What Are Some Lethal But Surmountable Diseases?
March 27, 2014 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to write a fictional character background that involves someone overcoming a generally fatal disease in childhood, and leading to a full recovery. The character must grow up to be physically fit and able to engage in a very physical job, but I'm imagining endless visits to the hospital in childhood & nobody expecting him to live long. I have a few reasons to avoid cancer as a story choice. What are other possibilities?
posted by scaryblackdeath to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I knew a guy who had extremely serious asthma as a young kid, lots of hospital visits, several really scary crises, and as a result he went into swimming and became a total badass and I never heard much about his asthma after about age 15.
posted by norm at 9:45 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Munchausen by Proxy
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:48 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

My father-in-law had rheumatic fever as a child. His parents were told that his weak heart as a result would mean he wouldn't live past age 12. He died a few years ago at 89 after a life as an oceanographer/geophysicist who sailed over a million miles, hiked a ton and golfed daily until the very end of his life.
posted by leslies at 9:49 AM on March 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was born with a kidney defect. LOTS of doctor appointments as a kid, sweet jesus. So many blood tests. So many different (and very awful tasting) medicines. Near constant severe kidney and bladder infections. I attribute my epic pain threshold to having survived all those extremely painful kidney infections as a kid. I don't know that people expected me to die from it, but there was hella lot of worry and doctor visits and specialists. I grew up feeling pretty broken for a while there. It sucked. I still have the knowledge that I have one very fucked up kidney that is doing a big pile of nothing inside of me, but I am more or less normal these days.

I also knew a girl who was born with a heart defect. She definitely was not expected to live long, but following a couple harrowing heart surgeries (and one monster scar on her chest) she got better and grew up fine.

Frankly any organ defect/transplant (heart, lung, kidney) will get you what you want I think.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:57 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

When does the story take place? Some diseases make sense 100 years ago but less so today.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:58 AM on March 27, 2014

It's modern day. Ideally, the character grew up to do a short stint in the Army. He doesn't have to have been a Ranger or anything extreme, but just being able to pass through the medical screening and do okay in basic training is more than enough.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:03 AM on March 27, 2014

Depends how old he is, but polio?
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:10 AM on March 27, 2014

My husband had the measles and the chicken pox at the same time as a child. Came very close to death.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:10 AM on March 27, 2014

Modern day, he's 40 now? Or modern day, he's 20 now?
posted by amtho at 10:10 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

My BF also was born with a kidney defect, and he is generally okay now (bit heavily monitored and on a lot of medication). He has an okay life but would not pass an army screening.

I had a college boyfriend who had retinoblastoma as a child---it's a form of generally very treatable eye cancer that only affects small children. He had surgery and even as an adult had to have annual screenings. I think he is at higher risk for other cancers later, but he generally was fine once the cancer was treated.
posted by JoannaC at 10:13 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest diabetes (much more fatal in children before instant-read blood tests became a thing) but that would disqualify him from military service. Asthma would also disqualify him, and I'm guessing that an organ transplant would as well.

Maybe a nasty car accident? Physical therapy could go on for years.
posted by catalytics at 10:22 AM on March 27, 2014

Congenital heart defect- hypolplastic left heart is one that is very severe and many do not survive. Adults who do make it can be fairly active.
posted by sulaine at 10:28 AM on March 27, 2014

What about severely premature birth?
posted by bleep at 10:28 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Snakebite? Less of a fit because if you survive the first few days, you're no-longer at death's door, but a good fit in terms of being just the start of endless surgeries reconstructing a functional limb from the ruins, and it being an affliction easily acquired even in the modern era by a child doing the kind of things you might expect of someone that grows up wanting to join the army.
posted by anonymisc at 10:31 AM on March 27, 2014

Where is the story set? If around Florida/Texas-Mexico border, the kid could theoretically get dengue fever (still rare in the US though, but growing more and more prevalent in other parts of the world, so it might just be a matter of time until it hits the US) .

Can be fatal in children and since it's a virus, you'll survive if you ride it out. Don't think it'd disqualify someone from military service since it's a quick, intense bout with no surgery or long-lasting effects.
posted by astapasta24 at 10:33 AM on March 27, 2014

Asthma would also disqualify him

Not necessarily.

My youngest brother was in and out of the hospital with asthma-adjacent health problems as a baby/toddler and is now a Marine.

I don't think anyone seriously thought he could die (except maybe the first go-round, when he ended up in the hospital with breathing problems at two months?), but he was definitely "sickly" as a young child, always on a lot of medications, didn't play sports, etc. By high school he was completely recovered, and when he entered the military his asthma didn't even come up.
posted by Sara C. at 10:36 AM on March 27, 2014

Alternate idea -- what about a severe allergy to something children encounter frequently (peanuts? bees?) but which is a total non-issue for adults? It's not so much that he doesn't have it anymore, but that, thanks to the existence of epi-pens and the relatively low likelihood of encountering the allergen, it's no longer a thing.

I mean, I'm pretty sure you can be allergic to shellfish and still be in the military.
posted by Sara C. at 10:39 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Childhood leukemia has, and has had for some years, a high 5 year remission rate (above 75%): "With acute leukemias, children who are free of disease after 5 years are very likely to have been cured, as it very rare for these cancers to return after such a period of time."

Children typically go through extensive treatment, including multiple hospitalizations, but as adults are for all intents and purposes perfectly healthy.
posted by mr vino at 10:41 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If he's older then perhaps smallpox? Heck, even chickenpox can be lethal.

Thyroid disorders might be a possibility, too. Thyroid storm is a potentially fatal complication of hyperthyroidism, though that is a bar on military service in the US. Hypothyroidism, however, usually is not.

Or appendicitis. Not a long term problem, but I can say from personal experience it can lead to a week plus in the hospital and physical and pain issues for many years after.
posted by lharmon at 10:52 AM on March 27, 2014

Many diseases can disqualify a person from military service, even thought the person may be nearly perfectly healthy. Quite a few of the conditions listed above, such as a heart defect or organ transplant, would probably preclude joining the military. There aren't that many likely diseases non-cancerous diseases that would fit your criteria. I think susceptibility to genitourinary or respiratory infections might be your best best, if cancer is off the table. Certain malformations that can be outgrown may lead a person to have life-threatening infections in childhood. Take a look at page 17 of this document to get an idea of what kids die of.
posted by reren at 10:59 AM on March 27, 2014

Ringo Starr as a boy was in a coma for three days and in hospital for a year following an appendectomy after which he contracted peritonitis.

John Lydon was also in hospital for a year as a boy, in his case from spinal meningitis, but it ruined his eyesight and left him with a permanent curvature of the spine, so he would almost certainly not pass an Army physical.
posted by Devoidoid at 11:07 AM on March 27, 2014

I'm less married to the military idea than to the general need to have him be physically capable as an adult. Partly, I was just trying to fill out his backstory and include some basic athletic/self-defense training, but to be honest he could've just taken civilian classes, too. The idea is that his survival was written off all through childhood, yet he made it well into his 30s by the time of the story.

Heart or kidney failure may be the best options. I'll give the childhood leukemia stuff a read, too. Mostly I was trying to go for something long-term (years of hospital visits), but I didn't want to go with cancer.

Thanks much for the suggestions!
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:30 AM on March 27, 2014

A bad infection. A friend of mine nearly died of blood poisoning when we were in high school. It was secondary to a viral infection that nearly killed him, the blood poisoning was from his body basically dissolving. It was a long drawn out ordeal, he was in hospital for months and then weak as a kitten. He recovered and became a total bad ass with the physique of an action movie star.
posted by fshgrl at 11:39 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about tuberculosis? It's still a major public health problem, especially in cities with a high immigrant population. Drug-resistant TB can result in a difficult and prolonged course of treatment with a lot of different medications (and a lot of personally invasive monitoring by the Department of Health) but it is fully curable. Treated TB doesn't appear to be a barrier to military service as long as it's more than 2 years in the past and there isn't performance-impairing lung damage.

Congenital heart defects like tetralogy of Fallot that don't require transplant would work too, although those folks do end up needing monitoring as adults.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 11:41 AM on March 27, 2014

Maybe he got bitten by a brown recluse (some potentially disturbing pictures in that link, btw).
posted by Poldo at 11:58 AM on March 27, 2014

Maybe a longshot, but a very, very few people get rabies and live to tell about it afterward.
posted by anastasiav at 12:09 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Trauma, trauma, and more trauma. Motor vehicles, fires, drowning, guns, assault. Sepsis. Kids with asthma bad enough to potentially die can hypothetically grow out of it. Cooler for story-telling might be virial meningitis, encephalitis, or myocarditis. There are some congenital heart defects that repair well sometimes but have a bad general prognosis.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:23 PM on March 27, 2014

Yeah, if you're willing to drop the military requirement then lots of these might work: severe asthma (as in, say, a dozen years, infancy to teens) would disqualify him, whereas milder asthma might not; juvenile diabetes, organ transplant, polio or TB would all disqualify him for the military, but he still could've grown up --- like Theodore Roosevelt did --- to fight against his illness and overcome his childhood weaknesses by concentrating on a fit and healthy life. Rheumatic heart disease is far less common these days, and it usually leaves the person with a lifetime weak heart.

Heck, he could take TR as a personal hero of sorts!
posted by easily confused at 1:00 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could he be HIV+? I would guess that meant a lot of protection and doctors visits as a child bit I know plenty of fit and badass HIV+ adults. Born early eighties and he might have been very touch and go while living a qualitativly unrestricted adult life.
posted by Iteki at 2:55 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If the timing is right, maybe he was infected with HIV at birth a few years before the introduction of AZT, etc.?

Or, further back (like born in the 1940s), he had celiac disease before people knew what it was, and now that he knows how to control it with diet, he's fine.

Or he had epilepsy with frequent seizures until a new drug was invented that worked perfectly for him. Not so much "generally fatal" and wouldn't lead to frequent hospitalization, but it'd make people have low expectations for what he'd be able to do in life, and there would be the worry that he would die of drowning, from a bad fall, during status epilepticus, etc.

Apparently there's a gene therapy treatment for hemophiliacs that can be administered to an adult and is curative: http://www.stjude.org/quick-facts ...maybe he had severe disease and was part of the clinical trials? Probably too recent, though.
posted by lakeroon at 3:12 PM on March 27, 2014

I think malaria would work pretty well.

It wouldn't disqualify your person from military service (as far as I know), and depending on the location it's certainly nothing to laugh at. Plus, it's recurring, so you could add that to the plot if you needed to.

Of course, it would depend on where your character grew up, as malaria isn't too common in some parts of the world (unless it was contracted during a visit somewhere).

Just my idea.
posted by Fister Roboto at 3:36 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aplastic anemia.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:18 PM on March 27, 2014

Congenital biliary atresia is a liver condition that can be fatal and that can require months or years of specialized treatment to avoid liver failure, but with proper treatment, many people go on to live totally normal, healthy adult lives. Some end up requiring liver transplants, but not all.
posted by decathecting at 5:09 PM on March 27, 2014

Congenital AV canal defect . A kid I know was born with this defect and was in and out of hospitals, underweight and generally pretty sick until he had surgery. He lives a completely normal, active life now, you would never know there was any issue.
posted by mjcon at 5:21 PM on March 27, 2014

pemphigus vulgaris - a rare autoimmune disorder that without treatment can be life threatening. It takes a long time to diagnose because the symptoms can point to other diseases.
posted by abdulf at 9:11 AM on March 28, 2014

Seconding the kidney defect, I know someone else who went through it as a kid and is fine now.

About allergies: I have an anecdote that could fit. I used to be in hospitals all the damn time as a kid, mostly because my parents were overprotective hypochondriacs that thought every last flu or stomach bug needed a hospital visit. There were times, though, that the hospital visits were warranted, such as when I had an appendectomy, or when I was throwing up everything, including water, and had to be on an IV lest I dry out.

One time, around the age of 16, I became super exhausted from doing too many things at school while running a bad flu and collapsed while doing a blood test. I went to the hospital, and I remember them saying that they suspected I have dengue, but weren't sure - all I know was that they were taking my blood every day and I had to fight them to stop them taking blood from my legs.

since I was throwing up a lot they prescribed me an anti-emetic, Maxalon. Problem is that none of us knew that I was lethally allergic to the thing. The first time they gave it to me, my muscles seized up and I was frozen, but it wore off after a while and my dad thought I was just being stressed. Second time it happened again, my mum figured out immediately that something's wrong, called one of the doctors over, they realised I was having an allergy/rare side effect to Maxalon and gave me the antidote, which put me to sleep. Soon after I learnt that if they'd kept giving me Maxalon it would have hit my heart and killed me (Mum tells me that Dad was apologising to me the whole time when I was asleep.) I'm still not sure why they needed all that blood and why I was in the hospital for 2 weeks, but I ended up OK.

I was not at all physical as a kid, I was kind of useless at sports really. Hospital visits didn't help. But now I'm approaching 30 and I'm a lot more physical than I ever have been, doing dance and physical theater and circus and stuff. I'm even walking lots - which used to tax me. I'm not as super athletic as your character but that's more out of lack of interest; I probably could still be if I bothered to.
posted by divabat at 11:14 PM on April 18, 2014

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