At 21, Doug Lindsay thought his life was over. All his career aspirations and plans to graduate from Rockhurst University with a biology degree vanished the moment he first collapsed in 1999.
The Missouri senior grew so weak he could barely stand, let alone walk more than 50 feet. His heart raced, and he was constantly dizzy. The symptoms were debilitating — but familiar. They were signs of the same mysterious ailment that left his mother and aunt bedbound for decades. Doug had always wondered if the same would happen to him.
“When I called my mom that night to tell her I needed to drop out (of college), we both knew,” he said.
The young man spent the next 11 years at home, bedridden for about 22 hours a day. No matter how many doctors and specialists saw him, he got the same answer. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with him, just like they couldn’t with his mom and aunt. That’s when he realized he’d have to take his health into his own hands.
Doug kept himself occupied with medical research, pouring over an endocrinology textbook he’d first obtained in the hopes of helping his mother. There, between the pages, he found a section discussing how some adrenal disorders could be mistaken as thyroid disorders. His mother always believed her illness had something to do with her thyroid.
Whatever his condition was, Doug knew it had to be rare. So, after pouring through research on adrenal glands, he hypothesized there was an entire class of autonomic nervous system disorders. He also believed his adrenal glands were producing too much adrenaline for his body, making him sick.
The hard part would be convincing doctors and scientists to take him seriously. But Doug was determined. With the help of friends, he traveled to the American Autonomic Society’s annual conference in 2002. He gave a presentation from his wheelchair to scientists from around the world who specialize in nervous system disorders. Naturally, they were skeptical about the young man’s research.
But there he met Dr. H. Cecil Coghlan, a medical professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham who did take him seriously.
Through trial and error, the pair learned Doug was on to something. Coghlan began administering the drug Levophed, an injection of noradrenaline, which counteracts the effects of excess adrenaline. And Doug felt better. He could walk for short periods. But it wasn’t enough.
Then, they had an amazing breakthrough in 2006 — after so many years, Coghlan finally diagnosed Doug. He had bilateral adrenal medullary hyperplasia, which enlarges the medullas, or inner regions of the adrenal glands… causing them to produce too much adrenaline. They found only 32 recorded cases.
The solution seemed simple to Doug: cut out the medullas. The only problem? No such surgery existed for humans. So, Doug said, “I’m going to make one.” He proposed a first-ever human adrenal medullectomy and pioneered it himself as a patient. Eventually, he found a willing surgeon from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He underwent surgery for one medulla in September 2010, and again in 2012 to remove the remaining one. And it was a success.
Looking at Doug now, you’d have no idea he was bedbound for more than a decade. He’s walking, traveling, and has since received his bachelor’s degree in biology. He’s dedicated his life to helping other people, working as a medical consultant to help doctors identify and treat rare diseases. He also speaks at medical schools and conferences, sharing the story of how innovation and perseverance saved his life.
“I got help from people,” he said, “and now I have to help people.”
Listen to Doug’s incredible story in the TED Talk below, and share to inspire others!
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