Diagnosis at the Pool Hall

A doctor resorts to unconventional methods to find out what's wrong with her stumbling but sober friend.

By Jenny Blair|Thursday, October 10, 2013

Joseph and I were introduced by our mutual friend Tom at a Texas pub. My husband and I had cycled through the July heat to meet the two of them that Saturday afternoon, arriving a little early. Hustling inside to the A/C, we ordered beers and racked the pool balls for a game. We were well into both by the time Joseph and Tom arrived.

Joseph was a trim, middle-aged white man whose hair, eyebrows and soul patch were fairer than his skin, giving him a crisp and youthful look. He was a stone carver by trade, and he wore work boots and a plaid shirt. And he lurched. It was dark in the pub, but his seesaw gait was hard to miss.

As Tom introduced everyone, Joseph said something offhand about his feet hurting, then he changed the subject. We hit it off fast — Joseph was friendly and had a dry wit. But his movements were off. Even though he was sober, he had trouble grasping his drink, and he had to hold on to Tom whenever he moved from his stool to the pool table or bar. He wisecracked about it, but something was wrong.

I ventured a few questions.

The problem started two days before, when Joseph noticed his feet were tingling. Thinking his pneumatic tools might be affecting his circulation, he loosened his boots. But his hands, too, felt tingly and numb. The next day his legs felt rubbery, and he began to stagger. “I was losing my sense of contact with the ground,” he told me. 

At the time, Joseph was working on an 11-by-6½-foot panel of Texas limestone featuring two rearing lions. (It would grace the entrance to the client’s Ferrari garage, which he would showcase to guests during Austin’s Formula One races that fall.) The weakness in his legs made it difficult to carve. “When I got down on my knees to work, I had a little bit of trouble standing up,” he said. “I had to climb up the lions with my arms.” As he made his way around the sculpture studio by holding on to worktables and stone blocks for support, his fellow carvers thought he was joking.


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