Dr. Stephen Wheat Pioneers Use of Hand-Held Ultrasound for Early Leprosy Diagnosis
Sometimes it takes the isolation of a pandemic to allow a mind to journey uninterrupted to discovery. It was during the great plague of London that Sir Isaac Newton developed Calculus, the spectrum, and started his study of the laws of motion. It has been during the Covid-19 pandemic that Natchitoches electrodiagnostic specialist Dr. Stephen Wheat discovered that using the emerging technology of a hand-held ultrasound could give new hope to the greater than four million individuals worldwide suffering with undiagnosed leprosy.
In January of 2019, Dr. Wheat began to successfully use the emerging technology of a hand-held ultrasound known as the Butterfly iQ in his neuromuscular and skeletal electrodiagnostic specialty. The Butterfly iQ is one the world’s first dependable, hand-held, whole body ultrasound devices portable enough to be used with a smartphone or tablet. Dr. Wheat began to hypothesize how using a “pocket” ultrasound device such as the affordable Butterfly IQ might change the efficacy with which the world diagnosed this terrible disease, especially in remote countries where the disease often goes undiagnosed.
Having attended medical school in Louisiana and specialized in both internal medicine and physical medicine before becoming an electrodiagnostician, Dr. Wheat was familiar with the National Hansen’s Disease Clinical Center, the only institution in the U.S. exclusively devoted to leprosy consulting, research, and training. He was also aware of the challenges to diagnosing Hansen’s Disease, and had learned that high resolution ultrasound was a newer technology being brought into the diagnostic process.
Dr. Wheat’s work with ultrasound in his electrodiagnostic specialty and his interest in using this emerging technology in the diagnosis of leprosy became known to Michael Stephen Cartwright, MD, professor of Neurology at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Cartwright was working with the National Hansen’s Disease Center’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Barbara M. Stryjewska and the Louisiana State University Veterinary Center in Baton Rouge, where the nine-banded armadillo was being used in Leprosy research. Cartwright asked Wheat if he would travel to the Vet Center to test his theory of the efficacy of using the hand-held ultrasound on the nine-banded armadillo, the only other natural host for leprosy besides humans.
After months of research, human and nine-banded armadillo trials, and much discussion among Wheat, Stryjewska, and Cartwright, this esteemed team proposes that using a hand-held ultrasound, such as the Butterfly iQ that is 1/10th the cost of larger ultrasound machines, will make the diagnosis of Hansen’s Disease affordable in any city in America, any location in the world. “This can transform medical missionary work,” says Dr. Wheat, who has worked as a medical missionary in Kenya East Africa.
The Bible often referred to people with leprosy as “unclean” and placed them “outside the camp.” In medieval Spain, victims of leprosy were declared legally dead and their property dispersed. In Norway, Hansen’s Disease patients had cowbells placed around their necks to warn others of their coming. Mohammed advised his followers to flee lepers as one would a lion. It is estimated that today three million people worldwide are living with the irreversible disabilities resulting from Leprosy. Drs. Wheat, Stryjewska, and Cartwright are excited about the opportunity to diagnose this reversible but dreaded disease earlier and faster across the globe, and to give those millions of people suffering with undiagnosed Leprosy a fighting chance for a cure against this historically dreaded illness.