Famous People with Pernicious Anemia

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A friend of mine sent me a link to the New York Times article: ” Was Mary Todd Lincoln Driven ‘Mad’ by a Vitamin Deficiency? ” It turns out she had a lot of the physical and psychological symptoms that fit with pernicious anemia.

In 2012, shortly after my diagnosis of pernicious anemia, a friend in Chicago said she thought Annie Oakley died from pernicious anemia. A quick search online seems to bear this out.

The article about Mary Todd Lincoln states “Severe cases are not often seen now because blood tests can diagnose the disease early and doctors can treat it. But that was not so in Mrs. Lincoln’s day.”

This was an unsettling statement because, although pernicious anemia is now an easily diagnosed disease, it is not always readily diagnosed. I think much of this is due to doctors not being aware of the symptoms and are mistakenly looking at red blood cell enlargement on a CBC (complete blood count) as the indicator of whether to test a patient’s serum vitamin B12 level.

A woman I know has symptoms of orthostatic intolerance and many symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. She is not quite vegetarian–but she eats very little meat (vitamin B12 is mostly found in meat and eggs), so is squarely in the risk group for low B12 levels. Yet, her physician refused to check a baseline vitamin B12 level because her other labwork results didn’t warrant it. My guess is that the doctor didn’t see the enlarged red blood cells that indicate severe and late-stage B12 deficiency. This doctor apparently doesn’t know that B12 levels on the low side of normal are sometimes an indicator of vitamin B12 deficiency. Without visible blood cell changes, there can be severe nervous system damage taking place.

This lack of knowledge will continue to be detrimental and, in some cases, devastating to the lives of people with undiagnosed/ misdiagnosed vitamin B12 deficiencies.  Medical schools need to start teaching about the damage that can be done in the human body with “low-normal” vitamin B12 levels and health care practitioners need to start sharing this information.

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