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.
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.
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