NPR: A Doctor Unlocks Mysteries of the Brain By Talking And Watching
The heavyset man with a bandage on his throat is having trouble repeating a phrase. “No ifs…” he says to the medical students and doctors around his bed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“Can I hear you say no ifs, ands or buts?” says Dr. Allan Ropper, the Harvard neurologist in charge. The patient tries again. “No ifs, buts, ands or,” he says.
Ropper’s heard enough. “I think he’s probably had a little left temporal, maybe angular gyrus-area stroke,” he tells the students and doctors, once they’re assembled outside the patient’s room. A brain scan confirms his diagnosis.
Later, Ropper tells me that the patient’s inability to repeat that simple phrase told him precisely where a stroke had damaged the man’s brain. “What we did was, on clinical grounds we nailed this down to a piece of real estate about the size of a quarter,” he says.
This reliance on bedside observation and conversation is what makes neurology such a remarkable specialty, Ropper says. “The rest of medicine has moved very strongly toward laboratory diagnosis” and scans like MRI and CT, he says. But the brain, he says, “is too complicated to believe that by looking just at the images you can sort out what’s going on for an individual patient.”
Ropper shows me example after example of this as I follow him on rounds. The hospital allowed me to record what I saw and heard so long as I didn’t use the names of any patients.
In one room, we meet a woman in her late 60s who came in for back surgery, but ended up with another problem. “I came out of surgery and I opened my eyes and everything was double,” she says.
The surgeons thought her double vision might be from a stroke. But Ropper checks the muscles that control her eyes and realizes they’re being affected by something else.
“Do you have trouble with your eyelids drooping?” he asks. “Do you have trouble with your head staying upright at the end of the day?” The woman answers yes to both questions.
Ropper suspects she has myasthenia, a disease that causes muscles to weaken rapidly with use. So he has her repeatedly squeeze a rolled-up blood-pressure cuff. The pressure gauge on the cuff shows that each squeeze is weaker than the previous one.
That clinches the diagnosis for him, although a blood test will eventually confirm his bedside assessment. “That’s an example of the craft of neurology,” Ropper says. “There’s no book that would have extracted that diagnosis from that lady.”
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