RICHARDSON, Texas — Food and drink didn't go down so easily for 17-year-old Mariah Mack a few weeks ago.
In February, she developed what can only be described as extreme gastro-intestinal issues that lasted for weeks.
"It was throughout the day," Mariah said. "It was whenever I eat anything. And then I get this horrible pain in my stomach. And it just would not stop hurting at all."
Mack went to hospital after hospital, searching for a diagnosis: Texas Health Plano, Children's Medical Center, Medical Center of Plano, Medical City Dallas Hospital, and Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Twice, one hospital transferred her to another facility.
"Five hospitals, ER visits," said Brandy Mack, Mariah's mother. "Hospital stays. Five hospitals total."
It was at Medical City Dallas Hospital — the fourth stop — that Mariah ran into real trouble. She was referred to a psychiatrist and her case, then, to Child Protective Services.
"They said that Mariah was hopping from hospital to hospital, seeking pain medication," Brandy Mack said. "They've even labeled her as a 'poly substance abuser,' which is someone who goes out to seek any kind of medication or drug to get high."
"I just felt so trapped in this horrible sickness and pain," Mariah said, crying. "And it's like no one would listen to us. The doctor told me I was making it up. No one was taking it seriously."
Experts advise patients to get multiple medical opinions if they are not satisfied with a diagnosis.
The Macks said they learned the hard way that that is not always a wise policy.
After leaving Medical City, Brandy Mack took her daughter's health into her own hands. She said Internet searches kept linking Mariah's symptoms to intestinal diseases. She ordered a stool test through a private lab.
Genova Diagnostics Metametrix Clinical Laboratory confirmed Mariah tested positive for E. coli and trichuris trichiura, more commonly known as whipworms.
"It cost me $175 to send off that stool test, versus the tens of thousands of dollars that they were charging for MRIs and CT scans," Brandy Mack said. "One simple test showed exactly what was wrong with her."
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that between 604 and 795 million people worldwide are infected by whipworms. Many of those infections are in developing countries.
Whipworms are often overlooked in the United States, although the most common areas of infection are the southern Appalachian range and the Gulf Coast states, according to a CDC surveillance summary.
The World Health Organization and other groups are trying to raise awareness to the potential danger and rise of parasitic diseases. Both whipworms and E. coli infections can result from improperly cleaned or cooked food.
Medical literature shows many of the medications Mariah had been prescribed — from antibiotics to anti-diarrheals — can prolong and complicate the conditions.
"I was livid; I was furious," Brandy Mack said. "My gut, my intuition told me that that we needed to check for this, and the fact that the doctors refused and my daughter suffered for so long..."
Mariah's mom believes her daughter was "profiled."
"She's bi-racial; she's got tattoos; she's a high school dropout; she's fairly thin," Brandy Mack said. "I think they took one look at her and said, 'She's a drug addict seeking a high.' That's exactly what they thought."
Medical City declined comment on-camera. The hospital issued this written statement:
"Medical City is aware of the concerns expressed by Brandy Mack about her daughter. We have reviewed her records, spoken extensively with Ms. Mack, and talked with her physicians. We are confident the young woman received compassionate and appropriate care while at Medical City, including a full range of diagnostic testing. We hope she is supported in seeking the treatment and help recommended by our team."
Two months after first becoming sick, Parkland Hospital prescribed an anti-parasitic drug.
"For the most part, I feel a lot better," said Mariah, who lost about 20 pounds during the ordeal.
Mariah's case has been dismissed by CPS, but the 17-year-old may now permanently be labeled a substance abuser and hospital-hopper because the Macks sought so many medical opinions.
After Parkland received Medical City's records, the Macks say Mariah was also questioned by a psychiatrist there.
"They didn't know what to do," the frustrated teen said. "So how am I supposed to know what to do?"
The Macks want to raise awareness about parasitic infections. They believe that because of the lack of awareness, Mariah was incorrectly diagnosed and suffered as a result of what doctors saw on the outside — not what was happening on the inside.