By the time I knew I was sick, it was already too late. I had already binged on Diagnosis and burned through The Medical Detectives. It was only after I turned to the truly hardcore shit, a show about parasites called Monsters Inside Me, that I realised I had a problem.
My favourite TV characters now have names like “leishmaniasis” and “raccoon roundworm.” My dreams? A tangle of squirmy eyes and snails popping out of wounds. Yes, thanks to medical mystery books and TV shows, I’ve become a kind of disease addict, obsessed with the rare (and frequently disgusting) ailments of others. And with just a little work, you can, too.
It’s easy to get hooked. For years, Dr. Lisa Sanders has been intriguing New York Times readers with her popular “Diagnosis” column. A kind of clinical whodunit series, each entry tells the story of a real-life patient struggling to get their bizarre symptoms explained. And, boy, does it deliver! In just a few hundred words, headlines like “Why Did the Young Woman’s Heartburn Keep Getting Worse?” and “The Boy Was Feverish, With a Swollen Testicle. What Could He Possibly Have?” lead to a satisfyingly weird answer. (A rare allergic condition and dengue fever, respectively.)
Recently, Sanders’ column was adapted into both a book and Netflix series, the latter serving as my gateway into the disease-freak lifestyle. Centered on unsolved cases submitted by readers, the show has Sanders crowdsourcing diagnoses from around the world. It’s compelling stuff, but – if I’m being totally straight with you – kind of a failure as entertainment.
With its quick, conclusive answers, the newspaper column delivers the same satisfying tension and release offered by a half-hour police drama. The TV show, on the other hand, features subjects who have been failed by doctors, their loved ones, and society at large. Watching Diagnosis is a bit like clicking on a successful GoFundMe for knee surgery. Even if it has a happy ending, it still bums you the fuck out.
Fortunately, there are other places to find real-life medical mysteries after you’ve finished Sanders’ book, used up your free article views catching up on new columns, and borrowed your girlfriend’s mom’s Times login to read the rest. (Thanks, Ruth!)
The grandaddy of the genre is a series of articles by New Yorker writer Berton Roueché that began in the 1940s. Later collected in a “best of” volume titled The Medical Detectives, the book tells the story of a younger, deadlier America where children wear insecticide-tainted pants and ivory workers catch anthrax(!) from infected piano keys.
It’s an engrossing read, written with the pipe-puffing curiosity of an early detective novel. In The Medical Detectives, 11 “derelicts” in Manhattan turn the color of the sky, a herd of hogs become stumble-hoofed and blind, and – in a kind of Italian-American Greek tragedy – a New Jersey pizzeria owner named Rudy suddenly can’t bear the smell of his beloved tomatoes:
“All I could do was stand in the woods all day. Of course, I had to eat – I didn’t want to die. But the regular food – it was all like garbage. I could drink a little cold milk. I could eat a little cold boiled potato. I could eat a white grape. I could eat a little vanilla ice cream. That stuff, it didn’t taste good, but it didn’t taste bad. It didn’t have any taste at all. So I lived on that. No coffee – God forbid. Even a banana – I couldn’t go near it.”
You’ll be happy to learn that Rudy had a simple zinc deficiency which resulted in dysgeusia, a reduced and distorted sense of taste that can also alter one’s sense of smell.
After exhausting Roueché, the budding bug junkie can basically go one of two routes, the extremely high road or the extremely low one. Never good at making choices, I took both.
If you want to pretend your interest is purely academic – as I originally tried to – you can pick up the Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. At the very least, leaving this title on your coffee table should guarantee dinner guests don’t linger too late. In it, you’ll find articles like “Botulism Outbreak Associated with Home-Canned Peas” and “Multiple Modes of Transmission During a Thanksgiving Day Norovirus Outbreak,” field reports by disease detectives who traced the source of real-life outbreaks.
These write-ups may lack the literary flair of general interest articles but will please the kind of person who wishes CSI had more scenes of lab techs filling out paperwork. The precise, aloof tone also makes everything way nastier somehow. Take, for example, this description of a “vomiting event”:
“A point-source norovirus outbreak occurred after an infected patron vomited in a restaurant. Transmission near the vomiting event likely occurred by aerosol or fomite. Norovirus spread throughout the restaurant could have occurred by aerosol, person-to-person, fomite, or foodborne routes. Inadequate employee handwashing likely facilitated foodborne transmission through servings of pecan pie.”
Yuck! After reading dozens of these, I even emailed the CDC to set up an interview, but panicked when they asked to know more about the story I had in mind. (What’s the professional way to say “I have a terrible problem and would like to pass it off as work”?)
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably pretty sick, too. If that’s the case, I have some good news. Just like grief, the final stage of medical mystery obsession is acceptance. In the past week, I’ve finally come to terms with my utter depravity. As with many other low points in my life, cable TV has been there for me.
For eight seasons, Animal Planet ran a show called Monsters Inside Me, which I’ve been watching on the network’s (only kind of bad) free streaming app. With episode titles like “All I Got For Christmas Is Brain Surgery” and “Help! I’m Being Eaten Alive,” there’s no way to hide from the truth. You watch a show like this for one reason: to hear nasty stories about people with weird stuff in their bods.
Monsters Inside Me went off the air in 2017 and, as far as I can tell, never won any awards. (It was apparently nominated for a Realscreen award, which definitely doesn’t sound fake.) This strikes me as a terrible injustice. Segments sometimes drag on slightly longer than they need to, but Monsters (which is what us real parasite-heads call it) is pure content, baby.
Told through a mix of subject interviews and dramatic reenactments, the basic format will be familiar to anyone who’s watched trashy true crime shows, as will Monster’s heavy use of dutch angles, scare chords, and other tricks from the lurid-TV-made-to-be-watched-in-lonely-hotel-rooms-at-2-a.m. playbook (often all at once). There are a few ways the show elevates the genre, however, the first of which is its incredibly gross CGI depictions of parasites devouring organs.
Long before the titular monster is revealed, close-up shots that make lung flukes look like Dune’s sandworms flash on the screen, hinting at the identity of the perp. This is a nice gesture toward those of us already deep in the life, allowing me, for instance, to guess that the thing eating a guy’s eyeball was an amoeba.
Similarly, the viewer’s foreknowledge that the patient has something GROWING INSIDE THEIR BODY introduces a fun, almost interactive form of dramatic irony. It’s hard to get through an episode without shouting, “Go to the hospital!” or “Get a second opinion!” at the screen at least a few times. The average murder show can’t offer this kind of smug outrage, being as there is no standard protocol for, say, having a wife who’s secretly planning to stab you in the head.
Have you seen this fungus?
Finally, each segment of Monsters features a brief interview with Canadian biologist and TV personality Dan Riskin, who explains the possible consequences of an amoeba/lung fluke/raccoon ringworm infection. Almost invariably, his spiel ends with “even death” delivered with the maximum possible gravity a Canadian biologist and TV personality can muster. It’s all extremely considerate, demonstrating a tremendous respect for its audience’s repulsive needs.
Having reached the end of my obscene journey, it’s worth asking why I’m so drawn to stories like these. The cute answer is that they’re a distraction from what’s really been bothering me: the other kind of parasite, the one that feeds on surplus labor and lives to bleed workers like my colleagues dry. But that’s not the full truth. Long before I got on my current mystery malady kick, I was assigning stories like “Man Injects 18 ‘Doses’ of Semen Into Arm to Cure Back Pain, Ends Up in Hospital” and “Man Suffers 9-Day Erection After Bruising Taint in Moped Accident.”
Maybe I’m just getting older and thinking about my health more. Maybe I just watched too many Cronenberg movies as kid. If nothing else, these true tales of horror serve as a convenient bridge between the two, a way to start taking the wellbeing of myself and my loved ones more seriously – while also gawking at the gnarliest shit I’ve ever seen.