Jun 16, 2019 | Updated: 11:54 AM EDT

Not A Brain Tumor But A Tapeworm

Jun 12, 2019 11:16 AM EDT

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Even with all the medical advances, misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis still occur. Diagnostic errors affect an estimated 12 million Americans each year. Among the unfortunate (in this case fortunate) is Rachel Palma, a 42-year-old New Yorker.

When Palma started exhibiting aphasia and problems with coordination, she knew something was wrong. Her symptoms appeared to be progressive, till a point where she was experiencing hallucinations and insomnia. In times when she was able to sleep, "horrific nightmares" reigned. Furthermore, in terms of coordination, she stated that her right hand would suddenly stop working. "My episodes were getting more and more bizarre," she said. "There were days that I didn't know where I was."

She, of course, sought medical help. In fact, she consulted numerous physicians about her condition and several examinations were done on her, including taking multiple scans of her brain, yet no one could seem to help her. Until she consulted specialists at Mount Sinai - seven months after the symptoms began - someone able to help, wherein she was diagnosed to have a brain tumor. During a three-hour surgery, however, this was proven to be a misdiagnosis. Instead of finding a malignant marble-sized brain tumor on her left lobe, Mount Sinai surgeons discovered the real culprit - a tapeworm slithering around her brain, leeching off it.

A photo of the tapeworm found inside Rachel Palma’s brain
(Photo : Mount Sinai Health System) A photo of the tapeworm found inside Rachel Palma’s brain

"We were overjoyed," said Dr. Rasouli, chief resident of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai. "We were, like, cheering and clapping. We were so happy...When we got in there and saw that it was a tapeworm, we were like: "'YES!' We were so happy!"

Compare to a fatal brain tumor, a tapeworm is indeed great news. However, most were quite disturbed about  Palma misdiagnosed and how a collection of the most professional doctors in the country couldn't tell a tumor from a tapeworm.  Palma, on the other hand, was relieved, "The good news is, I don't have cancer," she said.

When asked, Palma doesn't seem to know where and how she contacted the disease. "I stopped asking questions and started celebrating and making the most out of life because, in an instant, it can be taken away," she explained. "I thought 'gross.' I didn't know what to think," she added. "I was relieved at that point that it wasn't cancer and that I wouldn't need any further treatment. I don't like to speculate how I may have contracted it because I don't know."

In the end, Palma believes that she was given a second chance. Besides being happy to be alive, she's also begun to raise awareness of and support education about tapeworms.

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