20 Medical Mysteries and Miracles

Medical history–recent and otherwise–is filled with jaw-dropping oddities, miraculous recoveries, and unsolved mysteries. There is more to these cases than shock value, however. What headlines call "miracles" are a testament to human resilience, and so-called medical mysteries remind us just how much we have to learn about the body and mind.

We've compiled 20 of the most extraordinary cases from the world of medicine. Some of these stories may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but every one of these stories is true.

7 Mysterious Afflictions

The Girl Who Doesn't Age

Brooke Greenberg is 30 inches tall and weighs 30 pounds. She looks like a toddler and has the mind of a toddler—but she is actually 16 years old.

Her hair and nails are the only parts of her body that have grown since she was 4. Growth hormone therapy has had no effect, and doctors are baffled by her condition. Researchers have been studying her DNA in search of a genetic mutation that might unlock the fountain of youth that keeps her young. Her family, meanwhile, has accepted that Brooke will likely be a baby forever.

Brooke died at the age of 20 in 2013 due to bronchomalacia.

The Girl Who Feels No Pain

As much as it hurts, pain teaches us important lessons (not to touch a hot stove, for example). People with a rare genetic disorder known as hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy (HSAN) type V feel no pain, however, and may never learn those lessons.

Eight-year-old Gabby Gingras constantly and unwittingly injures herself, sometimes seriously. She has knocked out all but one of her adult teeth (which grew in early after doctors suggested pulling her baby teeth), and as a baby, she scratched herself blind in her left eye. She now wears safety glasses and sleeps in swim goggles to protect her right eye. There is no cure for HSAN type V, but as people age and learn how to manage their condition, they can lead relatively normal lives.

Tree Man

The arms, legs, and face of Indonesian Dede Kosawa are covered in bark-like warts, which have made him internationally famous and earned him the nickname Tree Man. Doctors believe the growths are caused by a type of human papillomavirus (HPV) that has been exacerbated by a genetic immune defect.

In 2007, Kosawa had 12 pounds of warts removed at an Indonesian hospital, and in February he underwent his ninth round of surgery. He now has better use of his hands and feet but will continue to need surgery every few months, as there is no known cure for his condition.

Vomiting Cured by Showers

Maria Rogers was afflicted with mysterious episodes of intense vomiting. She would check into the hospital and the vomiting would stop; she would return home and it would return. The only thing that seemed to help was long, hot showers.

As Lisa Sanders, MD, relates in her book Every Patient Tells a Story, Rogers's doctors were stumped. But a simple Google search for "persistent vomiting improved by hot showers" yielded the answer in seconds: cannabinoid hyperemesis, or excessive vomiting due to chronic marijuana use, a relatively new and unheard of syndrome. (When asked, Rogers acknowledged that she was a frequent pot smoker.)

Disembarkment Syndrome

Many sea travelers have to regain their "land legs" once they're back on solid ground. Their limbs may feel wobbly for a few minutes, or the ground may seem to move beneath their feet. Sufferers of disembarkment syndrome never escape this feeling. Long after they have disembarked, they feel constantly in motion or off-balance.

The condition is usually brought on by traveling, particularly after long stretches of time on a boat (such as a cruise). Scientists say it occurs when the brain fails to re-adapt to land after adapting to the pitching and rolling of a boat.

Treatment devices, such as vibrating vests and socks that help sufferers maintain their balance, are still in the prototype phase. Until then, the only relief seems to come from the hair of the dog: For some people, driving and other types of motion tend to calm the rocking sensation.

The Woman With Giant Legs

Doctors knew something was wrong with Mandy Sellars from the moment she was born. The 34-year-olds legs and feet were abnormally large at birth, and they have continued to grow at an alarming rate. Today, her legs alone weigh 210 pounds.

Experts have not been able to diagnose her problem, although some of the doctors she has consulted believe she suffers from Proteus syndrome—an extremely rare condition that causes deformities, including partial gigantism, which may have afflicted the Elephant Man.

Sellars lives on her own, does volunteer work, and even drives. But carrying so much extra weight on her frame could begin to tax her heart, and she may ultimately need a double amputation.

A Prisoner in Her Own Body

Stiff Person Syndrome (SPS) can leave patients feeling like prisoners in their own bodies. Severe muscle spasms lead to the locking of the muscles, leaving patients paralyzed sometimes for hours on end, and in excruciating pain.

Kristie Tunicks symptoms are so debilitating that the 32-year-old often has difficulty leaving the bed. Tunick has undergone multiple tests and surgeries to try to improve her condition, including having her gallbladder removed in 2006.

The operation seems to have made the condition worse and resulted in periods of unconsciousness. Diagnosing SPS is difficult, so Tunick is currently waiting to undergo further testing.

4 Miraculous Recoveries

Internal Decapitation

A so-called internal decapitation—when the skull separates from the spine without rupturing the skin or severing the spinal cord—is fatal 98% of the time. Jordan Taylor walked away from it.

In the fall of 2008, after a dump truck slammed into the car in which he and his mother were traveling, Taylor's head was reconnected to his spine with metal plates and titanium rods. Most people who survive this injury are paralyzed for life, but Taylor—then 10 years old—walked out of the hospital with minimal spinal cord damage just three months after the accident.

The Man Who Fell From the Sky

In December 2007, Alcides Moreno and his brother, Edgar, fell 47 stories in their window-washing platform along the side of a New York City skyscraper. Edgar died on impact. Alcides, then 37, survived.

After a total of 16 surgeries, he awoke in December and was talking by early January. At a press conference, physicians described Moreno's recovery from the traumatic fall as "miraculous" and "unprecedented." Shortly thereafter he was discharged from the hospital to a rehab center, and his doctors think he may one day walk again.

Cut In Half by a Truck

In 1995, Chinas Peng Shulin was cut in half by a truck. Left with only half of his torso, Peng stood 26" tall. Skin grafts were taken from his face to repair what was left of his body. Not only did he survive the accident, but he also began walking again, thanks to a specially designed cup-shaped prosthetic with bionic legs. Peng has been strengthening his upper body and, with the aid of a walker, is now out of bed.


Awake After a 19-Year Coma

Polish railroad worker Jan Grzebski woke up from a coma after an astounding 19 years. Grzebski slipped into a coma in 1988 after being hit by a train. Doctors expected him to live for two or three years.

His wife stayed by his side, moving him to prevent bedsores and praying for his recovery. When he awoke in 2007, he was surprised to find that the Communist party had fallen and that people were talking on cell phones.

In 2003, American Terry Wallis also awoke from a 19-year coma. The longest coma on record lasted 37 years, but the patient never regained consciousness.

5 Amazing Births

The Girl With 8 Limbs

In 2005, a girl with four arms and legs was born in a poor, rural Indian village. Lakshmi Tatma had two functioning arms and legs on the top of her body, but fused with her body at the pelvis was a parasitic twin with two arms and legs of its own, an undeveloped torso, and no head. (Had the parasitic twin continued developing in utero, Lakshmi would have been born with a conjoined twin.)

In the fall of 2007, a team of 30 surgeons spent 27 hours removing Lakshmi's extra limbs, repairing her organs, and rebuilding her body. The dangerous procedure was successful, but she may need additional surgery in the future.

Trapped Twin Lives Inside Brother—for 36 Years

Sanju Bhagat was always a little concerned about his large stomach, which was once so big he appeared to be nine months pregnant. Amazingly, he never received any medical attention for his protruding belly until he was hospitalized for shortness of breath in 1999 at the age of 36.

Instead of the enormous tumor, they expected to find, the doctors who operated on Bhagat found the remains of a half-formed twin that had been living inside him. The condition, known as fetus in fetu, occurs when one twin gets trapped inside the body of the other in the womb.

In most cases, both twins die before birth, but it is possible for both to grow and thrive after birth if the trapped fetus forms an umbilical cord-like attachment to the host twin. After his twin was removed, Bhagat's shortness of breath disappeared.

Boy Born With Heart Outside His Chest

When Christopher Wall was born with his heart beating outside his chest—an extremely rare birth defect known as ectopia cordis—doctors did not expect him to survive even one day.

However, Wall just celebrated his 34th birthday. In his first 18 months of life, doctors performed 15 surgeries in an attempt to reposition Walls's heart within his chest; when the risks became too great, they gave up and simply covered the heart with extra skin and, eventually, a sternum fashioned from a part of his hip bone.

With the extra aid of a plastic chest protector worn under his clothes, Wall took up basketball and karate, which he continues to enjoy today.

The Little Mermaid

Only a handful of children are known to have survived sirenomelia, a birth defect—also known as mermaid syndrome—in which the legs are fused together. Shiloh Pepin is one of them. In addition to having one large extremity where her legs should have been, Pepin was born with no reproductive organs, no rectum, and no bladder—just 6 inches of a large intestine and a quarter of a kidney.

Doctors aren't sure what causes the circulation problem that leads to the syndrome, and they aren't sure what the future holds for Pepin either. The oldest known survivor of the condition is 20-year-old Tiffany Yorks, whose legs were separated early in her life. Yorks has lived through a lifetime of reconstructive surgeries (Pepin herself has already had more than 150) and is currently waiting for a kidney transplant.

Baby Born Twice

When Keri and Chad McCartney went to the ob-gyn to find out the sex of their baby-to-be six months into the pregnancy, they got some unexpected and frightening news: A grapefruit-size tumor was slowly killing the fetus. Doctors had to remove the tumor. Although it wasn't cancerous, it was sucking up the blood that the fetus needed to grow. To do so, they performed a surgery that has been completed fewer than 20 times.

They brought the baby about 80% out of her mother's womb, excised the tumor, and then tucked her back in. Ten weeks later, in May 2008, Macie Hope McCartney was born—again. And this time for good.

4 Stories of Survival

Stabbed With a Key in the Eye and Brain

In September 2008, Nicholas Holderman was only 17 months old when he fell in his home and landed face down on a set of keys. One of the keys punctured his eyelid, flattened his eye, and forced its way into his brain.

After an agonizing four hours in the emergency room, during which the hospital staff and Holderman's family waited for specialists to arrive, an experienced surgeon removed the key in less than 30 minutes. Amazingly, the toddler suffered no serious damage to his eye or brain. During a Today show appearance, his mother, Staci, said that people who look at Nicholas can't even tell which eye was injured.

Teen Lives 118 Days Without a Heart

DZhana Simmons, of South Carolina, suffers from a condition that weakened her heart, leaving it pumping inefficiently. After a failed heart transplant, Simmons was given an artificial heart to pump the blood for her. Artificial hearts are typically used to support a patient's own heart rather than replace it entirely, but Simmons' heart was removed from her body altogether.

Simmons lived without a heart for 118 days, until she finally received a successful transplant in October 2008. Doctors believe Simmons, who was 14 at the time, to be the youngest patient kept alive in this manner. (A German adult survived without a heart for nine months.)

Most Extensive Face Transplant Ever

When her husband shot her in the face five years ago, Connie Culp was left with only fragments of her upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip, and chin. In a 22-hour procedure in December 2008, surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic replaced 80% of Culps face with the face of a donor who had just died.


It was the most extensive and complex face transplant ever performed, the first in the United States, and just the fourth worldwide. Culp still draws stares from strangers, but she is finally able to talk, smile, smell, and taste again.

Worlds Oldest Living Conjoined Twins

At 57 years old, Ronnie and Donnie Galyon are the oldest living conjoined twins in the world and have far exceeded the lifespan predictions that doctors made at their birth in 1951.

Joined at the base of their sternum, they have separate arms and legs, stomachs, lungs, and hearts, but they share one large intestine and one set of male reproductive organs. As children, they worked in circus sideshows to help support their large family, and they continued to do so into the 1990s.

With lots of help from their younger brother Jim, they now live independently in a house they bought in 1991. However, Jim noted in a 2009 TLC documentary that the twins' health is beginning to decline.

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