How One Woman Deciphered Her Own Genetic Mutation

As access to medical information becomes more democratized, patients have new power to investigate their problems.

Kim Goodsell was running along a mountain trail when her left ankle began turning inward, unbidden. A few weeks later she started having trouble lifting her feet properly near the end of her runs, and her toes would scuff the ground. Her back started to ache, and then her joints too.

This was in 2002, and Kim, then 44 years old, was already an accomplished endurance athlete. She cycled, ran, climbed and skied through the Rockies for hours every day, and was a veteran of Ironman triathlons. She’d always been the strong one in her family. When she was four, she would let her teenage uncles stand on her stomach as a party trick. In high school, she was an accomplished gymnast and an ardent cyclist. By college, she was running the equivalent of a half marathon on most days. It wasn’t that she was much of a competitor, exactly—passing someone in a race felt more deflating than energizing. Mostly Kim just wanted to be moving.

So when her limbs started glitching, she did what high-level athletes do, what she had always done: She pushed through. But in the summer of 2010, years of gradually worsening symptoms gave way to weeks of spectacular collapse. Kim was about to head to Lake Superior with her husband, CB. They planned to camp, kayak, and disappear from the world for as long as they could catch enough fish to eat. But in the days before their scheduled departure, she could not grip a pen or a fork, much less a paddle. Kim, a woman for whom extreme sports were everyday pursuits, could no longer cope with everyday pursuits. Instead of a lakeside tent, she found herself at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

After four days of tests, Kim’s neurologist told her that she had Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic disorder that affects the peripheral neurons carrying signals between the spinal cord and the extremities. It’s rare and carries a varying suite of symptoms, but Kim’s are typical, starting at the feet and heading upward. The neurologist explained that as her neurons died, the surviving cells picked up the slack by sprouting new branches—a workaround that masked the underlying degeneration until the rate of cell death outpaced the rate of compensation. Hence Kim’s crash.

The neurologist told her to come back in a year so he could check how quickly the disease was progressing, but that it would certainly progress. Charcot-Marie-Tooth has no cure.

The Goodsells drove home and Kim, exhausted, slept for two days. When she woke up, she got to work. “My reaction to things that I have no control over is to find out as much as I can about them,” she says. She started by reviewing her clinic notes, and quickly noticed something odd: There was hardly any mention of her heart.

Years before she learned that she had Charcot-Marie-Tooth, Kim discovered that she had another genetic disorder—one that affects the heart, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC). ARVC gradually replaces the heart’s synchronised beating muscle with fat and scar tissue. It nearly killed her once; she still has an internal defibrillator to keep her heart beating. But even though it was there in her medical records, her neurologist hadn’t seen fit to mention it in his report. “It meant nothing to him,” says Kim. “I thought: Wow, that’s really funny.”

It wasn’t the omission per se that bothered her. It was the implicit suggestion that her two life-long diseases—one of the heart, one of the nervous system—were unrelated. That, in the genetic lottery, she was a double-loser. That lightning must have struck her twice.

Surely not, she thought. Surely there must be a connection.

* * *

I meet Kim at La Ventana in Baja California, Mexico. She spends winters here, mostly kitesurfing. The sand and water are postcard-quality, but La Ventana has barely any resorts or big hotels. So in the still air of the morning when kites won’t fly, the beach is empty. Kim likes it that way. She has been up since dawn, cycling among the cacti and swimming in the ocean with pelicans and frigatebirds for company. She hauls herself out of the water, dries off, and sits on a small terrace overlooking the ocean. Her face is tanned and wrinkled, and she manifests no obvious signs of her two conditions. That’s partly because she has developed workarounds to mask and control her symptoms. She brushes her teeth on one foot to offset her balance problems. She uses massage balls and spends hours stretching to stop her muscles and joints from seizing up.

“See how I’m sitting?” she says. She has pulled her legs up on the chair to her left, and her back is curving that way too. “My spine curves this way”—she nods to the right—“so I sit curving to the opposite side. I consciously do the opposite.”

She has a history of that. In 1979 Kim was a mathematically gifted pre-med student at UC San Diego, her hometown college. Her path was clear: graduate, and follow her older brother into medical school. But on a trip to South America—her first time out of San Diego—she ended up hiking for three months instead of working at a clinic as she’d planned. When she returned home, her academic future seemed pale and uninspiring. And then CB—her future husband, at this point a fellow student and regular running partner—started taking her out on wilderness hikes. “He introduced me to the mountains and I thought: this is life,” Kim says.

Kim Goodsell

Within months of graduating Kim dropped out. Her brother, who had been a father figure to her growing up, was furious. “We hardly spoke. CB was his friend and he couldn’t even look at him,” she says. “He said I was being completely irresponsible.” Kim and CB married in 1983, and aside from a brief stint as restaurant owners, they have never had 9-to-5 jobs. They mostly earned a living by buying and remodeling run-down houses and selling them at a profit, and then heading into the wilderness until their supplies ran out. In 1995 they found themselves in La Jolla, California, working on an especially stressful renovation that left Kim drained.

Presented by

Ed Yong

Ed Yong is a science writer based in London.

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