of the blue, Wilson’s teenage daughter, Sarina, began having bouts of intense nausea and uncontrollable vomiting. Doctors ran a series of gastrointestinal tests to see what was attacking the girl’s stomach, but the root of her illness remained a mystery for months.

As it turns out, doctors couldn’t find a problem with Sarina’s stomach because there wasn’t one; her brain was likely to blame for her abdominal discomfort.

After much testing, doctors diagnosed Sarina with cyclical vomiting syndrome (CVS), a disorder that is believed to occur neurologically but trigger symptoms in the belly. Even though her stomach was probably perfectly healthy, Sarina’s brain was sending signals to her body that caused intense vomiting. The idea of a neurological disorder affecting the body like a stomach flu may seem odd to some, but it’s not unprecedented in medicine.

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Things are looking up: One child's battle with encephalitis

Not all seizures in children are violent. Some could even go unnoticed. Others might cause a child to go instantly dark, like an unplugged lamp—unable to respond and staring into space. That’s what happened to Collin Goodchild on July 1, 2008, when he was almost 6.

After a second seizure almost 10 days later, Collin came to Children’s, unable to walk in a straight line or follow a moving finger with his eyes, and his arm was jerking uncontrollably. “Our minds were racing,” says Collin’s father, Mark. “It was a complete nightmare.”

Children’s doctors diagnosed Collin with encephalitis, an inflammation in the brain that can be caused by a number of things, including viruses, bacteria and the body’s immune system turning against itself.

Fortunately for the Goodchilds, encephalitis—which is often confused with the more dangerous bacterial meningitis—is rarely fatal in the United States. But identifying its cause can be a real challenge. There are a few tests that can recognize certain causes, but often doctors and families never know for sure what’s behind a child’s encephalitis. “The doctors tested Collin for everything they could, but everything was coming back normal,” says Mark. “I was glad he didn’t have the bad things he was being tested for, but it wasn’t giving us any answers, so it was kind of bittersweet. ”

Collin's condition baffled his doctors

Encephalitis is known to cause symptoms like fever, confusion and difficulty walking and talking, but these often subside over time. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know how long this might take, or what, if any, long-lasting effects the encephalitis might lead to down the road. “The doctors can tell you, ‘We hope he’ll talk again. We hope he’ll walk again. We hope he’ll eat on his own,'” says Mark. “But they don’t know—that’s what’s so scary.”

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