Jeffrey Sank always knew when he was going to have an attack: Its onset was signaled by the same kind of uneasy, "uh-oh" feeling that portends an impending cold.
But Sank's problem wasn't in his head — it was in his gut. And when he felt the initial abdominal pangs, he knew that he had about 12 hours before he was miserable, or at worst incapacitated, for the next day or two.
"It almost felt like I'd done 1,000 sit-ups or been punched in the gut 100 times," said the digital media specialist, 43, who lives in the District. At first the attacks were intermittent. But after several months the pain, centered in the right upper quadrant where the liver and gallbladder are located, increased in severity and frequency.
For nearly a year, Sank, with the help of his stepmother, a physician, struggled to determine the reason for his pain. He saw multiple doctors, including two gastroenterologists, a kidney specialist and an infectious-disease physician. He underwent workups for reflux disease, a liver disorder, an intestinal blockage and malaria. One doctor suspected he might be faking.
Sank's problem turned out to be none of those things. His diagnosis was partly the result of serendipity: The second gastroenterologist he consulted was familiar with the malady, which is common in other parts of the world but not the United States. To complicate matters, Sank's case did not fit the standard diagnostic criteria.
"It's in the differential [a list of possible disorders suggested by symptoms], but since we never really see it, you don't necessarily think of it," said Montgomery County gastroenterologist William Steinberg. Luckily, something Steinberg had seen two decades earlier on a medical trip to the Middle East resonated when an increasingly desperate Sank consulted him in April 2010.
The first time he suffered stomach pain in June 2009, Sank assumed he had food poisoning. "I really didn't think much about it," he recalled.
When it kept recurring, he consulted his stepmother, Catherine Shaer, a retired pediatrician, for advice. Sank was otherwise healthy, and Shaer agreed that he should see a gastroenterologist.
At his initial appointment in October 2009, the gastroenterologist told Sank he suspected his pain was the result of gallstonesand ordered a sonogram.
The test was memorable: Sank said that during the procedure the technician began acting strangely and then summoned a radiologist. In a somber voice, Sank recalled, the radiologist "told me that there was a huge lesion on my liver and they were going to send me immediately for a CT scan."
The radiologist then told him, Sank recalled, "there was something very serious going on here and that I needed to prepare myself and my family for what I had to deal with." Sank also remembers the specialist saying that his "door was always open."
"I thought I had liver cancer and was going to die," Sank remembered. At the time, his first child was only a few months old.
While waiting for the CT scan, Sank telephoned his stepmother and a friend who is an oncologist. Both told him that they were sure that the growth on his liver, the size of a large strawberry, would turn out to be a benign hemangioma. He had no cancer symptoms, and such tumors are common. A few hours later, Sank, hugely relieved, learned they were right. He didn't have cancer. Nor did he have gallstones. "We were back to square one," he recalled.