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NY TIMES: A Medical Guessing Game, With Life as the Ultimate Prize

The central gimmick of Discovery Fit & Health’s latest series is fairly distasteful, but the real-life medical cases the episodes describe certainly make you feel the frustration and terror of an attack by an unknown enemy. The program, “Diagnosis: Dead or Alive,” which has its premiere Monday night, explores medical mysteries through re-enactments and commentaries from the families and doctors who experienced them.

Viewers don’t find out until the end of each segment whether the patient lives or dies, which gives the series an exploitative quality that is made worse by cheesy narration. (“I didn’t realize that my mild joint pain was the beginning of a process that would soon leave us wondering if I would live” — brief pause — “or die.”) Perhaps that’s necessary to distinguish this show from others like the network’s “Mystery Diagnosis,” but it cheapens the trauma that the patients and their families experience, and the forthright way that they discuss what they went through.

That trauma is substantial, as the two cases — both from New York State — convey in the opening episode.

One involves a woman named Jamie Arliss, a healthy twentysomething mother studying to become a nurse when she began feeling inexplicable fatigue. “She couldn’t go out for a walk without being out of breath,” her husband, Scott Arliss, recalls.

A lot of tests showed there was nothing wrong, but doctors eventually found a vampiric sort of mass in her heart that was siphoning off blood. It’s a rare and alarming condition, to say the least.

“I didn’t have a lot of case histories to go on,” recounts Dr. H. Todd Massey of the University of Rochester Medical Center, one of her physicians. “The only other cases were through autopsy reports.”

In the second case a Montauk chiropractor named David Hartstein begins feeling joint pain (which he first thinks is arthritis) and then fever, which makes him suspect Lyme disease. But neither guess is correct, and doctors don’t figure out the real problem until he is in an emergency room, fading quickly.

Both cases are stark reminders that doctors are not all-knowing, and that an obscure condition can still involve a lot of uncertainty and misdiagnosis that may continue for many years. The families in the opening two cases don’t talk about the expense involved in their medical nightmares, but with the Supreme Court poised to make its widely watched ruling on health care, you’re left wondering what becomes of the people — or their families — who have to face such things uninsured.

Diagnosis: Dead or Alive

Discovery Fit & Health, Monday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Produced by Mike Mathis Productions.

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