You Think You Have Troubles

Unexpected and previously unknown calamities.

I have been practicing medicine for many years. Nevertheless, from time to time I hear about some awful medical condition that has escaped my attention previously. Usually, it has some strange name. Usually it occurs, or has occurred, in a small number of individuals and has only been noticed and described recently. Often, these conditions are so strange that I would have said, if asked, that such  things were impossible. Of course, I have learned that nothing is impossible—or so it seems to me now. The ways in which our bodies and minds can go wrong are legion.

However, there is one particular medical incident that stands out in my mind as especially peculiar—and peculiarly terrible. It was written up in an article in Lancet, a British medical journal in the year 1996. I have kept it in my office ever since to remind me and my patients that however worried and upset they may be about possible medical conditions they may suffer someday, they are not likely to suffer from this singular mishap.

The article, written by Caroline M. Mills, et al, physicians in the Departments of Dermatology and Infectious diseases, at the University of Wales, in Cardiff, UK, was entitled:

“A Man Who Pricked His Finger and Smelled Putrid for 5 years.”

I quote from the article: “A 29 year old man came to hospital with an erythematous (red) finger that had a distinct odor. The cellulitis and odor developed after he pricked his finger with a chicken bone in September, 1991, while at work dressing chickens.”

I will skip some of the medical terminology and summarize what happened to him during treatment. Antibiotics did not help him. Surgical intervention found no foreign body or pus or soft tissue damage. A skin biopsy was normal, but an organism was cultured from the biopsy, “a Clostridium Novyi type B-like organism which could not be eradicated.”

A variety of treatments were tried unsuccessfully, including hyperbaric oxygen, chlorophyll, light therapy, and everything else you can think of. Two other clostridium-type bacteria were found (with long names that I could not spell accurately even looking at them here in front of me.) Although these germs were sensitive to antibiotics when they grew in a dish, nothing worked in real life. “Although the clinical appearance improved, the most disabling consequence of the infection was a putrid smell emanating from the affected arm, which could be detected across a large room, and when confined to a smaller examination room became almost intolerable.”

This condition had kept up unabated for five years. The article ended with this plea: “We ask assistance from colleagues who may have encountered a similar case or for suggestions to relieve this patient’s odor even if the organism cannot be eradicated.”

That article was written seventeen years ago. I am afraid now to write to find out what happened to this unfortunate man. Could he have survived? I had a patient once who attempted suicide when her mother refused to give her an extra matzo-ball in her matzo-ball soup. Some people are hanging on by a thread. Could this man, who had such an extraordinary and devastating social problem, have managed somehow to escape killing himself?  How could he manage to live? How could he work or live with anyone—or accomplish anything worthwhile?

I thought to myself, when I first read this case, that I would have willingly had my arm amputated rather than continue on with this disability year after year—except by the time the article was written the infection had spread to his chest.

Such undeserved suffering is an argument against the existence of a beneficent God. Still, those whose faith in God is shaken by the presence of evil and suffering in the world are even more disturbed by more mundane matters, such as war and starvation and slavery, and so on. But the ordinary awfulness of life is bad enough without a person having to suffer some particularly bizarre physical disorder. Someone should be held accountable.

Personally, I think the mere existence of the mosquito is enough to rule out a benevolent god. Mosquitoes transmit malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and a half-dozen other diseases; and they are really annoying.  (c) Fredric Neuman