For many parents, it would have been a terrifying mystery: a seemingly healthy teenage boy suddenly developing paralysis in all four limbs. But Tom McDonough knew exactly what was happening to his son — because, years ago, he had experienced the very same thing.
Thomas D. Bird, M.D., Res. ’74, Fel. ’76, was an intern at UW Medical Center in 1968 when one of his very first patients showed up with an unusual complaint: 15-year-old Tom McDonough was completely paralyzed in all four limbs. The teen wasn’t especially concerned; it sometimes happened when he ate junk food. And the condition wore off. His mother was not so relaxed.
“Dr. Bird was thoughtful with my mother, who was more worried than I was,” says McDonough. He remembers that Bird pulled in some other doctors: neurology resident Grant Gauger, M.D. ’60, Res. ’69, and attending physician Phil Swanson, M.D., Ph.D. The three physicians then diagnosed the young McDonough with familial hypokalemic periodic paralysis, a rare genetic disease that causes muscle weakness or paralysis when potassium levels in the blood drop too low.
“They gave me potassium to restore my function, and, more importantly, they figured out what I had and gave it a name,” McDonough says. He suspects that some of his older relatives had also had the condition, though it was never discussed. “I started taking supplemental potassium, learned how to modify my behavior and diet and eventually outgrew the attacks in my early thirties,” says McDonough.
He became a healthy and active adult, an attorney who played softball and ran half-marathons in his spare time, and his emergency-room visit slowly faded into the past.
For Bird, however, McDonough’s case was just the beginning. “He was the first neurogenetic patient I ever saw, and that kind of disease was what I focused my whole career on for the next 50 years,” he says. Bird stayed on at UW Medicine for a residency in neurology and later joined the UW medical genetics clinic — one of the country’s first — working alongside the legendary Arno Motulsky, M.D.
“I had the luck of being brought into the field just as the whole field of medical genetics and human genetics was exploding,” says Bird. “The most exciting part of my career was finding the genes and mutations that cause these neurogenetic diseases; now, we’re beginning to see a payoff in finding genetic treatments.”
As a neurogeneticist specializing in hereditary diseases, Bird has cared for many families through multiple generations. But, throughout his long career, Bird never forgot about his first patient. And several decades later, when McDonough became a patient at UW Medical Center’s muscular dystrophy clinic, his doctor figured out the connection and reintroduced them, much to Bird’s delight.
In 2018, to mark the 50-year anniversary of their momentous first meeting, Bird, Swanson and McDonough gathered to take a commemorative photo. At the gathering, McDonough told Bird that his son had also developed symptoms of the disease.
“It was scary for my son and my wife, but I knew exactly what it was,” McDonough says. Now in his twenties, the younger McDonough takes medication to manage the attacks. And his dad hopes that gene therapy will one day become available to treat his child and future generations of his family.
“UW Medicine has kept me going for a long time,” says McDonough.