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Medical Mystery: Woman Dying for Diagnosis

The Early Show"'s "Medical Mysteries" stems from the book, "Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis," by Dr. Lisa Sanders.

The story below is the introduction to Sauders' book.

In December 2006, healthy 22-year-old Krista Lesinski suddenly fell ill.

Lesinski was in bed for three days. She covered her windows with blankets because the sun hurt her eyes.

When she did make it out of bed to try to shower, she looked in the mirror and was stunned -- her skin had turned yellow.

"I ended up passing out," Lesinski told CBS News. "I threw up in the toilet and hit my head."

Read about another solved medical mystery, involving brain swelling

Lesinski eventually made it to New York's Nassau University Medical Center's emergency room. She was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU).

Dr. Sandeep Mehrishi, the director of the Intensive Care Unit at the facility said, "I had never seen a yellow patient like this in my life."

Mehrishi and his team ran countless tests and determined that her liver wasn't working. Lesinski's kidneys were beginning to fail and her red blood count was dangerously low.

"We knew that we were losing her fast, and we needed to do something really fast," Mehrishi said.

Lesinski was seen by several doctors, but nobody could figure out why she seemed to be dying.

"There were tons of doctors that kept coming in," Lesinski said. "I don't even remember their faces, there were just so many of them."

Dr. Steven Walerstein, the medical director of the medical center, said Lesinski was examined by gastroenterology, nephrology, and infectious disease specialists.

"We really had all our special services seeing her," Walerstein said.

To find out how Lesinski's medical mystery was solved, go to Page 2.

Three days after Lesinski was admitted, Walerstein was called in.

He says, "I came into this office, and there was a little note on my desk that said, 'There is a young woman sick as hell in the ICU, can you please have a look at her?'"

Walerstein said many of the doctors were going in one direction in trying to diagnose Lesinski.

He said, "I think we needed to take a step back."

Lesinki's symptoms matched a rare disease Walerstein had learned about years earlier, so he checked out his hunch in the medical library.

Walerstein said, "I remember sitting in the library and sort of having this tingling feeling of, 'My God -- this is what she has."

He had solved the mystery -- Lesinski had Wilson's disease -- an extremely rare inherited disease that effects only four people in 100,000. Wilson's disease causes too much copper to accumulate in the liver, and when the liver shuts down, the copper gets released into the system, destroying red blood cells and other organs, such as kidneys. Those were the exact symptoms Lesinski had.

Doctors then had a diagnosis, but they had to act fast to get her a transplant, if possible.

"The doctors had given me 48 hours to live unless a liver became available," Lesinski says.

Lesinski got the transplant. A fatal accident provided an organ donor who was a match.

She's since made a full recovery and says, ""My family calls me a miracle child."

Walerstein said, "This was unbelievable. I felt like I was walking on water for a long time afterward."

Lesinski said on "The Early Show" being a patient in the hands of doctors who didn't know what was going on was "crazy" and "frustrating at first."

"But when you're as sick as I was, the sickness takes over and you have to put it in their hands and let them do what they're good at, what they're there for," she said.

Lesinski said when she was in the hospital, she was optimistic, but it wasn't looking good.

"I was so sick," she said. "I did not know what was going on. I know my entire family was there and it was definitely a big struggle for everybody."

But why did she wait to go to the hospital?

Lesinski didn't have health insurance at the time. She said when she saw her skin and the whites of her eyes were tinted yellow, she didn't think it was such a dire situation.

She said, "I didn't know that there was anything particularly wrong with that other than, 'Okay, maybe I need to go to the doctor now.'"

Dr. Lisa Sanders said Lesinski's financial concerns got in the way of her health care.

"I think her impulse would have been to go to a hospital sooner, but she had financial (considerations)," Sanders said. "And it's important to know that lack of insurance does kill people."

Sanders cited a recent study that showed 45,000 people a year die because they don't have insurance.

"Fortunately, she (Lesinski) wasn't one of them," Sanders added.

"Early Show" co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez remarked that the sooner people go to the hospital, the faster doctors can take care of problems like this and curb costs, because costs go up as people get sicker.

Sanders agreed.

"I think, because she waited so long, she was further along than people expected," Sanders said. "So that was really an important problem in figuring out what was going on with her. ... The destruction of her liver had happened, and the downstream consequences were so devastating. These doctors really hadn't seen that before."



Read an excerpt of "Every Patient Tells a Story"

Sanders is an assistant clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and a clinician educator in Yale's Primary Care Internal Medicine Residency program. She also writes the popular "Diagnosis" column, which appears monthly in The New York Times Magazine. Her column was the inspiration for the acclaimed television show "House M.D."