Mark vs Cancer

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A.C.H.O.O. Syndrome

I have a disease, a genetic disorder that causes me significant distress. Regretfully, I have passed this diabolical gene on to my two sons.

What is my condition? In short, I sneeze--suddenly, violently, frighteningly--when exposed to bright sunlight.

Do not laugh at my affliction, commonly known as A.C.H.O.O. syndrome, or Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Opthalmic Outburst Syndrome. (Read here for details.)

My suffering has been lifelong, yet my journey towards understanding and acceptance began in the relatively recent past while in medical school in Arizona. There, I would spend many long hours in our quiet, darkened library with my head bent over my textbooks, drooling onto the pages in peaceful slumber. In rare intervening moments of lucidity, the assorted medical minutiae would flutter in and out of my droopy eyes like cactus wrens at dusk. Then, my jejunum would emit borborygmi and I would awaken, knowing that it was time to go home and partake of some delectable morsel, such as Top Ramen, Mac and Cheese, or perhaps an Oreo cookie.

I would stuff my books into my tattered backpack, and I would step out of the dark library into the brilliant afternoon Arizona sunlight. Then, as reliably as flipping on a switch, my nose and head would suddenly explode into sneezing, always three distinct and uncontrollable sneezes. Then, having purged the demons, I would experience a somewhat pleasant feeling of catharsis.

For over a year, I assumed that these sneezing fits were induced by pollen allergies due to the flowering bougainvillea that surrounded the library's entrance. But in our second year, while studying neuroanatomy one day, my professor digressed in his lecture on the cranial nerves. He discussed A.C.H.O.O syndrome, a genetic condition in which a strong, sudden light stimulus triggers constriction of the pupil, which overstimulates of the optic nerve. This overstimulation--in certain people--causes an inadvertent cross-stimulation of the trigeminal nerve, the nerve which controls sneezing. Light-->pupillary constriction-->SNEEZE!

There was no cure, he intoned, only diagnosis. But with that, there came understanding, and thus a measure of peace.

I knew it was true. I was living proof. He asked if anyone in our class who suffered from these symptoms. About 20% of us raised our hands, and I no longer felt so alone.

My brother, Jeff, suffers from this same condition, as do my two sons, though it is not a gender-linked trait. I have a friend whose parent's both have A.C.H.O.O. syndrome, as do all eight of their children. Imagine their trips to the beach.

The Spanish word for "to sneeze" is "destornudar." In Portuguese, it is "espirrar." These are evocative, slightly onomatopoetic words, and they are wholly immaterial to our present discussion. Yet I include them here anyway for your enlightenment, and to highlight the fact that I, in likely contrast to you, am tri-lingual.

I suppose we all have our crosses to bear. A.C.H.O.O. Syndrome is mine. I am currently filing for disability; Uncle Sam will hopefully have compassion, concur with my self-assessment of total medical debilitation, and thus send me a large monthly check. You, American taxpayer, can support me in my disease.

Failing that, I plan on opening a posh medical clinic dedicated to supporting those who are similarly indisposed, where I will educate them on the nature of our disease, commiserating with them for the low price of $125 per fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes of seeking solace and you get a ten percent discount. Or perhaps I will provide "concierge" medical services: $5000 per year, and you have me at your beck and call, providing year-round, expert, and individualized consolation. Perhaps I will take the liberty of prescribing you an antihistamine, which could dampen the sneeze reflex ever-so-slightly. Never mind that similar medications are readily available over-the-counter: this will be a hand-written prescription, and thus will carry presumptively stronger therapeutic power.

In this way, I hope to turn my medical misfortune into an opportunistic source of either free or scandalously cynical income.

So do not weep for me.

Rather, dear friends, sneeze away.


Kristen said...

Wow this sounds like a terrible disease! Your poor sons. Good luck on the classes you'll be giving. I am sure it's a serious concern among many:)

Goose said...

What's wrong with you man. Boy I am glad that I don't suffer from such a freakish disease. Oh, and by they way, your clinic will never work unless you offer free cold beverages along with a session with they doctor. It may be a little more pricy to you, but in the end people will flock to your clinic, a free beverage.

Jeff said...

As a fellow sufferer, I feel you pain and would like to pay for your services. I sneeze...oh how I sneeze!

Jericho. said...

You are fascinating.

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Anonymous said...

I realize that I'm responding to a 2 year old post but I thought that I'd mention that I too, as well as my mother, sister and daughter (age 12) all have this "disorder". My mom sneezes 4 times and I usually 1or 2. I have heard it said it maybe genetic. The optic nerve located in close proximity to nose gets overly stimulated and fires off a signal to the brain and voila!

I live on the east coast of Canada so it isn't just Americans who suffer from this either.

Anonymous said...

I'm responding from western Canada. Most of my family suffers from this syndrome. My grandfather always identified it as a "family trait". Of course, he never knew that it was indeed a genetic disorder. What fun!

Anonymous said...

Me too! My wife heard a story about this on NPR today and finally light was shed :) on this; it has always perplexed me. I remember walking out of a relatively dark classroom day after day as a middle schooler and having to sneeze; this was when I first noticed it. I have it to this day, and it usually consists of three sneezes. I actually use it to my advantage when I get sinus headaches -- by looking at a bright spot in the sky or landscape I can typically sneeze several times, which does a great job in clearing my sinuses.

Anonymous said...

I have ACHOO syndrome. What's the big deal?

Anonymous said...

today i talked about this in a class. I never heard about this before and i though that was normal to people snize with bright lights since my father always said to me to look at the sun when you want to snize. I think that my father doesn't know about this syndrome either. Is there anyway to be sure that i have the syndrome, my case is not this intense at least that i have noticed...

Anonymous said...

I do the same. Ever since I was a kid, I've sneezed when exposed to bright light. It doesn't bother me. We all have something. Like someone else said, I use it to my advantage. When I'm congested, I look toward light to bring on a sneeze. No big deal.