TV

External hearts & second skeletons can’t stop the stars of Incredible Medicine

By Kitty Knowles 21 February 2017
Body confidence activist Harnaam Kaur appear on Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook. Pic: BBC/Alexis Smith
Summary

These people are changing the world for the better.

Too often TV shows about ‘extreme’ conditions present patients as curiosities to be ogled.

While full of drama (and music to make you cry on cue) it’s good to see Incredible Medicine sidestep this.

Instead the new 6-part series from the BBC doesn’t only do a fantastic job explaining how rare conditions impact people’s lives, but why these conditions exist, and why study of them is vital.

“We often think that common diseases will help us understand rare ones, essentially it’s the other way around,” Dr Frederick Kaplan explains in this week’s episode.

“The key to the closet is the key to the kingdom.”

Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook Virsaviya with her mother Dari RHS. Pic: BBC/Alexis Smith
Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook Virsaviya with her mother Dari RHS. Pic: BBC/Alexis Smith

Inspiring stories

Each programme tells a selection of moving stories, of course. And in the first, we learn how seven-year-old Virsaviya Borun was born with her heart on the outside of her rib cage.

“I’m not supposed to run” she tells the camera, before confessing this doesn’t stop her.

Body confidence activist Harnaam Kaur, who has the hormonal condition polycystic ovary syndrome, later describes how having a beard once led to her considering suicide.

“I was bullied horrendously, it was absolutely horrific,” she explains.

But these inspiring individuals are far from passive case studies to be pitied or gawked at.

Instead, Incredible Medicine documents their decisions to work with researchers change their lives, and potentially impact the world for the better.

One lady, Jeannie Peeper is directly responsible for breakthroughs on her condition, Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva – which means bones are growing over the top of her skeleton.

Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook Jeannie Peeper: Pic: BBC/Alexis Smith
Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook Jeannie Peeper: Pic: BBC/Alexis Smith

Unbelievable treatments

This is where inspiring science comes in, as studies and treatments around each condition are explained.

One of the most cutting-edge procedures involves 24-year-old Ian Burkhart, who was left paralysed following a freak accident.

His treatment, a so-called ‘neural bypass’, literally involves plugging equipment into his brain.

This works in the same way as “a detour around a traffic accident” explains electrical engineer Nick Annetta, and Burkhart, who never expected to be able to move his fingers, is later seen picking up objects and even playing Guitar Hero.

Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook - Ian Burkhart (front left) and medical engineering team. Pic: BBC/Alexis Smith
Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook - Ian Burkhart (front left) and medical engineering team. Pic: BBC/Alexis Smith

Other examples of innovation aren’t always technical.

Professor Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, for example, meets just one of the thousands of patients he’s helped.

His work around missing ‘phantom limbs’ has completely changed the way scientists understand the brain – and involves a simple $2 mirror.

In all, the big appeal of Incredible Medicine isn’t the unusual conditions shown, but the incredible people tackling them.

Emotionally engaging, positively enlightening – and one to watch.

Incredible Medicine airs on Wednesday 23 February at 9pm, BBC Two.