Medicine is a battle that is fought every day, in every corner of America, and all around the world. It is a fight against the ultimate villain, death, and it is waged heroically by men and women who live their lives by one profound oath: “I will do no harm.”
Who are these people, who each day balance selflessness and power, detachment and humanity, brilliance and fallibility? Who are their patients, who come to them vulnerable, bleeding, broken? What does it take to make things right… and what are the repercussions of those critical decisions?
Diagnosis: Unknown is a scripted reality series featuring the best doctors and scientists in the world. From cardiac surgeons on the front lines of heart surgery, to epidemiologists struggling to root out the cause of a deadly epidemic, you’ll see the world of medicine as you’ve never seen it before. Discover how strange and rare diseases are identified on the brink of global outbreak. Experience the tension of crucial, but experimental surgery. See state-of-the-art procedures that are changing lives forever.
Each one-hour episode of Diagnosis: Unknown will focus on one case, one person, and the dedicated team of medical professionals who struggle from crisis to attempted cure. As with any story about medicine, there is always a larger issue. Public health policy reaches into each of our homes, regardless of race, gender or economic status. The failure of one parent to vaccinate a child can lead to disaster. The under-funding of rare disease research can result in thousands of needless deaths. The controversy generated by conflicting medical opinions can leave patients frustrated, angry and worse. Behind every case there is a story, and behind every story is a medical issue that could affect us all.
Part science, part mystery and wholly human, Diagnosis: Unknown is about people and risks… triumphs and failure. This is a world ruled by time and consequence. Every decision matters… and every second counts.
Diagnosis: Unknown: The extraordinary stories of doctors, patients and the fight to survive.
Episode 01 – Tracking a Killer
After a nurse treats five cases of pneumonia in a single night outside of Roanoke, Virginia, she notifies local health officials. Tests confirm that the patients have contracted Legionnaire’s disease, an acute and often deadly form of pneumonia that spreads and escalates rapidly. A week later, a 50-year-old man is dead and there are a total of 15 confirmed cases. Testing by the CDC reveals that all of the patients are infected with the same strain of bacteria. This can only mean one thing, an outbreak. People in the community are hysterical. Local and federal health authorities scramble to find the origin in order to prevent further infections.
Episode 02 – Tainted Blood
Health officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico face an outbreak of a rare and fatal blood disorder. Patients suffer sharp muscular pain, fatigue, fever and rashes. Twenty-one people die from the illness. Five other states report similar cases. The epidemic is spreading. The Center for Disease Control assists federal and state health officials in their hunt for the cause. After six months of relentless investigation, researchers unravel the mystery. Those who suffered the illness have inadvertently given it to themselves. A contaminated batch of a dietary supplement sold in health food stores across the country is the culprit.
Episode 03 – New Epidemic
In late August of 1999, an infectious disease specialist in Queens, New York reports that she has two elderly patients with neurological disorders. More cases crop up in the following days, several patients die. Initial tests confirm that New York has been hit by an outbreak of the mosquito-borne illness, St. Louis encephalitis. Nearly a month later, exotic birds begin to die at the Bronx Zoo. Zoo officials discover they have been infected with West Nile, a virus never before diagnosed in the Western Hemisphere. With this new information, epidemiologists studying the cases of St. Louis encephalitis are lead to a different and shocking conclusion, the virus is spreading to humans.
Episode 04 – Invisible Threat
In August of 1998, Marilyn Miller is awakened by her son’s frightened cries. She finds him suffering from a dangerously high fever and severe abdominal pains. As doctors work to stabilize him, she begins to feel the sickening symptoms herself. Doctor’s suspect a food poisoning outbreak and direct her to call the Minnesota Department of Health. Within days, the department receives several more phone calls and launches an investigation. Health officials must identify the contagion and track it to its source.
Episode 05 – Summer Exposure
On the tiny resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, landscaper, Patrick Ryer, suffers from chills and high fever. Patrick has contracted Tularemia, a rare bacterial disease. Health officials alert residents and tourists who crowd the Vineyard over the summer holiday. Over the next month, ten more people are diagnosed with the disease, including other landscapers and children. Medical investigators from the Center for Disease Control and state officials search for a common link. Tularemia is so infectious that it is on the government’s watch list of biological weapons. Based on the number of people infected, officials quickly rule out terrorism, but none of the cases appear to be related. All they are able to determine is that most of the victims have outdoor occupations such as landscaping and construction. The findings mark the first time landscaping has been named as a risk factor for the disease.
Episode 06 – Unlikely Source
A hospital in Walkerton, Ontario is flooded with patients with the same alarming symptoms. All suffer from fever, nausea and gastrointestinal problems. Health officials suspect water contamination, but the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) reports that the water is safe. The next day, 20 more patients are admitted with the same symptoms. Health officials determine E. Coli bacteria is contaminating the drinking water and warn the public. Bottled water is handed out to residents. In order to stop the epidemic, health officials must locate the source. Before the outbreak is stopped, four adults and an infant die from the deadly bacteria.
Episode 07 – Island Fever
In the summer of 2001, Debby Stoner’s family begins to exhibit severe flu like symptoms. Upon visiting the family, who live in a small village on Maui, doctors discover that others are also suffering from strange symptoms including headaches, fevers and a bizarre red rash. Health officials are concerned they are dealing with a terrifying virus that is spread by mosquitoes. It is an outbreak of Dengue Fever, imported to the island by travelers from Tahiti. The disease has the potential to spread to other islands and eventually the mainland. In a matter of days, more cases are reported in towns nearby. Without a vaccine or cure, the only option for health officials is to track the virus and eradicate the source, wherever it is found.
Episode 08 – Home Invasion
For months, members of the McGuire family suffer from chronic illnesses, bronchitis, pneumonia and abdominal pains, fever and chills. When Amy McGuire’s respiratory ailments don’t respond to any treatment, her parents become alarmed. Amy’s mother watches a report on television warning of the dangers of mold in houses. She contacts the local children’s hospital, where doctors have seen eight infants suffering from similar ailments, all from living conditions similar to the McGuire’s. Investigators inspect the home and discover spores of a toxic mold. The mold, or Stachybotrys atra, lurks and breeds inside walls, behind wallpaper, under carpets or anywhere there may be a water leak.
Episode 09 – Sudden Death
During December of 1999, public health authorities in Alberta, Canada are notified of two cases of a rare form of bacterial meningitis. A third reported case claims the life of a seventeen-year-old. Soon after, six more cases are reported and another young life is taken. Health officials think a new strain of the bacteria may be invading the population. The Provincial Laboratory discovers that a new genetic strain has indeed been introduced, but luckily, the meningitis vaccine that exists will still work against it. The Public Health Authority must act quickly to vaccinate and immunize over 50,000 young people before the bacteria claims any more victims.
Episode 10 – Toxic Exposure
In December of 1979, a young girl passes out on a bus in Wisconsin. She is taken to the hospital complaining of a sore throat, fever and aching muscles. Doctors believe she has the flu, until her blood pressure drops and her kidneys begin to fail. When additional women begin exhibiting similar symptoms, which bring them close to death, doctors fear an outbreak of toxic shock syndrome. The CDC and local health officials are alerted, triggering and intense investigation. After nearly one year, officials determine the cause of the outbreak, which has already killed seven.
Episode 11 – Deadly Spores
Canadian doctors are alarmed when a middle-aged woman dies of cryptococcal meningitis in 1999. Over the next few years, doctors see dozens of similar infections with pneumonia-like symptoms including shortness of breath, weight loss and severe headaches. Vancouver Island becomes home to the largest outbreak of the deadly fungus anywhere in the world. Local veterinarians report dozens of cases in the animal population, raising fears that the reach of the deadly fungus is not limited to any one species. DNA typing reveals that this new form of cryptococcus is identical to a strain normally found in Australia, leaving doctors with more questions than answers.
Episode 12 – Dangerous Catch
In 1993, aquatic researcher Joanne Burkholder suffers an array of troubling symptoms while working in her North Carolina State University lab. A fellow researcher confides that he has recently been plagued by bizarre medical problems including memory loss, confusion, numbness and a burning sensation on the skin, symptoms identical to Burkholder’s. One night Glasgow accidentally splashes aquarium water on his arm. Within minutes, lesions appear on his skin. A neurologist determines that the scientists’ symptoms are somehow related to their work with Pfiesteria, a single celled organism linked to increased fish kills in local rivers.
Episode 13 – Flesh Eater
When an unpredictable germ terrifies Texas in 1998, the CDC and health officials alert all neighboring states and territories to be on the lookout for streptococcus outbreak, the same bacteria that causes strep throat. This new strain, however, will kill 33 people, causing flesh-eating viruses, introducing deadly toxins into the blood and introducing pneumonia. Before the bacteria is contained, physicians from the United States and Canada will have to work together to fight the deadly strain.
Episode 14 – Lethal Dosage
A classic case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, Genene Jones killed at least 47 patients with the muscle relaxant succinylcholine while working at Bexar Medical Center in Texas. She loved creating emergencies, the excitement of a “code blue” and especially the reactions of family members when told of the death of a loved one. She wailed endlessly at the death of each patient and insisted on accompanying the body to the morgue. With no reliable testing available for the presence of succinylcholine, Jones continued her killing spree, even in the face of accusations by her co-workers who had estimated that even young children were 25% more likely to die of cardiac arrest while in Jones’ care. Jones is finally stopped in her tracks when an expensive test is developed in Sweden that reliably detects succinylcholine in human tissue samples.
Episode 15 – Dangerous Contact
Nine hundred children are sent home from school and thousands inoculated during an outbreak in Massachusetts that depletes local supplies of antibiotics and lands four middle school students in the hospital. Ten-year-old Kayla St. Pierre spends ten days in critical care and loses all of her fingers and both legs to the disease. Scientists trace the disease to members of the Girls Club sharing lip gloss on a bus ride to see Disney on Ice, an excursion that exposes thousands of students from 19 schools to an aggressive strain of meningococcal meningitis
Episode 16 – Death Shift
An unassuming male nurse from Kentucky comes under scrutiny when hospital officials notice that death is unusually prominent during his work shifts. In fact, death seemed to follow Donald Harvey from job to job, beginning in 1970 and ending with his arrest in 1987. Harvey – probably the most prolific serial murderer in the nation’s history – claimed to have murdered his ailing charges out of compassion, but his meticulous diary, 30 pounds of cyanide, and a witch’s brew of dangerous drugs discovered in his home pointed to darker motives. And his quiet rampage would have likely continued, if not for the vigilant coroner who decided to investigate further the odd smell of almonds coming from his fresh corpse.
Episode 17 – Deadly Medicine
Dr. Harold “Fred” Shipman was known as a dedicated, hardworking and community-minded doctor who spent his life gaining the trust of his patients and the respect of his colleagues. And for 25 years, nobody suspected that the town doctor was amassing a death toll that would make him one of history’s most prolific serial killers. The local undertaker is among the first to notice a strange pattern. Shipman’s patients seem to be dying at an unusually high rate, and their dead bodies had a similarity when he called to collect them – almost all were elderly women who lived alone and they died sitting in chairs while fully clothed. “There was never anything in the house that I saw that indicated the person had been ill,” the undertaker remembers. “It just seems the person, where they were, had died. There was something that didn’t quite fit.” Shipman is found guilty and given fifteen life sentences. A clinical audit commissioned by the Department of Health estimates Shipman is responsibility for the deaths of at least 236 patients over a 24-year period, although unofficial estimates put the number between 400 and 1,000.
Episode 18 – Taste of Poison
Reverend Dwight Moore is at death’s door when he is transferred from his local hospital to Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. With all the expertise and technology of modern medicine at their disposal, doctors are still unable to find of the cause of Moore’s symptoms, which include stomach pain, numbness, and hallucinations. His devoted wife Blanche remains by his side throughout his puzzling illness. She tries to comfort him by bringing his favorite banana pudding from home. When Moore’s vital functions begin to shut down, a visiting specialist examines him and notices white striation lines on his fingernails, an indication of arsenic poisoning. Tests reveal that Moore has ingested more arsenic than any living person on record. Police investigators question him about his wife and discover that Blanche Moore’s two previous husbands both met untimely deaths. Their bodies are exhumed and found to contain high levels of arsenic, and Blanche Moore is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Episode 19 – Seeds of Destruction
In an exclusive Kansas City suburb, cardiologist Mike Farrar is suddenly stricken with a powerful and mysterious stomach illness. The violent and terrifying symptoms are relentless, leaving the man fighting for his life. Mike’s doctors fight to save him, but they struggle to find the source of the disease that is making him waste away before their eyes. The answer soon comes when Mike makes a strange discovery hidden away in his wife’s purse – several packets of castor beans, each one warning the user that the seeds are highly toxic. When he consults an old medical textbook for more information on the seeds, the hair on the back of his neck stands up. The center of the castor been contains the deadly toxin ricin and the symptoms of ricin poisoning are exactly the same violent symptoms Mike has been suffering from for months. Could Mike and Debora’s pending divorce have driven her to insanity….even to the point where she’s tried to murder him? Mike thinks he has just solved the mystery of his troubling g stomach illness and if he’s right, his life will never be the same.
Episode 20 – Toxic Takeover
Phil Rouss realizes a lifelong dream when he opens an antique auto restoration business with his long-time friend Steve White. They divide the work – Rouss will restore the cars and Steve will handle the books. The business is an immediate success, but within weeks Rouss is struck down with a mysterious illness. He wakes at night bathed in sweat, has such severe chest pains he’s sure he’s having a heart attack and eventually develops a rare lung fungus. His baffled doctors send him from specialist to specialist looking for a diagnosis. But months later, Rouss thinks he’s found the source of his strange illness when he discovers that his partner has financially ruined their business and has taken a huge life insurance policy out on him.
Episode 21 – Silent Death
Robert Curley is newly married and is renovating an old home for he and his wife, Joann. He is also an electrician doing repair work in a local chemistry lab. Within weeks of starting the new projects he becomes violently ill. His feet and hands tingle for no apparent reason. Doctors diagnosis his ailment and send him home with medication, but that doesn’t work. His symptoms get worse and he is admitted again. Local doctors still have no clue what is causing Robert’s mysterious illness. He is transferred to a more state-of-the-art facility, but before he can be properly diagnosed he crashes, leaving him brain dead. A few days later, Joann decides to remove Robert from life support. At the same time, doctors discover he has been poisoned with thallium. Investigators canvas the chemistry lab, but there seems to be no foul-play there. Investigators turn to the family and discover that for the past year his wife, Joann, has been slowly poisoning him, with the iced tea he took to work everyday.
Episode 22 – Cruel Deception
Middle School teacher Donna Boley is overcome with nausea and a tingling feeling in her extremities. The principal finds Donna crawling up the stairs on her hands and knees. He tells her to go home. At home, Donna’s husband, Jim, tries to nurse her back to health. They believe she might have caught something during their recent vacation in Missouri. For the next week, Donna is sick in bed. Her symptoms worsen and she is rushed to a local hospital. There she begins to have seizures, which persist throughout the night. By morning, she crashes and slips into unconsciousness. Baffled, doctors review her charts. They notice that she has an extensive medical history. She has prior diagnoses of irritable bowel syndrome, an ovarian cyst that left her unconscious for two weeks and lupus. Now she is paralyzed from the nose down. Doctors decide to perform a heavy metals screen and it is determined that Donna is being poisoned. She is moved to another area of the hospital and classified as a Jane Doe for her protection. Investigators use a letter board to communicate with her. She tells them she fears her husband might have something to do with her illness. Investigators meet with Jim and he confesses to making her sick. Jim, her loving and devoted husband, has been poisoning her all along with rat poison bought on their vacation to Missouri.
Episode 23 – Silent Poison
When two young children in Idaho are diagnosed with food poisoning, doctors have no idea that within days the situation will get out of control, as two hundred thousand people fall ill in the country’s largest case of single source food poisoning.