8 Incredible Medical Stories

Local patients and doctors share eight remarkable tales of real-life medical drama right here in Pittsburgh.



(page 4 of 4)

Dr. Neil Busis, chief of neurology at UPMC Shadyside Hospital, and Lauren Cantalope.

 

In June 2011, 23-year-old Lauren Cantalope, an X-ray technician in Hastings, Pa., began suffering from terrible headaches. It was the start of a medical mystery that would land her in a coma — and near death — until the tangled threads of her symptoms were unraveled by Pittsburgh neurologist Neil Busis.

Lauren’s headaches were soon accompanied by a high fever, facial numbness and severe nausea. “At first, my doctor thought it could be migraines or a stomach bug,” she recalls, “but I kept getting worse.” She had tests done at an Altoona hospital, but the results only muddied the waters, revealing that it might be meningitis or encephalitis. A spinal tap showed inflammation and unusual cells, suggesting meningitis again — or even leukemia.

By this point, Lauren had sunk into a state of severe fatigue and confusion. She was transferred to the Hillman Cancer Center, a division of UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside Hospital, for what doctors thought would be a cancer diagnosis.

Dr. Busis, the hospital’s chief of neurology, was asked to consult on her case. “I didn’t think it was cancer,” he says. Instead, he suspected a benign ovarian tumor, called a teratoma, which he noticed on her CT scan might be the cause of her symptoms, albeit in a very unexpected way. Meanwhile, Lauren’s condition became critical. “Within two days of arriving, she was comatose, on a ventilator and seizing,” says Dr. Busis. “Highly unusual for a healthy young woman.”

As he was pondering the mystery of Lauren’s condition, Dr. Busis remembered a neurology lecture he’d attended a year earlier. “A light bulb went off,” he says. The speaker had briefly mentioned the very rare paraneoplastic syndrome, in which young women with tumors like Lauren’s suffered from brain disease when the tumors triggered the body’s autoimmune response. Although only 150 cases of the disease had ever been documented, Dr. Busis realized that Lauren’s symptoms were almost identical. “The immune system fights off the tumor threat with antibodies,” he explains. “[The] problem is [that] the antibodies cross-react with normal brain tissue and make the brain sick.”

Curing the syndrome called for tumor removal and treatment of the immune system. “So I called an obstetrician/gynecologist here at the hospital,” Dr. Busis says, “and told him, ‘I think the teratoma is the problem. I’d like you to take it out; it might save her life.’” The simple operation went off without a hitch. Post-surgery treatment of Lauren’s immune system included intravenous immunoglobin to block bad antibodies and steroids.

Lauren’s symptoms abated; Dr. Busis had made the right call. While she had only been in a coma for 24 hours, she did not wake up for 3 weeks after the surgery. Only then did she began to learn about all she’d been through and about the doctor who had saved her life. “Honestly, everything from that July to September is a blur to me,” she admits. “I don’t remember much about Altoona or Shadyside … or meeting Dr. Busis. But my family told me how great he was, along with everyone else at the hospital.”

It took Lauren a long time to feel truly better, but given her grave illness, Dr. Busis calls it “a remarkable recovery;” she spent a month in the hospital and several more months in physical, speech and occupational therapy in Altoona. Today, she’s home in Hastings, working again and also engaged. She says “things are finally normal again.”

Dr. Raymond Benza, director of Allegheny General Hospital’s Advanced Heart Failure, Transplant and Pulmonary Vascular Disease Program, and Jean Magazzu.

 

Two years ago, Jean Magazzu began having trouble breathing. Her doctor thought it could be allergy-related — or perhaps a case of bronchitis. But multiple rounds of antibiotics didn’t help, and her breathing worsened to the point where she couldn’t even walk across a room without sitting down.

An X-ray revealed the frightening truth: Her lungs were filled with blood clots and scar tissue, a symptom of pulmonary hypertension (PH). She was immediately transferred to Allegheny General Hospital, where cardiologist Dr. Raymond Benza diagnosed her. “Pulmonary hypertension is a rare disease, affecting only 15 people in 1 million,” says Dr. Benza, a nationally recognized leader in the treatment of PH.  “It’s also rapidly progressing and deadly — probably as mortal as any cancer we treat.”

Jean’s form of PH — related to the chronic clots in her lungs — was even more rare. The disease is characterized by high blood pressure in the lung’s pulmonary artery, which forces the heart to essentially work itself to death. “When she came to us, she was already in the throes of severe heart failure,” says Dr. Benza.

Along with his team, he determined that Jean needed to undergo an extremely delicate and difficult surgery to remove the clots and scar tissue. The procedure can take 12 hours, and requires stopping the heart and deep-chilling the body and brain; it’s performed in only a handful of U.S. institutions.

Fortunately, AGH recently joined that exclusive club. Dr. Benza had arranged for AGH cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Robert Moraca to receive the months-long training necessary to perform the procedure, which took Dr. Moraca to hospitals in San Diego, Canada and Alabama.

Jean was the first person to undergo this procedure at AGH, but she says Dr. Benza’s manner helped lessen her fears. “He understood this was scary, but he explained things so I could understand them — and told me, matter-of-factly, what they were going to do,” she says. “I really wanted to know, so I appreciated that. His and Dr. Moraca’s confidence really helped.”

Jean’s surgery required a bypass machine to produce total circulatory arrest. “You can’t have any blood going through the lungs because that’s where we were operating,” Dr. Benza explains. After her body and brain were chilled, lead surgeon Dr. Moraca opened up all the blood vessels in her lungs and carefully teased away the clots from the vessels. “Deciding what’s real tissue and abnormal tissue inside the vessels is one of the real challenges here,” explains Dr. Benza. “And if you make a mistake and puncture a blood vessel, that’s usually fatal.”

The positive results of Jean’s surgery were apparent immediately — the high pressure in her lungs dropped to normal, and her circulation responded in kind. “Although I was weak from the surgery, I remember sitting up and taking a breath and thinking, Wow, a real improvement!” Jean says. “I was only in the hospital a week, and back to normal quickly.”

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.
8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

When you compare what it cost to build the coaster in 1920 to what it would cost today, it's obvious Kennywood's owners got their money's worth.
Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

The upscale seafood eatery is expected to open in late 2016 or early 2017.
Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Artist David Bernabo creates a series of films that track various aspects of Pittsburgh's food culture.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Nearby Canonsburg is a rare find for antiques collectors.
U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

The U.S. Open is returning to Oakmont — and unlike previous tournaments, this one could make the community a vital part of the action.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

DeShantz owns three other Pittsburgh restaurants and is about to open a fourth.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

The in-house tavern at the Riverhounds' home stadium is now welcoming guests during weekdays. But is it worth a dedicated stop?

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

These Penguins have been downright unrecognizable, individually and collectively, on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

An electrician by trade, designer Thomas Verscharen creates custom lighting out of repurposed pieces.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

Reviews of "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Alice Through the Looking Glass," "A Bigger Splash" and "Love and Friendship."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Get with the (Wedding) Program

Get with the (Wedding) Program

Have you ever considered making programs for your wedding guests? If not, think again and get creative.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

Spread out across the city for these upcoming events, including a “Tiny House” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center displayed by the FIY Network.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

The event will connect hundreds of small business managers and owners and provide useful information to help them take their enterprises to the next level.

Comments