Their December 2017 meeting was winding down when Albuquerque neurologist David Smith decided to say something. His lawyer, Cid Lopez, looked very ill —much worse than he had a few months earlier. His skin had the grayish pallor common to cancer patients, he had dark circles under his eyes and he had lost so much weight that his cheeks were sunken. What, Smith gently inquired, was wrong?
Lopez replied that he had recently returned from California where he had undergone a painful, expensive procedure to repair a possible spinal fluid leak. It was, he told Smith, the latest chapter in his seven-year quest to diagnose the illness that had made his life a misery.
Lopez had consulted specialists at some of the nation’s most respected hospitals, resulting in tests and scans too numerous to count. His stepfather and father-in-law, both physicians, were baffled. One gastroenterologist suggested to Lopez that his wife, a nurse, might be poisoning him.
His gallbladder had been removed, an unnecessary operation that caused permanent complications. And the first of three spinal procedures had left him feeling more wretched than ever.
Smith asked a few questions, then offered to review Lopez’s medical records. The lawyer initially refused, then relented after Smith pressed him.
It was, he says, one of the best decisions he ever made.
Smith’s eagle-eyed examination spotted a critical clue that had been overlooked for years, culminating in a diagnosis that the 15 physicians who treated Lopez apparently never considered.
“At first I didn’t believe David’s theory,” recalled Lopez, now 44. “I had been burned a lot of times.”
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In December 2010, Lopez was visiting an airplane hangar with his employer, who owned a Cessna. While walking around the plane, Lopez, blinded by the glare of the late afternoon sun, smacked his forehead, hard, into the low-slung wing.
“I fell to the ground, but didn’t black out,” he remembered. Lopez got to his feet and insisted he was fine. “I was more embarrassed than anything.”
A week later, he began feeling “hung over.” Returning from his daily five-mile run, Lopez started trembling and felt so weak he had to lie on the bathroom floor. His wife brought him a glass of orange juice. Within minutes, he seemed to have recovered.
But a few weeks afterward Lopez suddenly became dizzy and extremely nauseated while drinking a beer. He stopped drinking alcohol, but the hung-over feeling persisted, accompanied by a headache, shakiness, vomiting and diarrhea.