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Desiree Jennings: Medical Mystery or Hoax?

July 24, 2010
Desiree Jennings

Desiree Jennings hit the top of Google hot searches a while ago. Out of curiousity, I googled the internet and this is what I found out.

Desiree Jennings

25-year old Desiree Jennings was living a dream come true, with a marketing job at a major company and married to a handsome, successful man. She was an avid runner and a cheerleading ambassador for the Washington Redskins football team.

Then almost overnight, after a routine flu shot last fall, Jennings went from the picture of happiness and health, to a twisted, stuttering vision of pain and suffering. From fever and painful body aches, the symptoms worsened until she could only walk with a twisted, halting gait, and had trouble reading, doing simple math and even remembering things. Her condition put a halt on her once-frenetic lifestyle.

Jennings developed another odd symptom — a strange foreign accent; the Midwestern woman suddenly sounded British. “It sounds like an accent, but it’s not. I just can’t pronounce words anymore,” she said.

But perhaps worse of all is what happens when Jennings tried to recall specific memories. In her “20/20″ interview, Jennings’ speech devolved to stuttering, then complete gibberish.

“The mind keeps bouncing and it won’t stay on that memory,” she explained. “It gets garbled up on a bad hard drive so to speak.”

In search of a cure, Jennings and her husband Brendan visited countless doctors and four hospitals, among them Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, a physical therapist told Jennings about dystonia, a rare movement disorder that causes the muscles to twitch or convulse involuntary. The symptoms resembled her own.

Jennings looked online and saw that in some cases, people with dystonia, who have trouble walking forward like she did, can walk backwards. Even more exciting for the devoted jogger was that a medical website said some sufferers can run.

“Within five minutes of seeing it on the website, she had her running shoes on,” Brendan recalled.

Miraculously, Jennings could run. She also found out she could walk backwards, and even sideways, and that while doing so, her speech returned to normal.

“It’s the strangest thing,” she said. “As soon as you try to get into a running motion, you feel the whole body correcting itself.”

It wasn’t long before Jennings became a media sensation. Video of the beautiful young cheerleader, flopping about and stuttering one moment, running and talking normally the next, went viral. At once, she became the poster child of the anti-vaccine movement and a global Internet joke. YouTube comics garnered millions of hits setting her jerky movements to rap music.

When not running, however, Jennings was far from well. Not only could she not walk or talk normally, Jennings said her brain sometimes forgot to tell her lungs to breathe, leading to fainting spells and convulsions.

Traditional medicine having failed her, Jennings decided to do something “outside the box,” and ended up at a North Carolina clinic run by Dr. Rashid Buttar. Buttar uses an unproven, alternative treatment termed “chelation” (the removal of metals from the body) for almost every medical condition, from autism to cancer.

When Jennings arrived at Buttar’s clinic in October 2009, she could hardly breathe and collapsed in his waiting room. She was pumped with IVs and Dr. Buttar began his unproven chelation process, where chelating agents bind to metals in the body, including mercury, and then are excreted in the urine.

In less than two weeks, Jennings’ condition apparently improved: she walked again and her stutter disappeared.

But just as she was leaving Dr. Buttar’s clinic on her last visit in December 2009 — with “20/20’s” cameras rolling — everything seemed to fall apart again. She could no longer walk forward and was taken out in a wheelchair.

While millions viewed video of Jennings on YouTube, those following her case are skeptical and suspect that her symptoms were all a hoax. In fact, what has bothered Jennings most about her unorthodox fame is the online assault on her integrity.

“Why would I fake it?” she said during her interview with “20/20.” “I’ve had a great life. . . Now I’m sitting at home every day, bored to tears.”

Still, there has been skepticism in the medical world. Dr. Steven Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale, who has followed Jennings’ case closely on the Internet said that Jennings’ symptoms were not typical of the disease. Novella is confident Jennings’ condition was not caused by mercury in a flu shot.

Other experts consulted by “20/20″ agree. Dr. Charles McKay, a board member of the American College of Medical Toxicology, said Jennings would have been exposed to far less mercury in a flu shot than in a tuna steak.

But what could have caused Jennings’ strange symptoms? Novella and other leading neurologists interviewed by “20/20″ believe that Jennings’ disease is a psychogenic disorder rather than a neurological disorder. They don’t believe she has faked her symptoms, but instead that her unconscious mind has caused them.

Novella feels the temporary improvements Jennings experienced while undergoing Buttar’s treatment were due to “the placebo effect on steroids”: she got better because she thought she would.

Jennings, on the other hand, finds the “psychogenic” label insulting. “It’s a convenient way for incompetent doctors to get you out of their office,” she said.

Today, Jennings’ condition does not appear as severe, but she remains convinced that the flu shot caused her condition, and her search for a cure continues. She is currently seeing a specialist for her condition and still seeking answers.

“If I have to go over to China and do experimental procedures, I’ll find a way to get it all back,” she said. “It may take a while, but I will get everything back. I will find a way.”

Jennings has a host of detractors who think her condition is just a hoax to garner sympathy and fame. And these people have vilified her with their comments on YouTube, blogs, forums and the like. I just want to put a question to these people. What if Jennings’ condition is genuine? She may truly be living in a nightmare. Don’t be too rash to bombard her with all those obscenities. Just give her the benefit of the doubt, okay? Have some compassion and live a more meaningful and beautiful life!

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