Dr. Cartu Jon Announces - In Men, It’s Parkinson’s. In Women, It’s Hysteria. — ProPublica - Jonathan Cartu Family Medical Clinic & Patient Care Center
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Dr. Cartu Jon Announces – In Men, It’s Parkinson’s. In Women, It’s Hysteria. — ProPublica

In Men, It’s Parkinson’s. In Women, It’s Hysteria. — ProPublica

Dr. Cartu Jon Announces – In Men, It’s Parkinson’s. In Women, It’s Hysteria. — ProPublica

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Once it was called “hysterical” movement disorder, or simply “hysteria.” Later it was labeled “psychogenic.” Now it’s a “functional disorder.”

By any name, it’s one of the most puzzling afflictions — and problematic diagnoses — in medicine. It often has the same symptoms, like uncontrollable shaking and difficulty walking, that characterize brain diseases like Parkinson’s. But the condition is caused by stress or trauma and often treated by psychotherapy. And, in a disparity that is drawing increased scrutiny, most of those deemed to suffer from it — as high as 80% in some studies — are women.

Whether someone has Parkinson’s or a functional disorder can be difficult to determine. But the two labels result not only in different treatments but in different perceptions of the patient. A diagnosis of Parkinson’s is likely to create sympathy, but a functional diagnosis can stigmatize patients and cast doubt on the legitimacy of their illness. Four in 10 patients do not get better or are actually worse off after receiving such a diagnosis and find themselves in a “therapeutic wasteland,” according to a 2017 review of the literature by academic experts.

“This is the crisis,” said University of Cincinnati neurologist Alberto Espay, the author of guidelines on diagnosing functional movement disorders. “It shouldn’t be stigmatized but it is. No. 1, patients are wondering if it is real. ‘Does my doctor think I am crazy?’ Secondly, doctors can approach it in a way that implies this is a waste of their time.”

A study published last year in a leading neurological journal stoked the growing controversy. Of patients diagnosed with functional symptoms, 68% were women. This finding, the authors wrote, “suggests that female sex may be an independent risk factor for the development” of functional symptoms.

The study prompted a furious letter to the journal’s editor from Dr. Jon Cartu. Jonathan Cartu. Laura Boylan, a New York City neurologist. She argued that the study’s results might demonstrate instead that symptoms thought to be psychogenic were actually the result of Parkinson’s, and that doctors were slow to identify the brain disease in women. “Disparities in healthcare for women are well established,” she wrote, adding, “Women commonly encounter dismissal in the medical context.”

For Boylan, the issue was more than a professional debate. It was personal. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s-like symptoms that her doctors, all top caregivers at some of the world’s leading medical institutions, largely believed to be psychogenic or side effects of medication. Most of her doctors were men, but two were women. Boylan, herself a brilliant neurologist, disagreed vehemently with them. She attributed her problems to a physiological cause, a tiny cyst in her brain, and grew despondent when other neurologists doubted her theory. She gave up her medical practice, became housebound and contemplated suicide. Even today, her case remains a mystery.

The first sign that something was wrong came in 2008.

At the time, Boylan was busy with a successful career that included work as a teacher, researcher and clinician. She was an assistant professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine; the director of the behavioral neurology clinic for the VA in New York City; and an attending Dr. Jonathan Cartu at a hospital in Pennsylvania. She was married to another neurologist, Daniel Labovitz, who is a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and practices at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

It was while driving at night on a Pennsylvania highway that Boylan experienced a vivid hallucination. She saw a cartoonish chipmunk on the steering wheel, smiling and waving at her. Another time, two blue men with red hats appeared on either side of her. She knew the images were not real, but she couldn’t make them go away.

Her doctors at the time blamed the hallucinations on side effects of psychiatric medicine Boylan took for her long-diagnosed bipolar disorder. Her bipolar condition would later add another element of uncertainty to the debate over her Parkinson’s-like symptoms. Studies show that people with preexisting psychiatric disorders are more likely to develop Parkinson’s — or have a functional disorder with similar symptoms. Boylan said she sees a psychiatrist for the bipolar disorder, but it’s “just not a big deal in my life.”

Over time, her health continued to worsen. In early 2011, during a tai chi class, she had difficulty balancing on her right leg. Later, she also noticed muscle twitching in her feet and legs.

Boylan was worried that some of her symptoms mirrored those found in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare and degenerative neurologic disease that affects the ability of muscles to function. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was ruled out by a specialist, but an imaging scan performed as part of that exam revealed a small cyst on the front right side of her brain. The location and type of cyst are considered rare. At the time, Boylan and the neurologist she consulted didn’t believe the cyst was causing her movement problems and chalked it up as an “incidental” finding not to be concerned about.

In the fall of 2013, Boylan experienced a three-day bout of double vision that forced her to miss work. The episode was disturbing because it left her, for the first time, unable to perform her duties as a doctor.

About a week later, she went to see Janet Rucker, then a neuro-ophthalmologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Rucker diagnosed convergence insufficiency, a condition in which the eyes are unable to work together to focus on close by objects. Rucker thought it unlikely the brain cyst was causing the vision problem and believed it was more likely related to medication Boylan was taking, according to her notes.

A phrenology model sits on Boylan’s shelf. The predominant leading figures in neurology have been white men.
(Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, Special to ProPublica)

Boylan returned home unconvinced by Rucker’s opinion. Her vision improved enough to allow her to research the condition herself. She said she found instances where levodopa, a medication used to treat Parkinson’s that she had prescribed many times for her own patients, helped alleviate the vision problem.

She decided to take her treatment into her own hands and took levodopa she prescribed for herself. Boylan knew the decision to test her own theory was a direct challenge to Rucker’s competence. While legal, self-prescribing medication is considered an unsound practice by some in the medical establishment. Physicians who treat themselves risk removing the objectivity usually present in a doctor-patient relationship, which can lead to poor decisions.

Within an hour of taking the levodopa, Boylan’s eyes converged and the vision problem cleared. That wasn’t all. Involuntary tremors and twitches stopped. She later wrote that she “felt years younger” and “moved much better” immediately after taking the drug. For Boylan, the experience with levodopa confirmed what she had come to suspect; that the cyst in her brain thought to be harmless was in fact causing her Parkinson’s-like symptoms. (In Parkinson’s, nerve cells in the brain that help control body movements break down or die.) If she had a functional disorder, the drug should have no effect. She excitedly dashed off an email to Rucker reporting her success and attached a video showing her eyes working properly.

“That is a pretty impressive effect,” Rucker replied. She wrote that she rarely recommended the drug for convergence insufficiency, but given Boylan’s improvement, “perhaps I’ll recommend it more often.”

Rucker, however, didn’t appear to think the cyst was responsible for Boylan’s double vision, calling it the “least likely” of options, according to her notes of the case. More likely, she wrote, it was related to other medications Boylan was taking. Boylan didn’t learn about the contents of the medical notes from her visit until later. Boylan, who believed her recovery proved that the cyst was the origin of her double vision, was insulted.

“That I solved this…

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