Years before her husband ever got a diagnosis, Joy Milne smelled the onset of his disease.
As the Daily Mail reports, the former nurse from Glasgow, Scotland, has always been extra-sensitive to odors.
While still in her 20s, she mentioned to a fellow nurse that patients with liver cancer had a distinctive smell. No one took Joy seriously at the time, but scientists would later confirm that she really can smell disease.
When it came to her husband, Les, Joy noticed a change in his odor while he was in his 30s. As she explained on This Morning:
“I noticed a different smell of him. He didn’t like perfumes or deodorants, he just had a nice musky smell of a male, but then I smelt this dank, heavy musk, which wasn’t nice.”
What Joy was smelling was Parkinson’s disease. But Les wouldn’t be diagnosed with the condition for another 12 years. The connection was reinforced at Les’ first support meeting:
“We went to our first Parkinson’s meeting. After I said to him, ‘I think you should sit down.’ I said to him, ‘Those people smell like you.'”
What Joy was actually smelling was sebum, the oil produced by the skin.
Joy Milne smelt her husband's Parkinson's disease… 12 years before he was diagnosed with it! pic.twitter.com/KSBe79jm0x
— This Morning (@thismorning) March 27, 2019
“Sebum is the oil in the skin, and people with Parkinson’s secrete a certain amount,” a doctor explained on This Morning. “So you can detect that.”
Of course, it can be difficult to explain to people that you can smell their illness. And Joy didn’t know how unique her talent was:
“You don’t go around asking people how they smell. I wasn’t aware it was as heightened as it is. I realize that now.”
In fact, Parkinson’s isn’t the only disease Joy can detect by smell. She has worked in Tanzania to help victims of Tuberculosis, which she described as having an odor of, “brine and wet cardboard.”
She says Alzheimer’s begins with a somewhat pleasant, “vanilla smell. It starts smelling sweet and then it turns quite nasty. A neurological dank and musky smell.”
Liver cancer, however, is quite unpleasant with a “really strong smell of bile.”
Joy believes her ability to smell disease is a gift that comes with a responsibility to help others. As Smithsonian Magazine reports, she has been helping researchers identify the compounds that cause those distinctive smells in the hopes of finding ways to detect Parkinson’s early and treat it.
Parkinson’s is incurable, but Joy believes that knowing in advance that one has the disease can make a real difference. Her husband died in 2015, and Joy told BBC News that “it would have changed things dramatically,” if they’d known what was happening from the very beginning. She added:
“The fact that he became withdrawn, reserved, he had bouts of depression and mood swings, if I had understood what was happening it would have changed our total outlook on life.”