The Medical Guide to Holiday Movies

VIDEO: Academy-award winning actor describes playing a pilot caught up in a disaster in "Flight."

Anna Karenina lies febrile on her post-partum bed, her husband, Karenin, and lover, Vronsky, flanking her in sorrow. She repents to each, anticipating her end, and just when the romance soars to its peak, you wonder aloud -- why does she have a fever? And, could this really happen?

Luckily, we've got Hollywood's holiday ailments covered. Our unofficial disease guide takes a shot at unraveling the medical mysteries you'll see woven throughout the biggest hits of the season.

Medical Guide to Holiday Movies

PHOTO: Denzel Washington stars in "Flight."
Robert Zuckerman

Denzel Washington plays a drug-addicted, alcoholic airline pilot who executes a miracle crash landing but is later blamed for the incident.


It turns out that drinking and flying is relatively rare. But that wasn't true in the 1960s. A landmark article on aviation and alcohol found that in 35 percent of all fatal airline accidents in 1963, the pilots had measurable levels of alcohol in their blood. A disproportionate amount of these accidents occurred at night and most occurred within the first half-hour of flight.

So how does alcohol affect flight performance? One scientific article reports that blood alcohol concentrations in the range of 0.03 to 0.05-percent can impair performance of tasks like tracking radio-frequency signals, airport traffic control vectoring, traffic observation and avoidance, and aircraft descent. That's about the amount present after just one drink for an average size adult.


According to the book, Aviation Mental Health, pilots may be at risk for PTSD if they've ever experienced an aircraft mishap or near mishap. Because of this, the airline industry has a program in place called the Critical Incident Response Program that guides pilots through any potential PTSD inciting events. In addition to this, Federal law requires that all airline employees and their families have access to such counseling programs when faced with significant incidents like aircraft accidents.

When it comes to needing medication however, pilots face a double-edged sword. While counseling services for psychiatric conditions like PTSD are not reportable to the FAA, the use of certain medications is. Pilots are required to report use of any psychotropic medications beyond common antidepressants and refrain from flying until they are medication-free.

Medical Guide to Holiday Movies

PHOTO: Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.
ABC News

Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field recreate the spirit of America's first power couple and highlight the staggering height difference between Abe and Mary Todd.


At 6 feet, 4 inchesl, Abe Lincoln towered nearly 9 inches taller than the average 1860s man. Like a taupe, tailless Na'vi from the movie Avatar, his long legs and spidery fingers intimidated adversaries near and far. But his stately frame was more than just a normal variant. Historians have speculated that Lincoln was afflicted with a rare genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome. The disorder affects connective tissues in the body, causing skeletal abnormalities, and problems with the heart, eyes, and lungs. In addition to being extraordinarily tall, people with Marfan's are often lanky, with long, slender limbs (dolichostenomelia) and fingers (arachnodactyly).

Some experts argue however that Lincoln instead had a condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2, or MEN2. People with this disorder can also be unusually tall. Either way, his condition would have gone unnamed during his lifetime as Dr. Antoine Marfan, the French pediatrician who first described the condition, didn't do so until 1896—well after President Lincoln's untimely death.

Medical Guide to Holiday Movies

PHOTO: Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright's,Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release.
Laurie Sparham
Anna Karenina

Keira Knightly stars in yet another period piece, this time portraying Leo Tolstoy's beloved, Anna Karenina -- a 19th century Russian aristocratic beauty caught in a nasty love triangle.


Shortly after giving birth, Karenina experiences a high-grade fever that sends both her lovers to their knees, anticipating the worst. Puerperal fever, or endometritis as it's now called, was known historically as "the doctor's plague." With no concept of germs, doctors often had no reason to wash their hands before attending to births. As such, they often precipitated such post-partum infections, giving thousands of women a simultaneous childbed and deathbed.

Other famous victims include Elizabeth of York, King Henry VIII's mother, and his third wife, Jane Seymour. It is worth noting that, with the advent of antibiotics and modern-day hygiene, the chances of dying from a post-partum infection today are now incredibly rare.

Medical Guide to Holiday Movies

PHOTO: Anne Hathaway as Fantine in "Les Misérables", the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywh
Universal Pictures
Les Miserables

An all-star cast brings this classic tale of love and loss to the big screen this Christmas Day. And given its historical precedence, we'll assume we're not spoiling too much by first announcing Fantine's death before diving into an explanation of the disease that kills her.


Was there ever a more culturally documented medical affliction than consumption, or tuberculosis as it's known medically? Perhaps not, and that's why we see so many references to it in popular literature, music and film. Les Miserables is the latest creation to highlight the devastating effects of an infectious disease still commonly seen in third world countries.

TB is a contagious bacterial infection that attacks the lungs and less commonly, other organs. It causes fever, night sweats, weight loss, and sometimes hemetemesis—the coughing up of blood. It's no wonder that folklore has often associated this disease with vampirism. An article in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology reports that prior to the Industrial Revolution, people interpreted the subsequent deaths of TB patients' family members as proof that the initial victim was draining them of their lives. In other words, patient zero coughed up blood and therefore, was a vampire.

Today, some countries vaccinate against tuberculosis with a strain of the live, but weakened form of bacteria that infects cows. The vaccine works for only a limited amount of time and its efficacy is limited by geographic region. In the U.S., doctors screen only high risk populations like health care workers and recent immigrants.

Medical Guide to Holiday Movies

PHOTO: Elijah Wood as Frodo and Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure "The Hobbit: An Inexpected Journey."
Warner Bros. Pictures
The Hobbit

Bilbo Baggins returns in this prequel to Lord of the Rings, leading a group of dwarves on a riveting adventure through Middle Earth.


Is it the hobbits that are really short or the elves that really tall? It's all relative when it comes to height. If we assume however, that hobbits truly are little people, then it's safe to say this is a generalized condition that's associated with upwards of 200 different medical conditions. Either way, the National Institutes of Health defines a dwarf as someone of very short stature -- usually under 4'10" as an adult. Almost 70 percent of all dwarfism cases are due to a condition called achondroplasia, which is a genetic disorder affecting up to 1 in 15,000 people.

Dwarfism itself is not a disease and most little people go on to live healthy, long, and normal lives. Historical prejudice however, often led to their stigmatization as a different kind of being. During the Holocaust, the Nazis went so far as to conduct medical experiments on little people. A shocking example of this was German doctor Josef Mengele's human zoo -- a collection of different looking Jewish prisoners, including a family of dwarves called the Ovitzes.


Greedy little Gollum exhibits the classic signs and symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. His obsession with the One Ring is concerning for an all-consuming, socially isolating disorder that nearly 1.5 percent of Americans experience. OCD is an anxiety disorder that causes repetitive, unwanted thoughts or behaviors, often plaguing its victims on a daily basis.

Luckily for patients with OCD, there are many treatment options available. Whether or not Gollum can access these in Middle Earth is an entirely different issue.

Medical Guide to Holiday Movies

PHOTO: Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart star in The Twighlight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2.
Andrew Cooper/SMPSP
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

Vampires are not real… or are they?


In 1963, an article from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine entitled, "On Porphyria and the Aetiology of Werwolves" made the case for real life creatures of the night. The paper argued that these so-called beasts were, in fact, humans suffering from congenital prophyria. It references run-ins with these creatures by Pliny, Herodotus, and Virgil, and even offers photographic evidence of the scarring and mutilated human faces that could easily be mistaken for beast.

In 1985, biochemist David Dolphin furthered this association with his widely popularized scientific paper, "Porphyria, Vampires, and Werewolves: The Aetiology of European Metamorphosis Legends." Not surprisingly, medical experts criticize this and other references for being both fake and promoting of an anti-porphyria stigma.

Porphyria itself is a disorder of the enzymes involved in red blood cell production. It causes neurologic complications and skin problems when affected people are exposed to light. Photosensitivity, blisters, itching, and swelling are just some of the symptoms that no doubt led to a corollary to vampirism. But if sun causes your skin to peel off, doesn't it make sense that you'd avoid daylight?

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