Like a character in a TV medical drama, Denise Dooley’s life seemed to be spinning out of control. Denise had been suffering for years from a range of symptoms that many doctors – eight in all – had been unable to figure out. Depression, tiredness, thirst, all over body pain, loss of appetite and muscle weakness, among others plagued her daily. One of the more troubling symptoms was “brain fog:” confusion, forgetfulness and trouble concentrating. At times, Denise felt like she was “trapped in a wind tunnel.” Her condition became so severe at one point, her speech was slurred and she couldn’t write her own name.
Many of these symptoms can be caused by several physical and mental conditions, which make her illness difficult to diagnose.
“The doctors did not have any answers for me,” Denise said. She consulted with several doctors, including a cardiologist, an oncologist, an internist, a pulmonologist and an orthopedic surgeon after falling and breaking a leg.
“They treated some of the symptoms, but they didn’t see the big picture,” she said.
When she realized that she couldn’t walk more than five to ten steps without stopping to rest, she knew she needed to switch doctors – again.
Denise was starting to lose hope when she found her life-saving miracle: Dr. Angelica Contreras at WellMed at Rosewood in Austin. Her approach was radically different. She asked many questions about her lifestyle, habits and mental health.
“My goal during the first visit was to get to know her as a patient and take an accurate history rather than rely on what the other doctors said,” Dr. Contreras said. “Denise is a retired surgical nurse with an advanced degree and no prior history of memory issues or dementia. Why is she having problems with brain fog?”
Some of Denise’s doctors attributed her illness to the normal aging process.
“Memory loss to the extent Denise was experiencing isn’t caused by normal aging,” Dr. Contreras said.
With this in mind, Dr. Contreras ordered lab tests, which indicated something was wrong. She then ordered ultrasound images of Denise’s thyroid and neck. The results pinpointed a mass growing on one of her parathyroid glands.
Finally, there was a diagnosis: hyperparathyroidism, a disease that occurs due to an excessively high level of calcium in the bloodstream, caused by the mass on the gland. The next step was a referral to an ear, nose and throat surgeon to have the tumor removed.
Now that the tumor is gone, Denise is better, but still healing. She is working hard to regain her former level of energy by changing her diet and getting regular exercise by working in her garden.
“I’m taking baby steps,” she said. Her surgeon said it would take three to four months to start feeling like herself again, but recovery has been slow. Before she became ill, Denise was physically active and enjoyed vigorous exercise such as hiking and running. She has run marathons and trekked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. She has also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in eastern Africa. Now she feels about 80% back to her old self.
Denise remains thankful to Dr. Contreras. “She not only saved my life, but she’s also improved my quality of life.”
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