ALS Clinic Turns Man’s Life Around

Paralyzed and preparing for death, Carlos Rodriguez gets a life-saving diagnosis at TTP El Paso’s ALS Multidisciplinary Clinic

A doctor’s life is filled with small examples of progress. A prescription to help a patient get over the flu. A cast to help a bone heal. A little advice to help someone live a healthier life.

But sometimes that progress is large and dramatic. This is one of those stories.

In 2017, Darine Kassar, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, started a Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso clinic for patients diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). There is no cure for ALS, and patients with the neurodegenerative disease deal with a continuing loss of muscle function. Patients slowly lose the use of their arms and legs, and they eventually struggle with breathing and the ability to swallow food.

The ALS multidisciplinary outpatient clinics started by Dr. Kassar allow patients to see a physician and receive occupational, physical, speech and respiratory therapy, as well as social services, all in the same location on the same day. That can be a godsend to patients who are dealing with the escalating difficulties of the devastating disease.

Carlos Rodriguez and Darine Kassar, M.D.

Carlos Rodriguez and Darine Kassar, M.D.

Dr. Kassar first met Carlos Rodriguez when he showed up to one of those monthly ALS clinics. Rodriguez was paralyzed from the neck down and used a motorized wheelchair. A doctor outside of the Texas Tech system had diagnosed him with ALS and he had been told he didn’t have long to live. Rodriguez learned about the ALS clinic from a therapist who was, as Rodriguez put it, “getting me ready for my departure.”

In his late 60s at the time, Rodriguez was beginning to accept this tragic, end-of-life scenario.

But Dr. Kassar took a good look at Rodriguez’s symptoms. Although he was experiencing myopathy—a weakness of the muscles—his didn’t look like a typical ALS case, despite what he had been told.

She examined his medical record and results from a muscle biopsy and found that he had been taking cholesterol medication, which raised a red flag.

“He had a type of myopathy, necrotizing myopathy, a type of muscle disease that can happen when you have cholesterol medication on board. The cholesterol medication triggers an immune reaction and the immune reaction attacks the muscles and destroys them,” Dr. Kassar said. “The information for the correct diagnosis was there—it was just missed.”

Dr. Kassar put Rodriguez on medication to suppress his immune system, in the hope of ceasing its relentless attack on his muscles. After some time, Rodriguez noticed something remarkable.

“By God, I started moving,” Rodriguez said. “First, I started moving my hands. I couldn’t move anything before. I was completely paralyzed from the neck down.”

Slowly, steadily, Rodriguez continued to make progress.

“It took several months, but I started to notice tweaks and twitches in my muscles,” he said. “Over the course of a year, she took me from bedridden and motorized wheelchair to a regular wheelchair, from wheelchair to a walker, from a walker to a cane, and then I was walking normally with no help at all.

“It’s been a very hard road for me, but I was very fortunate to find Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been seeing Dr. Kassar for about two years, and I’m still walking, thank the Lord. Dr. Kassar is a very special person. She took a lot of care.”

Rodriguez’s decline was an example of how things can go wrong, “if you don’t really look at the data you have, or you don’t know how to interpret the data,” Dr. Kassar said. “His diagnosis was there; it’s just no one made sense of what his test result was. I just connected the dots.”

And if she hadn’t connected the dots?

“He would be a paraplegic,” Dr. Kassar said. “The disease would continue to attack his muscles, and his muscles would eventually be destroyed. The longer time you don’t treat it, the lower chances you’ll have for full recovery, because your muscles will be destroyed, then that’s it.”

Rodriguez first showed up at Dr. Kassar’s ALS clinic paralyzed, hoping only for a slightly better quality of life in his last months. But a caring doctor connected the dots and changed his life. Now, at age 70, he has a future he never imagined.

“I’m going to be playing baseball the next time you see me,” Rodriguez said, laughing.