Fox's Medical Drama House Helps Save A German Man's Life
February 7, 2014

Fox’s Medical Drama House Helps Save A German Man’s Life

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Depicted as a drug-addict with sociopathic tendencies, the fictional character Dr. Gregory House would not make in ideal role model for young children. However, one of the doctor’s solved cases from the TV show House helped a German doctor to diagnose a mysterious illness and potentially save a life.

"After five minutes, I knew what was wrong," said the real-life doctor, Juergen Schaefer, who works at the Center for Undiagnosed Diseases in Marburg, Germany.

Schaefer’s patient in the case came in with an odd mix of symptoms, which included fever, blindness, deafness and enlarged lymph nodes. The German doctor said he noticed these symptoms aligned with those of a patient on a House episode in which the fictional Dr. House, played by actor Hugh Laurie, discovered cobalt poisoning as the cause.

Schaefer told The Associated Press that he often uses the television series to teach his medical students. In fact, he had prepared a lecture on the show's cobalt poisoning case when he saw his own patient walk in with the same odd mix of symptoms. In the episode, House's future mother-in-law gets sick after receiving a defective metal hip implant.

The patient's previous physicians thought he needed a heart transplant. However, Schaefer and some colleagues immediately tested his cobalt levels after he revealed his problems began after an operation to replace a broken ceramic hip.

The German doctors ultimately found small remnants of the ceramic hip were scraping into the metal replacement, resulting in cobalt and chromium leaking into the patient's bloodstream. After the patient’s hip was replaced, his heart condition improved and his other symptoms subsided.

Schaefer said doctors should be alerted to potential cobalt poisoning in patients with metal hip replacements.

"We would have diagnosed this even without Dr. House," Schaefer said. "You could have also typed his symptoms into Google and gotten the diagnosis."

While Schaefer has been referred to as “the German Dr. House,” he said he’s not sure the nickname is a compliment – citing the fictional doctor’s penchant for rude, abrasive behavior.

"I would have fired this guy after the first three episodes," Schaefer said.

However, he mused that the fictional doctor's bedside manner was outweighed by his unequaled diagnostic skills by the end of each episode.

"It's important to be nice, but you don't get patients healthy just by being nice,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer and colleagues published an account of the case in the UK medical journal The Lancet. In the report, the doctors noted that “cobalt intoxication has been a well-known cause of cardiomyopathy for over 50 years; however, it has mostly been known in the context of so-called Quebec beer drinkers' cardiomyopathy.”

In 1965, unusually high numbers of heavy drinkers in the Canadian city of Quebec who mostly drank beer and preferred beverages made by the Dow Breweries company began coming down with alcohol-related heart disease. It was discovered that Dow had been adding cobalt sulfate to the beer for foam stability and that the concentration used in the Quebec City brewery was 10 times that of the same beer brewed in Montreal where there were no reported cases.

With cobalt suspected as the cause of the disease rate, Dow shut down production and dumped its inventory into the St. Lawrence River. Sales for Dow beers never recovered from the incident.