Under the microscope

Netflix series ‘Afflicted’ features Island doctor.

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Nagy goes over the results of Jill's screening, explaining the tests in further detail. Screenshot from "Afflicted."

Dr. Lisa Nagy was recently featured in a 2018 Netflix docuseries that delves into the world of undiagnosed diseases and chronic illnesses with no determinable cause.

One of the participants in the series, Jill, is plagued with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), or environmental illness, characterized by a broad range of symptoms like headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, muscle pain, and skin rash. Jill seems to have an extreme version that has made her especially sick, and her partner Janine suffers from the same condition.

There are seven episodes available on Netflix from the first season, but no word on whether there will be subsequent seasons.

According to Nagy, environmental illness is caused by the body being flooded with toxic substances we encounter in our daily lives. One of the most impactful of these substances is mold, she said.

Mycotoxins from mold in walls, furniture, clothes, and household appliances are what Nagy says contribute to an increase in “toxic load” inside the human body. However, mold isn’t the only thing that increases toxic load. According to Nagy, diesel fumes, strongly scented detergents and perfumes, chemicals leached from plastic water bottles, pesticides, tobacco smoke, and others can overload the body with toxic chemicals and precipitate a strong reaction (similar to an allergic reaction). Nagy was asked to be on the show because for more than three years, she says, she was afflicted with the same debilitating condition. “I basically lived on a porch for three years with a nontoxic oxygen mask,” Nagy said. “I couldn’t drive on the highway because of all the diesel fumes.” Nagy is board-certified in emergency medicine, but after recovering from her condition, she decided to learn everything she could about environmental illness and be certified to practice in it.

As part of the show, Jill and Janine took the boat ride to Martha’s Vineyard, with filter mask in hand, in hopes that Nagy could help remedy Jill’s many afflictions. According to Jill, Nagy helped improve her health dramatically in the time she spent on the Island.

“Afflicted” has seen its fair share of backlash from viewers and participants who believe the show manipulated interviews and used selective editing to shape a controlled narrative that is more befitting a reality television show than a documentary.

Many participants like Jill wrote articles for Medium, insisting the show provides inaccurate portrayals of undiagnosed diseases. Jill said in her article that the show uses snippets of footage to cast the afflicted in a negative, almost disparaging light. Nagy said she thinks the show was benevolent in that it provided valuable coverage for normally overlooked issues. “They got to be on national television and talk about their illnesses; that’s big,” Nagy said. But many subjects of the show say they would not have agreed to participate if they knew the show would present a one-sided view of their conditions. Alongside articles on Medium, Twitter was ablaze with virulent invectives directed at both the participants on the show and the show’s executive director, Dan Partland.

Jill wrote on Twitter that “‘Afflicted’ constructs a deceitful narrative that systematically ignores scientific evidence, takes statements out of context, manipulates timelines, omits important facts, and gives voice to nonspecialists talking outside of their fields.”

Jill said in her article that Partland and the other producers told her the entire premise of the show was to give the public a genuine look into the lives of people with undiagnosed conditions. But according to five out of the seven participants, the show focused more on hype value and entertainment than actually getting the word out.

The other side of the Twitter firestorm was from Netflix viewers accusing the afflicted of having mental disorders, as opposed to legitimate physical conditions. Kim Voortman wrote on Twitter, “I feel like ‘Afflicted’ would be a really short season if these patients saw a psychiatrist.”

Nagy said it is essential for people to eliminate the stigma surrounding environmental illness and similar conditions, like chronic Lyme. “Just because people can’t see it, or they don’t know how to explain it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Nagy said.

She explained how even people who experience severe symptoms of mold exposure often avoid treatment and discount their symptoms as a bad allergy. Even when people are debilitated by their condition, Nagy said they still refuse to recognize her practice. “Some people would rather die than come see me,” she said. “Why the denial?”

For Nagy, strength is in numbers. “We need to inform people of this and make it an accepted field of medicine,” Nagy said. “Why are doctors so opposed to learning the long-term health effects of exposure to toxic substances?”