The human body is a mystery. And as far as science and medicine have come—and it is incredibly far—the chemical machines that we are are simply too complicated to master in every infinitesimal, intricate way. Physicians still encounter mysteries daily, and some of them have been seriously strange.
Patients have made impossible recoveries throughout history when all seemed lost or faded away for seemingly no reason. People have grown, secreted, emitted, and even become things you would never imagine, even when life and death were off the table.
With that in mind, this list will bring together medical phenomena that may be wonderful, terrible, or just bizarre, but all of which doctor’s still can’t explain.
10 Decapitated and Survived
As farfetched as it may sound to us, there are actually a few recorded instances in which a person has been decapitated and survived. The reason: the injury is what’s known as an internal decapitation (or orthopedic decapitation, or atlanto-occipital dislocation), in which the skull and spine separate, but the skin and other tissue around the bones remain sealed. This injury results in a head that is only attached to the body via limp, soft tissue.
Here are the statistics: for those who suffer an internal decapitation, 70% die instantly, another 28% die within hours, and the remaining 2% lucky enough to survive have almost all become paralyzed for life. And yet somehow, in 2008, after nine-year-old Jordan Taylor was internally decapitated in a car crash, the young boy almost fully recovered within three months and walked out of the hospital doors on his own.
As the boy’s mother, Stacey, puts it, “He’s like a little boy again…he is walking—I have to tell him to slow down. This is the best Christmas miracle that I could ever imagine.”
9 The Toxic Woman
One incident heavy on the mysterious side of miraculous but light on the fortunate side is the case of Gloria Ramirez, better known as “The Toxic Lady.” On February 19, 1994, Ramirez visited an emergency room as she was experiencing heart palpitations. Then Ramirez, the physicians in her room, and seemingly the very air around them evolved into something as deadly as it was baffling.
While the staff was treating Ramirez, they noticed her body behaving strangely. Her skin took an oily sheen, and she emitted two strange odors: one garlicky and one like ammonia. Staff began feeling nauseous and lightheaded. A nurse passed out—then a doctor.
That night, Ramirez passed away, but not before her odd biochemistry caused 23 people to become ill, five of which required hospitalization. What made the Lady so Toxic is still unknown—though may be related to her use of dimethyl sulfoxide.
8 Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage is a legend. Not because he didn’t exist, as he lived a very real life, but because one accident in his life has become, according to some psychologists, “one of the great medical curiosities of all time.” At age 25, Gage’s head was pierced all the way through by a large iron rod, causing the abrupt removal of much of his frontal lobe and, from that day forward, a complete shift in Gage’s personality.
The rod, a tamping iron, rocketed through and out of Gage’s head due to Gage’s distraction while working as a blasting foreman. From that point forward, every detail of Gage’s life is interesting. Though Gage’s physician and employers agreed that his “memory and general intelligence seemed unimpaired after the accident,” both also agreed that his personality changed for the worse.
His physician writes that Gage was “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating.” Gage continued to make uncharacteristic choices for years, until his last few years, when his behavioral changes seemed to begin reversing on their own.
7 The Dancing Plague
In 1518, a few hundred otherwise normal people in Strasbourg, Alsace (modern-day France) found themselves with an insatiable compulsion to dance. They danced for months on end, even enough to cause death, the incident coming to be known as the Dancing Plague of 1518. The reason behind any of the dancing is still unknown.
The incident began with just one woman who danced in the street and soon spread to hundreds of others. Accounts of the case, like most from that time period, are unreliable and superstitious, leaving the number of victims and number of dead (if any) vague. Nonetheless, it is clear that the event took place in some form and that it has no simple medical explanation to this day.
6 Gluten Delusions
There once was a woman in Massachusetts (whose name is left anonymous) who, at age 37, had a good, normal life. At the time, she was well-liked and working on her Ph.D. Then, seemingly out of the blue, she began experiencing severe hallucinations and paranoia. Anti-psychotic drugs didn’t help. Nothing did. One of her many doctor’s visits revealed that she had celiac disease, but by then, her delusions had turned her doctors into sinister, conspiring enemies, and she paid them no mind.
Eventually, when she hit rock bottom, having lost her job and friends and abandoned her studies, she sought out doctors again. They insisted she begin a gluten-free diet. Within weeks, her symptoms were almost entirely absent. What’s more, when at one point during recovery, the woman accidentally ate gluten, her symptoms returned immediately, and she even attempted to murder her parents. And once again, when she returned to a gluten-free diet, her symptoms vanished—this time in prison.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the mechanism underlying her story is still being studied and is unlikely to gain a concrete answer soon.
5 Foreign Accent Syndrome
Many different incidents can cause foreign accent syndrome, but most commonly, the cause is a stroke. After the stroke, sufferers begin speaking in an accent different from their own. Frequently, it is from a place they’ve never even been to or encountered at all.
The level to which their speech changes varies, as does the apparent cause. The accent gained can also come from seemingly any region, not even one that primarily speaks the patient’s language. But one commonality to every case is its mysterious neurological mechanisms and the level to which, whether explainable or not, the acquired accents seem impossible.
4 Dead for Forty-Five Minutes
After her incident, Ruby Graupera-Cassimiro told ABC News, “I was dead. My husband tells me, ‘You were gray. You were cold as ice, and you were dead. You had no color in your lips.’” Indeed she was dead—for 45 minutes. Then, seemingly of her own volition, she decided to live again.
Graupera-Cassimiro returned to life after 45 minutes of legal death, which is a miracle in and of itself. But on top of that, she somehow avoided any brain damage and even any burns from the five times doctors tried to jumpstart her heart again.
During her time under, Graupera-Cassimiro describes a religious experience with a spiritual being, and her impossible recovery makes us not want to question it.
3 The 36-Year-Old Fetus
Imagine at 36 you discover that you were born with a twin you never knew about. Then imagine that you find out your twin is still alive, and even better, is nearby. You might feel like you had been blessed with a miracle. Until that is, you find out exactly how near your twin had been. So near, in fact, that for 36 years, it had been living and growing next to your stomach—surviving by drinking your blood.
That is the story of Sanju Bhagat, who at age 36 went to have a lump in his torso removed, fearing it was a tumor. The lump was somehow both better and worse than a tumor. As one of Bhagat’s doctors recalls, “(the surgeon) just put his hand inside and he said ‘there are a lot of bones inside.’ First, one limb came out, then another limb came out. Then some part of genitalia, then some part of hair, some limbs, jaws, limbs, hair.”
The most spine-tingling quote of all goes to the surgeon himself, who said, “To my surprise and horror, I could shake hands with somebody inside [Baghat’s body]. It was a bit shocking for me.” The condition, which we know as fetus in fetu, is incredibly rare, and usually, both individuals die before or during birth. In this case, both survived for 36 years. The fetus’s nails were even growing long.
2 Pathological Generosity
The stories of Phineas Gage and the women with celiac delusions demonstrated how major biological changes can cause equally major psychological changes. However, in both cases, the changes were dark and off-putting. Luckily, the story of the Brazilian man known only as João exists to demonstrate the opposite: after suffering a stroke, João became neurologically addicted to charity.
After his attack, João quit his job as a human resources manager and opened a street cart that sold French fries. Well, perhaps sold isn’t the right word, as João gave fries away for free constantly. When he did accept payment for them, he quickly gave it to local beggars and children. He was so generous that he forced his family into relative poverty.
His neurologist concluded that João was “pathologically generous—compulsively driven to give.” This neurological shift helped some and hurt others, but in either case, remains largely unexplained.
1 Ask and Ye Shall Receive
This particular medical material earns its spot at #1 simply for being a classic and for being a breath of pure, fresh air after some strange twists and turns. At age 56, Greg Thomas was diagnosed with inoperable cancer throughout his head and neck. Doctors instructed him and his family to begin funeral preparations.
In his supposedly final days, Thomas began stopping by a local church. However, he prayed at its door daily, noticing that it was always locked and becoming increasingly dilapidated. Asking around, Thomas found the owners and requested that he be able to spend what time he had left restoring the church. All he wanted in exchange was the ability to pray inside it.
As he renovated the church and prayed, his condition changed. Thomas remembers that “My oncologist was blown away. She said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it.’” Four years after his diagnosis, the church looked a century younger than it had, and Thomas’s cancer was in full remission. As Thomas puts it, “While I was restoring the church, God was restoring me.”