“House” TV Episode Helps Doctor Diagnose Cobalt Poisoning


TV shows are entertaining and sometimes even educational.  But in the case of one German patient and his doctor, a popular television drama was life-saving.
A 55-year-old man was suffering from severe heart failure and a puzzling mix of symptoms, including fever, blindness, deafness and swollen lymph nodes. His condition stumped doctors for months. It wasn’t until he was referred to Dr. Juergen Schafer of the Centre for Undiagnosed Diseases in Marburg, Germany, that he finally figured out what was wrong, thanks in large part to the doctor’s love of the television medical drama, “House.”  The man’s symptoms were nearly identical to a patient in an episode in which the fictional Dr. House identified heart failure from cobalt poisoning as the source.

Education and Entertainment

Schaefer regularly uses the television series to teach medical students. When he saw the patient with heart failure in May 2012, he had recently prepared a lecture on the show’s cobalt poisoning case, where House’s future mother-in-law falls ill after receiving a faulty metal hip.
Tests later confirmed what Schaefer suspected when the results showed high levels of cobalt in the patient’s blood.  It turns out the man’s symptoms started not long after an operation to replace a broken ceramic hip.  Small fragments of the ceramic hip remained and were grinding into the metal replacement, which leaked cobalt and chromium into the patient’s bloodstream. Once the hip was replaced, the patient’s heart got better and his other symptoms improved.

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