Medical Mystery: The Pink Eye of Death

Can you solve this real-life medical mystery?

Dr. Judy Melinek knows dead bodies. As a forensic pathologist and a former fellow in the New York City medical examiner’s office, she’s spent a lot of time figuring out exactly how people died. She’s co-written a new book on her experiences called Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner (read an excerpt here), which we’ll discuss with her on the show this week. As the book shows, real-life medical mysteries are very different from how they’re portrayed on television, and an actual case is never as cut-and-dried as dramas like CSI would have us believe.

But we’ve got such a smart audience, we thought we’d give you a challenge. Here’s an actual medical mystery Dr. Melinek had to solve in New York City. What do you think? Can you figure out this case?

Review the evidence below and make your case in the comments.

Here’s the case: A 30-year-old man goes into an emergency room and complains of a headache and neck pain. He is sent home with ibuprofen and told that it is a tension headache. He returns a week later with red eyes (conjunctivitis), continued headache, neck pain and nausea. He dies in the hospital shortly after admission and the case is referred to the medical examiner, because the death is sudden and unexpected. The only significant medical history is that he had been shot in the face as a teenager and is blind in the right eye.

Autopsy findings: meningitis (pus infection of the brain) with Staphylococcus aureus (a bacteria that usually infects wounds), and pus extending to the gunshot wound tract and around the eyes (pink eye).

You be the medical examiner: Is this a delayed homicide or a natural death? What happened?


Tune in this Friday at 2pm ET to hear what Dr. Melinek thinks happened, and be sure to call in with your own theories! (844-724-8255)

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About Brandon Echter

Brandon Echter was Science Friday’s digital managing editor. He loves space, sloths, and cephalopods, and his aesthetic is “cultivated schlub.”

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Medical Mystery: The Pink Eye of Death

Can you solve this real-life medical mystery?

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