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"Medical Mystery" Linked to Toxic Spill?
Aired February 1, 2012 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DR. DREW PINSKY, HOST: Here we go.
The New York Medical Mystery, the affected girls` high school holds an assembly about their condition, this as the school lashes out at the media and activists for drawing attention to the story.
Plus, I`m talking directly to one of the affected teens.
And later, conversion disorder, the official diagnosis and much more common than you think, what it is and could it affect your teen.
Let`s get started.
Breaking news continues from Le Roy, New York, tonight where as many as 16 high school teens and an adult woman have developed uncontrollable tics and verbal outburst. Doctors are diagnosing the teens with conversion disorder, as well as the adult. But the parents want more answers.
And now, Erin Brockovich`s team is doing an in-depth investigation into a 1970 train derailment just three and a half miles from where the school was built and where these affected teens attend class. It was the largest single TCE or trichloroethene spill in the country.
Right now, there is no link to that toxic spill, but the teens` symptoms - and they have these symptoms and that`s why we`re here tonight, to try to get some answers.
We`re learning Le Roy High School administrators held a meeting this week to address student body concerns and some parents were not happy about it.
Joining me, bob Bowcock is on the phone. He`s an associate of famed environmental activist, Erin Brockovich. He was in Le Roy over the weekend to conduct testing. Anne Rabe, Campaign Coordinator with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. And Jim Spellman, our correspondent in Le Roy and with HLN.
Jim, what`s the latest?
JIM SPELLMAN, HLN CORRESPONDENT: Dr. Drew, everyday our HLN team here digs the more we find troubling information about what`s happening in this school and in this town. It`s made it really hard for us to find out what really it all means and it`s really hard for the people in the community to get the answers that they feel they need. Take a look.
SPELLMAN (voice-over): In this tight-knit community of about 8,000 in Upstate New York, parents of children struck by a mystery ailment are looking to the school for answers.
LANA CLARK, MOTHER OF ONE OF THE AFFECTED TEENS: They say that they`re out there for our girls, you know, and looking out for our girls and are sympathetic, you know, with what they`re going through, but what is it, actions speak louder than words and I really don`t see a lot of action.
SPELLMAN: Lana Clark says her daughter Lauren has been suffering since October. Lauren is one of 15 students with similar tic-like symptoms. Doctors have diagnosed most of them with conversion disorder, a stress-based condition, but many in the community fear there may be an environmental cause.
CLARK: The teachers have been wonderful, you know, they`ve been great, and the school nurse, you know, has been great. I haven`t been in contact with anybody else, like the principal or -
SPELLMAN (on camera): The principal, the school superintendent, they didn`t get in touch with you?
SPELLMAN (voice-over): So we decided to try to get in touch with school officials ourselves, but the school district has hired an attorney who turned down our request to interview School Superintendent, Kim Cox. Reporters are also barred from entering school property, but the school says environmental testing shows the school is safe.
JUDY BRAIMAN, PRESIDENT, EMPIRE STATE CONSUMER PROJECT: They`re frightened of lawsuits, I mean, who wouldn`t be frightened of lawsuits, and they`re protecting themselves too and they`re protecting their image.
SPELLMAN: Judy Braiman is the President of the Empire State Consumer Project, a non-profit environmental advocacy group.
(on camera): Judy, the testing that you`ve seen so far, does that meet your level of satisfaction for testing in the school?
BRAIMAN: Absolutely not. It doesn`t even skim the surface.
SPELLMAN (voice-over): And there`s this, the Le Roy School District has its own natural gas wells that supply the schools with fuel for heating and other purpose. The wells use a controversial technique called fracking that shoots (ph) the chemical mixture into the earth to force out the gas.
BRAIMAN: Never, never heard about it. We were actually shocked when we found out about it last week, so it raises new questions.
SPELLMAN: Questions about whether gas from the wells might be contaminating the water, soil or air. Braiman says she wouldn`t be satisfied that the school is safe until she sees more thorough testing.
BRAIMAN: Children are entitled to be educated in a healthy and safe environment, and that`s all we want.
SPELLMAN: So Dr. Drew, it`s not just parents here that have questions. We`ve spoken to people all throughout the community. They all have so many questions about the other site, the Superfund site that we`ve been discussing and now these new concerns about these fracking wells there on school property - Dr. Drew.
PINSKY: Well Jim, thank you so much. We will continue to check in with you. We will see of course tomorrow with more.
Now, the school released a statement today, the school superintendent, and it was specifically seemed to be motivated or addressing Bob Bowcock`s presence in Le Roy over the weekend. So Bob, I want you to respond to this, are you there?
BOB BOWCOCK, ENVIRONMENT INVESTIGATOR (via telephone): Yes, Dr. Drew.
PINSKY: OK. Here we go. Here`s the statement. "Over the past few days, activities that have occurred in our community with respect to environmental testing by a representative who claimed to be working on behalf of Erin Brockovich have taken center stage. This has been a distraction and takes us away from our mission to return normalcy to our school district. It was clearly staged as a publicity stunt with members of local and national media invited to participate."
There you go, Bob, is that you`re allegedly associated with Erin or you are and this was a big publicity stunt?
BOWCOCK: Yes. I`ll tell you, Erin and I have been together for over 15 years. We`ve investigated somewhere over 500 cases like this on an annual basis, of which over 100 of them will actually physically go out in the field much like we did in Le Roy.
At every instance, we are invited into the community by the members of the community, by family members, and by people that are concerned about their environment and sickness.
PINSKY: So in this case, you were stonewalled and then your credibility is called into question as well as you`ve duped us into following you there, I guess, huh?
BOWCOCK: Yes. You know, I`m a big boy. And Erin and I have been called a lot of things over the years, but I think this is probably the first time we`ve ever been called criminal.
PINSKY: Oh, my goodness. Well -
BOWCOCK: And, you know, this morning when this was brought to my attention, there was a bit of an outrage and frankly that`s downgraded to just kind of almost pathetically sad.
PINSKY: Anne, let me go to you. Why is the school taking aim at everybody else? Has somebody dropped the ball there? Are they concerned about something? It seems that they should welcome in reviewers.
ANNE RABE, CAMPAIGN COORDINATOR, CENTER FOR HEALTH, ENVIRONMENT AND JUSTICE: They should, and our organization and others are calling for the state environmental and health agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to work with the school. Those are the environmental health experts that should be working with the school to do a transparent environmental investigation that looks fully at whether there`s any possible toxic exposure pathways and rules them out, once and for all.
The school has not done an adequate job of looking into that. They need the expertise with state and local agencies to work together on a transparent environmental investigation.
PINSKY: And Anne, I understand you have had contact with the EPA and you feel as though their response has been adequate?
RABE: The EPA has moved quickly to address concerns as is investigating various pathways of toxic exposure, but they`re hampered. They need to work with the school. They need to work with the state environmental health agencies to do a comprehensive environment investigation that looks at the gas wells, looks at two state Superfund sites in the town of Le Roy, a federal Superfund site right near, you know, a couple miles from Le Roy, as well as other pathways -
PINSKY: Anne, I`ve got to interrupt, I`m out of time. I appreciate your input, and I`ll be looking to you for more. But I`ve got to go.
Next, what`s it like with this to live with this mystery causing tics and verbal outbursts? My primetime exclusive with an affected student at Le Roy High and her best friends. Stay with us.
MARGE FITZSIMMONS, DIAGNOSED WITH CONVERSION DISORDER: If it ends up being environmental, then does that mean that I don`t have hope of getting better?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn`t have any vocal problems. It was basically just a little facial tic, and then I ended up blacking out at one point.
CHELSEA DUMAR, SUFFERING FROM MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS: I was happy before it all happened. Sometimes it gets me to a point where I want to cry from twitching so much.
THERA SANCHEZ, SUFFERING FROM MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS: It`s hard not being able to do what you love. I think it`s even harder knowing that I don`t know what`s going on.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLENE LEUBNER, MOTHER OF GIRL WITH "MEDICAL MYSTERY": Live with the girls for just one week and you`ll see that they`re not faking. You can`t fake something like this. It`s way too much pain, and just the way that they twitch or the way that their outbursts are, it`s impossible to fake.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PINSKY: That was Charlene Leubner. Her daughter Traci is one of at least 16 students at Le Roy High School suffering from a Tourette`s-like illness that causes uncontrollable tics and verbal outbursts.
Traci and her best friend Kaylee Cianci are joining us, as well as Lauren Scalzo. She is with us. She, too, has symptoms.
Also with me, a psychiatrist, Dr. John Sharp. He is in the faculty at Harvard Medical School and he`s the author of the book, "The Emotional Calendar."
First, I`m going out to you, Traci. How are you doing today?
TRACI LEUBNER, SUFFERS FROM "MEDICAL MYSTERY": Good.
PINSKY: That`s it, huh? And Lauren, you`ve joined us just recently. I just became aware you`ll be joining us a couple of minutes ago. How has this thing affected you?
LAUREN SCALZO, SUFFERS FROM "MEDICAL MYSTERY": It`s like really hard on my life and I don`t know, it`s like I wish it would like go away.
PINSKY: One of the questions I have is before this thing established itself, before it manifested, what was the connection amongst all of you guys other than that you lived in a small town and went to the same school building, did you have friends in common, did you go to the same swimming holes, was there anything that you guys all had in common, the girls that have this condition?
SCALZO: Not really.
LEUBNER: Nothing we can find so far, aside from our school.
PINSKY: And did you know about the twitching before you developed it yourself?
LEUBNER: Small town.
PINSKY: You heard about it - you heard about it and then you developed it. Dr. Sharp, that`s important information, I suppose.
DR. JOHN SHARP, PSYCHIATRIST, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: Absolutely. I`m wondering if the girls have a private aspect to their illness, something that they just don`t want to share with us that they are aware of themselves.
PINSKY: Why don`t you ask that?
SHARP: Well, is it possible, girls, that there`s something that`s, you know, kind of secret that you keep private that you don`t want to share, that you don`t need to share, but that you know about this condition or your suffering?
PINSKY: They seem confused by that one.
PINSKY: I want to read a three-page statement released today by the superintendent of Le Roy School addressing the media spotlight and the impact on student suffering from the so-called mystery illness.
The statement reads in part, quote, "Our administration and staff are exceptional and have been diligently working under stressful situation to try to maintain a supportive environment and educational environment. This has been extremely challenging given the irresponsible tactics by the national media. It is also heightening the level of anxiety of all of our students and especially jeopardizing the recovery of those affected students. Many of whom had recovered or have been showing signs of improvement."
Traci, do you feel that the attention that has been directed on to this situation in your town has harmed you guys or made things worse?
LEUBNER: Sometimes, but I feel like it`s helped a lot more than it`s been a burden. I mean, yes, it`s stressful, it`s hard, but it`s definitely helped a lot.
PINSKY: And it helps because it keeps things moving forward, trying to come up with explanations for this?
LEUBNER: Yes. It helped us like - like discover people who want to help and like help figure this out.
PINSKY: And when it is more stressful, any of the three of you can answer this, when the media attention and being on TV like this does affect you negatively, how so, how does it?
LEUBNER: It intensifies the tics, I guess. It just - it makes it worse like my nerves just build up and I get bad, I can speak definitely for Lauren, I`ve seen her get awful over stress.
SCALZO: I - it`s like - it gets worse.
PINSKY: And Caylee, you`ve been kind of quiet there, are you affected by this, or are you just a friend?
KAYLEE CIANCI, FRIEND REPORTEDLY SUFFERS FROM "MEDICAL MYSTERY": I`m just a friend. I`ve seen Traci and I`ve seen her get worse from attention, but like she said, this hasn`t affected us really in a negative way totally because it`s been having people help us out.
PINSKY: And are you guys, your parents, how are they doing, are they feeling anxious about all this, are they worried, does that make you more worried?
PINSKY: Sometimes it does. So Dr. Sharp, does the anxiety of the people around them tend to contribute to the manifestations if to the extent that there`s conversion?
SHARP: It does. You know, it`s just the human condition again, you know, a lot of stress can make things worse. It may not be driving this illness or disorder, we still don`t know what the real, you know, ideology is, but if it`s emotionally-based, certainly stress is going to make it worse.
PINSKY: Right. So, again, I want to - we`re going to talk about conversion later in the show and try to lay out exactly what this thing is, but there`s a piece of it that I may not get to when we talk about it at that point, which is that conversion is a physical manifestation, often neurological that has no medical explanation that can be discovered. It doesn`t mean you stay diligent and continue to look for it. You keep looking for that.
And it`s not - people want to ascribe it to a psychological condition, I kind of cringe, you I see you cringe when they say psychological. It`s more neuropsychiatric.
SHARP: Absolutely. And like I was just checking in with the girls, it`s not something that`s a hidden secret that they just have to like fess up, it`s something out of awareness that really has a very physiologic treatment basis as well.
PINSKY: And ladies, back out to you. When people say you`re faking it or what we call malingering, which is a different thing than conversion, does that upset you, does that upset your families?
LEUBNER: Oh, yes, very much, because it really hurts, honestly.
PINSKY: And do you get that from other kids and that`s why it`s hurtful because it`s people from your community, or again, is it the media crushing in that does that?
LEUBNER: I get it from girls who have this. I get it from janitors. I hear from students that they hear teachers talking about it. I hear it from a lot of people.
SCALZO: And it`s really annoying to hear like people are like saying we`re faking and having them call us or posting it on Facebook and like saying we`re faking, no.
LEUBNER: Yes. I`d like to see anyone do -
SCALZO: What we do.
LEUBNER: -- what we do 24 hours a day and try to fake that, because if I could stop, I would.
SCALZO: I would love too.
LEUBNER: I would so stop.
LEUBNER: And it hurts. Kaylee`s iced my neck from me pulling it so many times.
SCALZO: Yes. It hurts.
CIANCI: Like the nurse says.
LEUBNER: People are just rude about it.
PINSKY: And we saw a little - we just saw a little example of Lauren`s twitching there.
And, again, it`s not something that`s volitional even when it`s conversion, it`s outside of consciousness so they can`t access control over it.
SHARP: Absolutely right. So there`s no fakery about this. And, of course, it`s very frustrating when you`re felt to, you know, be faking it, that`s not the case. That`s certainly not what we`re saying, not one bit.
PINSKY: Well, then our concern is that somehow the chemical issue, the chemical spill might had something to do with this. I want to remind people that Dr. Sharp produced an article yesterday about tetrachloroethylene, which is very close - a relative of trichloroethylene which is what`s spilled there in Le Roy and it has been associated with predisposing people to psycho and neuropsychiatric symptomatology, perhaps that`s what set the soil up - and I`ve misinterpreted this - literally the soil.
I mean the circumstances of these girl`s biology to be predisposed to this kind of thing, or it could be causing what we`re seeing or making something else worse.
My last question to you, ladies, is are you all getting the same kind of treatment and how is treatment going, and how do you find that element in your care?
LEUBNER: I, personally, haven`t had treatment for this yet.
SCALZO: I haven`t either.
LEUBNER: I`ll admit, I am not half as bad as half the girls who have this. And I - I really just want everyone to get better. I, personally, I haven`t had any treatment. I`ve only seen one doctor for this. And I have good days, I have bad days. And I just want everyone to get better.
SCALZO: I`ve only seen two doctors for it, but otherwise no treatment for either of us. It`s - I`d rather have someone like helping me out with it than anything.
PINSKY: OK, OK. Well, ladies, you`re going to stay with me. I appreciate you being there. Is it cold where you are?
PINSKY: All right, well, thank you for hanging in with this. I see that your town behind you guys there, I really appreciate you being here.
So, up next, my group stays with me. Dr. Sharp stays with me. The girls stay with me and we`re going to address the question, does Kaylee, the friend worry that she will somehow catch this medical mystery? We will ask her when we come back.
And also, I want to talk - if you want to speak to me directly about this whole mystery on Facebook, we`re going to schedule a chat. It is scheduled from 3:30 to 4:00 P.M. Eastern Standard Time tomorrow. If you want to join in, I`ll see you there.
Stay with us.
PINSKY: I am back with Traci Leubner, Lauren Scalzo and Kaylee Cianci, all attend Le Roy High School. Traci and Lauren are affected with the twitches and tics that we`ve been reporting upon.
Kaylee, off to you. Are you concerned that you`re going to catch this thing somehow?
CIANCI: Yes, I am, especially if it is environmental. I mean, who knows what could be around the school, but then again, it might not have really anything to do with the school, it could just be something completely random and that`s why we`re happy that you guys have brought attention to this problem.
PINSKY: Kaylee, are most students approaching it the way you are, very sort of calmly and, you know, systemically?
CIANCI: I think some students are worried. I`ve heard that some kids have actually gotten taken out of school, but most kids just want to stay at school to be with their friends at least, so I think they try to be supportive.
PINSKY: That makes sense.
All right. Let`s go to some questions. I`ve got a Facebook question here from Tom. He writes - this is to you guys, "What is the most difficult aspect of this whole situation that you`ve had to deal with since the onset of your symptoms?" Ladies?
LEUBNER: The thing I hate most about it honestly is that I can`t do sports, I can`t do driver`s ed. I`m like I don`t have a life anymore, honestly. I just - I hate it. I used to do everything, I was just so active. And now I go to school sometimes and come home.
PINSKY: And Lauren, what about you?
SCALZO: I hate not being able to play volleyball anymore and most likely be a cheerleader, can`t do anything that I wanted to anymore.
PINSKY: All right, let`s go to Diane on Facebook who asks - here`s the question. This is a good one. I like this one. "Have you swam in a quarry that may have been affected by the train wreck"? There happens to be a quarry, a limestone quarry right near that train wreck. And my understanding is a lot of people do swim in that quarry. Have you guys swam, the two of you in that quarry?
LEUBNER: I didn`t even know it was there, honestly, until it all of this got brought out.
PINSKY: There you go. Well, so much for that theory.
Let`s go to Theresa on Facebook. She asked, "Has anything you`ve seen in the media or personal e-mails triggered off a thought as to why you may be suffering from this condition?" So I guess do you have any personal theories on what`s going on?
LEUBNER: I don`t have any.
SCALZO: Not really.
PINSKY: And let me ask you a tough - a difficult question, then Dr. Sharp and I are going to come back here and discuss it.
In your life before this all triggered, did you experience any kind of trauma, whether it`s some kind of losing somebody important or a car accident or something at some point in your life?
LEUBNER: I actually have been going through a kind of tough family situation and a little bit before this happened I went through a very disturbing breakup, but nothing that traumatic that I couldn`t handle.
PINSKY: And Lauren, do you?
SCALZO: Yes, mine`s the same.
PINSKY: OK. So you`ve had some - how about in the past, did any - go ahead.
SCALZO: I went through my grandpa dying, I mean it`s not like that`s traumatic, but it`s like made it really hard on me.
PINSKY: Sure, so thank you, ladies. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it. I got about 10 seconds. So that`s, again, more in line with conversion type symptomatology, yes?
SHARP: It could be. We can talk about that. It`s something -
PINSKY: Very important to discuss it. But next, we`re answering more of your Facebook and Twitter questions.
And later, we`re going to examine what some neurological experts think is causing this thing.
For more on this story and many others, check out HLNTV.com. Please, stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PINSKY (voice-over): The New York medical mystery top to bottom, the suffering children, the struggling parents, and the new developments.
Plus, spelling the rumors and answering the questions, the tough questions, unanswered questions, your questions.
And later, could the original diagnosis be correct? Conversion disorder is common than you think and has been afflicting teens and their families for thousands of years. I`m talking to a patient who had it and recovered.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PINSKY (on-camera): Tonight, we`re talking about this medical mystery that is afflicting more than a dozen teens in Le Roy, New York. And, I almost hate calling it a medical mystery, because it has a diagnosis, but it`s just something that we`re looking further into and we`re finding mysterious things along the way.
One of the girls was on our show and suddenly collapsed from what was called a seizure. Now, it might have been a fictitious seizure, might have been a mild clonic seizure, might have been something she had preexisting, something that was caused by the toxins or environment. So many questions we have to really answer.
That`s Thera right there in that picture suffering from those twitches. Since we started covering the story, we have been overwhelmed with Facebook comments and e-mails from concerned viewers. Parents want to know why their once-normal teenagers are suddenly acting like this. Here`s a timeline of what has gone on.
PINSKY (voice-over): Here are numerous events that may or may not be linked. Here are just some of them. Number one, December 1970, a train derails in the town of Le Roy, spilling two chemicals. Crystallized cyanide and tetrachloroethylene. The TCE was absorbed into the ground.
Number two, august 2003, a public school, Le Roy Junior-Senior High School opens about three and a half miles from the site of the derailment.
Number three, August 2011, heavy rains lead to flooding that they bring chemicals up from the ground.
Number four, October 2011, several teens at the school spontaneously developed tics and twitches, various health agencies investigate.
Number five, January 2012, neurologists confirm what several of the teens` own doctors had diagnosed, that they suffer from conversion disorder or mass psychogenic illness. Almost all of those who have developed symptoms are teen girls who attended Le Roy Junior-Senior High School. One boy is known to have symptoms, so does a 36-year-old nurse.
Environmental activist, Erin Brockovich, and her team are looking into possible chemical causes. The medical community is not ruling that out, but neurological experts stand by their findings.
PINSKY (on-camera): With me now, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, Dr. John Sharp. Two mothers of the teen girls, I have Charlene Leubner and Lana Clark. And Bob Bowcock is with me by phone. He is Erin Brockovich`s associate who has been conducting tests in Le Roy. Bob, any updates from the EPA?
VOICE OF BOB BOWCOCK, ERIN BROCKOVICH ASSOCIATE: No, we haven`t heard what they`re going to do next. Yesterday, we`ve seen they went out and sampled the barrels. Upon receiving those results, I anticipate that they will understand what`s in them and where they need to move them to.
PINSKY: So, the pictures we saw, it almost looked like they`re moving barrels. So, that`s not what they were doing. They were just sampling them?
BOWCOCK: Correct, correct. I think the report was some 15-plus ice chests. Those would have been the sampling.
PINSKY: Got it. All right. We have tons of viewer questions coming in. Let`s address some of those now. Facebook first, this is Mark. This is to Dr. Sharp. "How long does it take you to diagnose someone with conversion disorder and are you usually skeptical at first?"
DR. JOHN SHARP, PSYCHIATRIST, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: Great question. I`m always skeptical at first. And what you have to have is -- you know, psychiatrist or behavioral scientist, you have to come up with a real understanding of how this symptom would make sense in a person`s life while you`re excluding everything medical and environmental. It can take a few weeks to be 100 percent sure and even then you`re not a 100 percent.
PINSKY: Right. Then, this is what I want to point out, as a clinician, as an internist, I`m the medical guy working with the psychiatric patient, if I had any sort of gut feeling that I`m not sure. I`m not reacting to this patient the way I normally feel around a conversion patient, I would keep looking and looking and looking, even for years for medical problems, while we treated the conversion.
SHARP: Yes. I don`t take patients off, like I said before, to an asylum and sequester them. I work with internists, with neurologists, with anyone who can help with the evaluation as is required ongoing.
PINSKY: And the symptoms get better.
PINSKY: Regardless of the underlying -- whether we can find a tetrachloroethylene under there or not, the symptoms get better with your care.
SHARP: They do.
PINSKY: OK. Marcy writes, "Dr. Drew," it`s for me, "I was intrigued when you said you have a very specific emotional reaction to conversion. Why is that?" And, you know, I`m glad you`re here, Dr. Sharp, for this one, because doctors see -- you see so many of certain kinds of cases, whether it`s heart failure or heart rhythm disturbance or -- you get a feeling when you walk into a room and the patient starts telling you their history.
And that feeling, sometimes, can be very characteristic for specific conditions. And for me, because I was seeing lots of physical manifestations. Psychiatrists were asking me to rule out conversion or rule in a medical pause. I got used to sort of trusting my gut about it, and my problem with these girls is some of them, I get that feeling, some of them I do not.
And so, just like the moms who are asking for more help and more investigation, it makes me want to look further, keep looking. Not that they shouldn`t be treated for conversion or they shouldn`t receive that diagnosis provisionally, keep looking, keep on top of it. And low and behold, in the course of this, we discovered this darn toxic spill.
I mean, who knew we`re going to come up on that. Sarah, Facebook, and to me, "You said something about people with psychological conditions having an underlying medical condition that was previously unknown. Could you expand?"
I think the -- I was talking about the history of psychiatry, really, when I think when I said that, sometimes, psychiatric conditions we find over the course of medical history, a medical explanation for it.
SHARP: Yes. I mean, you were almost talking about what Sigmund Freud talked about in terms of feelings in response to a clinical condition.
PINSKY: Countertransference he called that, I believe.
SHARP: right. I mean, you know, if you`ve been feeling the certain way all day, you`re walking to see the next patient, you can`t blame it on them. They`re not blaming their patient --
PINSKY: It`s reading the feelings, it`s understand them.
SHARP: That`s data about the patient, absolutely.
PINSKY: Exactly. This now is Hilda who tweets, "If this an environmental cause, why isn`t everyone coming down with the symptoms?" I want to go out to the moms. Have you heard about other people coming up with the symptoms other than the girls?
LARA CLARK, MOTHER OF GIRL WITH "MEDICAL MYSTERY": yes.
CHARLENE LEUBNER, MOTHER OF GIRL WITH "MEDICAL MYSTERY": There was a lady, 36 years old, and then, the boy that came down with it.
CLARK: Also, in the past --
PINSKY: Go right ahead.
CLARK: Oh, OK. Also in the past, there was a boy who wrote in who was in the graduating class of 2004. He had similar symptoms as the girls, and then, there were a couple of other girls in a later class that had graduated from Le Roy, and they had similar symptoms as the girls, and my thought is that maybe it was --
CLARK: How are the teachers responding? Is that what he said?
LEUBNER: Yes, that`s what he said.
CLARK: Oh, they`re awesome.
PINSKY: They`ve been supportive?
CLARK: Teachers are extremely helpful, yes.
PINSKY: Are they, themselves, concerned? Are they, themselves concerned that they are going to be exposed to something? I imagine they live in your community? Are there concerns for their children? Do they ever raise these kinds of feelings?
CLARK: Well, I`m sure they`re concerned.
LEUBNER: They`re just not letting the girls know that they`re concerned about themselves and their families.
CLARK: I don`t think they`re worried about catching it. I mean, they go out of their way to meet, you know, with my daughter on Saturdays and, you know, at different times.
PINSKY: And guys, I want to ask you something I asked the girls. Is there any common thread amongst all these girls or all these kids at the school other than the fact that you`re in a small town and they go into the same school building?
Is there something that they all share? Is there any common relationship with a boy or a circumstance or a place they go swim or a place they go visit in the summer, anything like that?
CLARK: Not really.
LEUBNER: Not that I can think of.
CLARK: I mean, some of the girls are good friends. Some of the girls are just acquaintances with the other, you know, kids. It`s not like, you know, they all hang out together as a group or anything. I mean, there are swimming holes around here, but, I mean, you have all different grades too, you know?
And sometimes, the grades tend to stick close to each other. You know, like the ninth and the tenth graders or the eleventh and the twelfth. I mean, we can`t think of anything that, you know, other than the school that links them together. I mean, some play soccer, some are cheerleaders, some are not even, you know, active in sports, not involved in sports.
PINSKY: This is the part that now we`ve got to sort of start to focus in on. If you learn anything, ladies, please, let us know. I`m going to throw up another tweet there. This is Mr. Bowcock. "Are you going to keep pressing the school for water or soil samples?"
BOWCOCK: Absolutely. You know, when I initially went out there, I wanted to get the lay of the land. I`ve got that. I`ve got some ideas on what they need to look for. I`d like to collaborate with them a bit as well. If they want to have their own testing done, I don`t want to duplicative.
I`d like to use all the resources we have in the most efficient way. So, I`m going to be pressing them to do more analysis, and I want to make sure that we`re collaborative and can share information and test in the most possible areas collectively.
PINSKY: Any sense of why they`ve been so defensive and so sort of unwilling to be collaborative?
BOWCOCK: Boy, I really don`t know. Identified just in the initial visit, you know, a number of other environmental areas that we need to look at. You know, you have the natural gas wells. There are five natural gas wells on the school site. You have a lot of storm water that comes on and off the site.
The school was built on a swamp literally five years ago, and you know, there`s claims that the fill material was brought in from the -- the spill site, the train derailment. So, there are other environmental issues that we`re looking at simultaneously. So, I don`t know. It`s very frustrating that they`re being so belligerent towards our offering to help this community.
PINSKY: Well, thank you Bob. Thank you ladies, Charlene, Lana. Thank you Dr. Sharp. We`re going to continue this conversation with looking into a great detail of a phenomenon of conversion disorder. We`ve been throwing that term around a bunch. We`re going to define that for you, really walk you through what this thing is and answer more questions about it after the break.
PINSKY: Welcome back. Just before the break, we were answering your question about conversion disorder and is it real, what is it. I`ve seen a lot of patients with conversion, and I can tell you, it is a very real neuropsychiatric condition.
Here to talk more about this disorder, we have psychiatrist, Dr. John Sharp, is on faculty at the Harvard Medical School and author of the book "The Emotional Calendar," and Donald Shetterly, he has actually suffered from conversion disorder and recovered. There you are.
But first, HLN correspondent Holly Firfer is here. And Holly, you have traced the history of this disorder. It is certainly not something new, is it?
HOLLY FIRFER, HLN CORRESPONDENT: No, you`re absolutely right, Dr. Drew. Conversion disorder are mass hysteria, might be a mystery to some, but it`s a diagnosis that`s been around for centuries.
CHELSEY DUMARS, SUFFERS FROM MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS: My body`s sore. Sometimes, it gets me to a point that I want to cry from twitching so much.
FIRFER (voice-over): What is going on with the teens in the small town of le Roy, New York?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We call it conversion disorder.
FIRFER: But what exactly is conversion disorder? According to the National Institutes of Health, conversion disorder is a condition in which a person has nervous system or neurologic symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These kids are just totally normal, and then, next thing you know they`re going -- and their arms are swinging, and they can`t control themselves.
FIRFER: And no one knows the exact cause. Although somewhat of a mystery, conversion disorder has been known for centuries. First identified as hysteria by Hippocrates in Ancient Greece. There have been documented incidences of unexplained illnesses throughout history. Arguably one of the most famous incidents ended with the Salem witch trials in the 1600s.
Young girls in Massachusetts were documented as having fits, uttering strange sounds, and complaining of being pricked and pinched. Villagers claimed they were possessed by demons. The mass hysteria ended with the deaths of dozens of people accused of using witchcraft on these girls.
It wasn`t until late 19th century when Sigmund Freud hypothesized that the root of this hysteria was psychological, explaining it was an attempt to resolve or communicate unconscious or unbearable psychic conflicts.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What happens is there is traditionally some kind of stressor or multiple stressors that provoke a physical reaction within the body.
FIRFER: For a half century, conversion disorders has been discussed in relation to medical mysteries around the globe. 1962, Tanzania, news reports say unexplainable and uncontrollable laughter spread through a girl`s school lasting a couple of weeks. 1983, the west bank, a fainting epidemic among young girls reported by the Palestinian authority blamed exposure to chemical weapons.
According to local reports, testing showed only 20 percent of the girls were actually exposed to the chemicals. 1995, Tokyo, terrorists release toxic gas in a subway. Seventy percent of those who went to the emergency room with dizziness and nausea were not significantly exposed.
1996, Portugal, news reports say a school was closed down after students complained of rashes, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. No physical explanation was found. 2010, Brunei, local newspapers report students in an all-girls school began screaming, shaking, and crying claiming to be possessed by evil spirits.
FIRFER (on-camera): And as you know, Dr. Drew, psychological illnesses sometimes have that stigma attached to it. People don`t really want to talk about it, they`re embarrassed. So, that maybe why we don`t really know a whole lot about it, not a lot of research has been done, but the good news is, the National Institutes of Health are conducting two studies right now on conversion disorder. So, they`re hoping and we`re all hoping that, Dr. Drew, we may learn more about it.
PINSKY: I do want to ask the parents, I`ve had (ph) chance to ask you, why they`re not taking advantage of that study. It`s a long way to go, I understand it. that was school stuff (ph). But I hope some of them take advantage of that.
Dr. Sharp, this is a -- again, it`s a brain phenomenon, and it`s a brain phenomenon that`s kind of complicated. It`s called the basal ganglia part of the brain. Do I have to draw my brain picture again, I`m going to do it real quick here.
SHARP: Please do.
PINSKY: Remember my brain, here it is. Everybody, got a brain? Show you the brain. This is the cortex. This is the part we`re all thinking from. The basal ganglia is down in here. It`s way down in the very center part of the brain.
SHARP: Below awareness.
PINSKY: Below awareness, and it`s an area that`s hard to study and very, you know, difficult to nail in, which is why we keep looking for potential causes for this just to see if there`s a possible medical explanation for it. And yet, conversion seems to be, at least, a big piece of what`s going on here in this school, no?
SHARP: It looks that way. You know, if we could find an environmental - immunologic cause, that would be an easy answer, but it wouldn`t be as helpful therapeutically. You know, conversions is more complicated thing to understand, but when you understand it, you can find a way to really lead people towards the right kind of treatment, which is emotional and physiologic.
PINSKY: Well, speaking of that, I`ve got Donald __ who got better from conversion. Don, how were you manifesting? What kind of symptoms did you have?
DONALD SHETTERLY, CONVERSION DISORDER PATIENT: For me, it was anywhere from flailing around seizure-type symptoms to just complete paralysis. I couldn`t move, I couldn`t speak very well. I mean, I couldn`t stand up. My legs wouldn`t hold me, but went complete paralysis for me.
PINSKY: And how did you feel when people first brought up the diagnosis of conversion?
SHETTERLY: I don`t think I actually heard that for a long time. I don`t know if they were trying to shelter me from it or not, but it was -- I mean, it was one of those things back then in 1991 when I went through it, nobody really knew what was going on or if they did, they didn`t share it with me, so I felt completely alone and isolated.
PINSKY: And how are you doing now?
SHETTERLY: I mean, most people around me would never know I`ve been through this. I mean, I notice sometimes I have some memory issues or you know, little, little things like that, but most of the time, you know, nobody would ever be able to tell it in me now. I`m active.
PINSKY: Even now, though, I bet it`s hard to understand it as an emotionally-based experience, even in retrospect.
SHETTERLY: It is. I`ve gone through some very healing, intense, deep work and have learned about some (INAUDIBLE) and how things affect your body and I always kind of look at it like, you know, if you keep adding more appliances on to an electrical outlet, sooner or later, it`s going to overload and the trippers -- the breaker`s going to get tripped, which is basically what happened.
PINSKY: What happens there. Donald, thank you so much for sharing your story. Dr. Sharp, of course, I appreciate you being here and help us walk through this situation.
And up next, more about what might be causing this medical mystery if not conversion. Stay with us.
PINSKY: We`ve been talking about conversion disorder, what is it, and the fact that it`s a real neuropsychiatric condition. A brain condition with psychiatric pathology that associate with, and it`s been around for centuries.
And by the way, I want to point out again that I`ve seen a lot of conversion, and one thing I`ve learned is to just keep looking around to see if there`s any potential contributing medical condition, because, occasionally, you`ll come upon something and low and behold. If you hadn`t been diligent, somebody wouldn`t call it conversion and had something maybe more serious or something you do something else in terms of treating it.
We`re back with Dr. John Sharp who is the faculty member at Harvard Medical School and author of "The Emotional Calendar" and Donald Shetterly who has recovered from conversion disorder.
Donald, I`ll go back to you again. Do you feel like people should have been more forth coming with you while you were suffering with this thing that this was sort of a neuropsychiatric condition?
SHETTERLY: Most definitely, because I was just in the dark. And, I think to be in the dark is more fearful, more frightening. It would have been very helpful to know what was going on.
PINSKY: It`s interesting, Dr. Sharp, though, you have people who are always nervous about talking about it or breaching the possibility that it doesn`t have a medical -- we lose track of the fact that the brain is a medical instrument, and that it may have an emotional basis, but it`s still a biological expression of something.
SHARP: I see it every day. You know, psychiatry is a medical specialty, but people don`t want to take that first step to get to my office because they think that they`re going to be blamed and it`s not real, and it certainly is real and is certainly not to blame.
PINSKY: Did you, Donald, go through those kinds of symptoms or those kinds of feelings about this condition when it was presented to you?
SHETTERLY: Oh, yes. I wanted to hide from it. I wanted to run from it. I wanted to act like nothing was wrong. And, in all reality, I couldn`t because I was pretty much paralyzed in a hospital bed. So, I had to face it.
PINSKY: And just so -- we can sort of put a little code (ph) on this, often times people with conversion have some trauma history. Did you have any childhood trauma, that sort of thing?
SHETTERLY: Yes, I did. And actually, at the time, I wasn`t conscious of what was going on, but yes, I was sexually abused as a child. So, I went through a considerable amount of trauma.
PINSKY: And, Dr. Sharp, it`s not usually necessarily that overt a trauma to precipitate a conversion reaction, and in fact, in the present, if there was a car accident in childhood or loss of a parent or something, and then, a more minor kind of hit in their adult or adolescent life that triggers the conversion, isn`t that how it usually goes?
SHARP: That`s exactly the combination, Dr. Drew. So, that it doesn`t have to be significant overwhelming thing, but it usually is the combination of something which is nearly overwhelming, and then, something else which is tips it over the edge.
PINSKY: And Donald, do you have any concerns for the girls out in Le Roy? Is there anything you would -- any message you would give out to them?
SHETTERLY: I would say, keep looking, and keep digging and searching. And, you know, it`s like I think you were talking earlier, don`t -- you know, discount those things that you think maybe don`t play a role in this, because they might. They might just play a role. They might be some event that you`re just not looking at, but it could be the key to the unlocking the whole thing.
PINSKY: Again, Don, appreciate you sharing this with us. Along those same lines that you`re saying, who are looking for causation, some sort of trauma that these girls have had or they didn`t think about as a trauma, some sort of thing that ties them together, we`re looking for that, and then, we`re also continuing to look for sort of medical kinds of things that could predispose to or cause or contribute to this sort of thing.
So, Donald, thank you. Dr. Sharp, thank you.
Now, if you want to talk to me directly about this, join our Facebook chat tomorrow at 3:30 eastern time. I`m going to be there just answering questions about this outside of the sort of the rigors of television. Thank you all for watching. I`ll see you next time.