Medical Mystery: For three years her skin ulcers and pain would flare, then vanish, stumping doctors

Family Photo Kimberly Ho, a newly minted nurse at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington just off a 12-hour overnight shift, struggled to focus on a presentation about working with sexually traumatized children and adolescents.

As the picture of a skin infection flashed on the screen, the 22-year-old snapped to attention.

The instructor was recounting the story of a teenage patient who had been given an incorrect diagnosis by a doctor in training — a breach of hospital protocol that had caused an uproar. The girl’s actual diagnosis was largely beside the point — except to Ho.

For more than two years Ho’s mother, Tuyet Le, now 56, had been battling a series of perplexing and painful symptoms.

Le’s first symptom — genital ulcers — occurred in July 2015, said Ho, who accompanied her mother to most medical appointments, often acting as interpreter and advocate. (Le, who emigrated from Vietnam, speaks little English.)

Ho, then in nursing school at Towson University, suggested her mother try soothing baths, called sitz baths . When they didn’t help, Le consulted a gynecologist who tentatively diagnosed a herpes infection and prescribed acyclovir, an anti-viral drug used to treat outbreaks of herpes, shingles and chicken pox.

A few months later, Ho said, the genital ulcers recurred, even though Le had been taking acyclovir. A blood test revealed that Le had been infected with herpes simplex virus 1, a common infection that causes cold sores.

Several months later, she confronted a new problem: Her right elbow was suddenly swollen and painful. Le, who has worked for more than two decades in a factory that makes airplane parts, struggled to perform her job.

She consulted a rheumatologist who diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis , an autoimmune disease that causes painful, swollen joints. After several weeks, the swelling disappeared, but the genital ulcers returned.

“It’s a weird thing for me to talk about this because it’s my mom’s stuff,” said Ho, who was born several years after her parents arrived in the United States. “And a lot of medical terms are hard to translate into Vietnamese.”

Ho said her mother was especially worried about the mushrooming cost of tests and treatments not covered by insurance that strained the family budget.

In the fall of 2016, six months after the elbow problem had resolved, Le woke up with a badly swollen left ankle. “It looked like it was broken,” Ho recalled. The ankle was hot to the touch, suggesting inflammation or a possible infection.

Her primary-care doctor, Huyanh Ton, ordered blood tests. Two markers that signal inflammation — erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) — were elevated and considerably higher than those seen in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Because high levels can indicate a serious disorder, including some forms of cancer, Ton referred her to a hematologist.

By now, she was battling a new problem that made her especially miserable: oral ulcers pocked her tongue and the inside of her mouth.

Ho said her mother’s episodic, debilitating illness was taking a toll on the family. She often ducked out of class to call doctors, while her normally active mother grew depressed, worried about her health and the family’s mounting medical bills.

“All the time I was watching her suffer, no one could tell me what was going on,” Ho said.

After a work-up, the girl’s ulcers were found to be a symptom not of herpes but of a rare disorder known as Behcet’s syndrome or Behcet’s disease . The chronic disorder causes inflammation in blood vessels in various parts of the body. Attacks flare, then subside. Oral and genital sores are among the most common symptoms. Without treatment, inflammation can worsen, causing blindness, a stroke or, rarely, death.

Ho called her cousin, who had recently graduated from medical school, and asked him whether he’d ever heard of Behcet’s, which is believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. He hadn’t, but advised her to do some research.

The similarity of her mother’s symptoms, their episodic nature, and the fact that Behcet’s is common in parts of Asia bolstered Ho’s suspicion.

Ho persuaded her mother to see a dermatologist. But by the time the appointment rolled around several weeks later, the sores were gone.

Ton remembers feeling less convinced. There is no test for the disease, which is rare in the United States, affecting about 16,000 people. Diagnosis is based on the presence of hallmark symptoms and on ruling out other illnesses. At the time, Ton noted, Le did not have eye pain or uveitis , a form of eye inflammation frequently seen in Behcet’s patients.

“In order to diagnose it you have to have heard of it and think of it,” Ton said. He had never seen a case of Behcet’s. But Ton said he had heard of it because his mentors during his residency were rheumatologists.

Several months later, during another flare, Le returned to Ton, who had concluded that Behcet’s sounded likely. He prescribed prednisone, a corticosteroid that is a mainstay treatment for the disease.

Le saw a second specialist in May 2018. The doctor diagnosed Behcet’s and tweaked Le’s medication regimen. In the past year, Ho said, her mother’s health has improved and she had not suffered a flare.

Ho said that her mother’s case has made her more sensitive to some of the obstacles her patients may face.

“It made me put myself in the place of a family who is non-English speaking,” Ho said. “Even with translators, it’s difficult.”

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