'The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery'

By now, he would also have consulted with the experts at Venice's collegium, the learned medical society. Unfortunately, his fellow practitioners had much the same knowledge he had: they knew the structures of the body, what the major organs did, and what they looked like when examined after death. But they really knew nothing about disease in the living. Still, then (as now) doctors believed in their own judgment, in knowing when to bleed and when to salve, when to prescribe cold baths and when to recommend warm wine. They would have focused on the fact that the doctor was sweating all the time. They might have taken his temperature -- the thermometer was a recent Padovan invention -- and here things would have gotten tricky. Unlike other prion disease sufferers, FFI victims have temperatures that gyrate wildly. The doctors would not have known what to make of these huge swings but they would have treated their friend as a fever victim anyway. (Part of clinical judgment consisted in knowing when to disregard results that didn't make sense.) They would ultimately have prescribed a soak in cold water -- the servants desperately trying to hold his body so that he didn't slide under -- and when that proved useless, they would have bled their friend to cool his humors, astonished by the jerking of his legs and arms as they tried to open the vein. Had they not been men of science, his condition would have looked to them more like possession than disease, but medicine had turned a corner in the last two hundred years and modern doctors such as they would never again talk of demons and auguries.

They would have convened again soon after, dressed in the black togas and soft velvet hats of their profession, probably in the card room in the doctor's house where over dinner and wine they would have debated what to do next. Purgatives? Emetics? Diuretics? None of the doctors would have been honest and said that they had no cure for their friend, because in reality none of them ever had a cure for anyone. In fact, no eighteenth-century doctors knew how to make a patient well; they had no more success than the mountebanks who lined the Piazza San Marco. They had all suffered humiliations similar to one Casanova recounts in his memoirs. The adventurer happened to be in a gondola with a Venetian patrician -- a senator -- when the man was felled by a stroke. Casanova helped the man into his palazzo and into bed, where he waited for the arrival of the senator's physician. A Dr. Ferro, eminent in the profession, arrived and placed a poultice or mercury salve on his patient's chest and left con?dent he would ?nd him better in the morning. As he did -- only to discover that in the night Casanova, seeing the senator near death from the cure (mercury is highly toxic) had stripped off the salve and washed his body in warm water. The patrician declared Casanova his new physician, and Casanova spread the story everywhere.

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