Medical mystery appears after local business owner returns from safari

After a fantastic African safari, David Dafoe returned home showing signs that something was very wrong with his health. Here’s how the medical mystery was solved.

Making a correct diagnosis is often a tricky combination of art, science and instinct. For local businessman David Dafoe, it required all three and a healthy dose of luck.

Strange symptoms begin

“In 2004, I had been on a trip to Kenya,” David said. “I got back to Louisville sometime around Thanksgiving.”

He started noticing unusual symptoms such as numbness in the leg and yellowing skin.

“I just didn’t feel well, and someone said, ‘You look a little yellow,’ so I went to my primary care doctor,” David said.

The doctor ran some tests and sent David to a gastroenterologist.

“They wondered if I had picked up something in Africa,” David said.

Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and African sleeping sickness are transmitted by insects. The chances of getting infected are low, especially if precautions such as vaccinations are taken.

For the next month, David had blood tests, MRIs and other tests. Nothing was adding up.

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“Bloodwork would come back showing unusual levels of this or that, but nothing conclusive,” David said. “My back hurt, and then I started having double vision.”

On New Year’s Eve, David had a table at a fundraising event.

“I felt bad but I wanted to go, so I had a friend drive me,” he said.

The next morning, things were worse, so he made a trip the emergency room.

“I sat in the waiting room for eight hours, and then I left,” David said. “I felt so sick.”

The primary care doctor he’d seen before sent him to a neurologist, who referred David to a hospital.

“The double vision made me nauseated,” David said.

A long hospital stay

David entered the hospital in the first week of January in, 2005, and wouldn’t return home until February 2005, near his birthday. More testing, including two spinal taps, continued to show nothing. Things got worse before they got better.

“By the end of the week, I was completely blind and unconscious most of the time,” David said.

He doesn’t remember much from this month.

David’s tests were being sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Since I had been to Africa, they thought maybe it was a tsetse fly bite, and they don’t do that kind of testing here,” David said.

The tsetse fly spreads a parasite via biting and results in trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness.

“The doctors didn’t know what to think, so they tested for everything,” David said.

In addition to testing, doctors tried everything they could think of to wake David up, including a long round of IV steroids. But things were not looking good.

“I was told to make a will,” David said. “I had lost enough of my vision that they had to hold the paper up and tell me where to sign.”

A light at the end of the tunnel

When Roy J. Meckler, M.D., a now retired neurologist, came on board with David’s medical team, it took him a few days — but he finally realized what was making David sick: multiple sclerosis (MS).

“It was the worst presentation of MS I had ever seen,” said Dr. Meckler, who retired from Norton Neuroscience Institute at the end of 2022 following a lifetime of caring for MS patients.

Within days of starting MS-specific medication, David began to get better. When he could walk around with a walker, he was allowed to go home.

“When Dr. Meckler sent me home, he told me to call his office for an appointment,” David said. “He said, ‘Tell them you’re the miracle patient.’”

David did, and began the road to recovery. Recuperation was slow but steady. Within a year his vision returned, and he was walking without assistance. He went back to work and started the medications that he will be on for the rest of his life.

Since then, David has been part of building MS support and services for Norton Neuroscience Institute. He is back at work, traveling and feeling great. But he will always have a special place in his life for the doctor he credits with saving his life.

Support for Norton Neuroscience Institute Resource Centers

In 2022, in honor of Roy J. Meckler, M.D., Norton Neuroscience Institute Resource Centers received a generous gift from David Dafoe: $250,000 to fund the Roy J. Meckler MS clinical care coordinator position. The coordinator monitors multiple sclerosis patients who use disease-modifying therapies, to help ensure patient safety. 

David credits Dr. Meckler for saving his life, and this gift will support the continued work of Norton Neuroscience Institute Resource Centers.

Donate now to Norton Neuroscience Institute Resource Centers.

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