The Life-Saving Power of Television

If you’re unfamiliar with the show House, the title character, Dr. Gregory House, is a brilliant diagnostician who is also an awful person on almost every other level. What makes House different than most other hospital dramas is that most episodes focus on a mystery. Dr. House and his team are world-renowned for their ability to diagnose strange symptom sets, and viewers get to watch as they work through a differential diagnosis on their way to the (almost always) correct answer — and the cause is almost always something weird. while House is fiction, it turns out that the TV show did a really good job with those differential diagnoses, at least as one of Dr. Juergen Schaefer’s patients was concerned. In 2014, a 55-year-old patient came to Dr. Schaefer with an odd mix of symptoms: low thyroid hormone levels, inflammation of his esophagus and fever of unknown origin. His loss of vision was so profound that he was almost blind, and his loss of hearing so severe that he was almost deaf. Most perilous of all, his heart had weakened so much that it couldn't pump hard enough to supply blood to his body. The patient’s previous doctors were befuddled and the ailing man was left without a diagnosis. Luckily, Dr. Schaefer had seen this before — on television. It turned out that an episode of House had a similar patient with similar symptoms and in the fictional case the cause was cobalt poisoning. Specifically, the patient had previously received a hip replacement, and Dr. House figured out that the metal-on-metal joint had begun to deteriorate, releasing toxic amounts of cobalt into the patient’s bloodstream. Guess who else had a metal hip replacement? That's right, Dr. Schaefer’s patient. Same symptoms, same medical history, and same diagnosis. The man had his metal hip replaced with a ceramic one, after which his cobalt level plunged and his heart function improved. Unfortunately, his hearing and eyesight didn't get much better.