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Heroes of health care: Dr. Luis Diaz, neurologist

Dr. Diaz

With tenacity in the face of adversity, Dr. Diaz went the extra mile to diagnose a rare condition — and save a soldier’s life

As a boy in Mexico City, Luis Diaz watched as his physician father spent most of his life helping people. He became inspired to do the same.

“You develop a feeling for people who have nothing — nothing materially and they lose their health. That’s the main reason I’m a doctor.” Diaz graduated from med school at Universidad Nacional Autonoma De Mexico in 1982 and interned in internal medicine at State University in New York. He spent another three years there for a neurology residency before earning a fellowship in neuro-oncology at the University of California San Francisco.

While his father provided him with a good life, poverty surrounded them. So Diaz, now a neurologist with a private practice (luisldiaz.com), is particularly keen about treating the poor. “Patients in this specialty become handicapped and disabled and they end up in that (economically disadvantaged) category in many ways,” he says. Debilitating conditions means they can’t work.

“Yes, I do see a lot of people on Medicaid and Medicare,” says Diaz. He doesn’t mind at all, except that it tends also to present a challenge for him in Southern Nevada where, he says, neurologists tend to be isolated academically. “We don’t have, like in Los Angeles and Chicago and so on, tertiary care centers with active research to which practitioners can actually refer patients for clinical trials or special diagnostic testing.”

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That academic isolation often leaves local neurologists to figure out for themselves what’s going on with a patient. After 20 years in practice, Diaz has learned how best to do this — by keeping up with the research and literature, attending continuing medical education conferences and networking with national speakers so he can telephone them for consultations when necessary. Still, it’s difficult for him to get second opinions. “It’s very difficult to have Medicaid pay for a referral for a second opinion or some diagnostic procedures.” He says that many insurances also refuse to pay for these important medical services.

“Sometimes we have questions, as physicians, as to what to do with certain cases, difficult diagnoses, or no diagnoses, so that’s a challenge,” he says. Neurology deals with the diagnosis and treatment of all categories of disease — and there are hundreds — involving the central and peripheral nervous systems, the autonomic nervous systems and the somatic nervous systems.

While Diaz praises the doctors at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health for beginning research in Vegas on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis, that still leaves many neurological disorders unattended academically in Nevada.

That means Diaz will need to continue to roll up his sleeves and dig in deep when confronted with mysterious and challenging cases, such as the “stiff person syndrome” he diagnosed in the early ’90s. His patient, a soldier who had recently returned from the Gulf War, suffered from pain and muscle cramping, physically handicapping him. Diaz suspected stiff person syndrome, a very rare, little-understood autoimmune disease affecting possibly less than one person in a million. However, he wasn’t able to prove it conclusively, because the patient’s blood work came back negative. Still convinced, Diaz decided to prescribe the recommended medication for the disease and, after six to nine months of treatment, his patient’s condition improved tremendously. Now, after several years, the ex-soldier is 90 percent improved, his muscles are loose and normal again, and he’s grateful that Diaz didn’t give up on him.

“In neurology, it happens a lot that a patient will come into an office with pain or other symptoms and the initial testing shows nothing to go by,” says Diaz. “I don’t give up on those patients.”

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