Sometimes it’s easy to forget how amazing modern medicine has become. From replacement joints to vaccines, doctors have never had such sophisticated tools at their disposal. Regardless, even the most trusted and highly skilled doctors are capable of a misdiagnosis. They are, after all, merely human.

Sadly, when this happens, it’s the patient who suffers the consequences. Take what happened to Chilean woman Estela Melendez, who was told by doctors that she was living with a tumor in her stomach.

Then, a later examination revealed the devastating truth…

A 91-year-old woman named Estela Melendez was living in La Boca, Chile, just off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, when she began to feel her age. One day, while she was in her home, she fell to the ground—hard—and she had to be brought to a nearby hospital. That’s where she would receive life-changing news.

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Estela had spent most of her life in her quiet neighborhood with her husband. Not only did they love their hometown, but the couple was practically inseparable while they were living together off the coast. 

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Estela’s husband, Gonzalez, was a boater and fisherman. The couple’s seemingly quiet lives were spent working hard and being completely dedicated to one another. Then, sadly, Gonzalez passed away at the age of 91.

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Estela had no complaints about the 74 years of marital bliss that she shared with her husband. There was, however, one thing that she did regret: they were never able to start the family that they’d always wanted.

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Tragically, Estela and Gonzalez found that they were unable to conceive. And so they went their entire lives without raising children. “We suffered tremendously for this reason,” Estela said in an interview. Little did she know that there was a rather strange explanation for that…

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You see, sometime before Gonzalez passed away, Estela learned that she had a tumor in her uterus. Could this have been the reason why they were unable to conceive? It seemed likely. Still, despite their circumstances, Estela and Gonzalez had tried their best to live their lives to the fullest.

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As Estela aged, she began to have other health problems. Among them, she had a lot of trouble hearing, and she also developed a severe case of arthritis, which greatly affect her mobility. This was all made worse after the death of Gonzalez. Then, when she was 91 herself, she accidentally fell in her home…

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Luckily, Estela was okay—but she knew she would need to see a doctor. So she enlisted her friend, Claudio Vicuna, to transport her to a hospital in San Antonio, roughly 40 miles from her home. While undergoing an X-ray to assess any damage caused by her fall, her doctors suddenly made a startling discovery.

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The doctors’ initial belief was that they had found evidence that Estela was living with another tumor in her uterus. To confirm this, they decided to call for a second X-ray. That’s when they discovered how wrong all of her diagnoses had been. Something was there, alright, but it wasn’t a tumor!

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The team of doctors were completely shocked to realize that the object inside of Estela’s uterus wasn’t a tumor at all, but the calcified remains of an unborn fetus that they presumed she’d been carrying for roughly 60 years. She had no idea that she’d ever been pregnant before.

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Even though it might have seemed like quite the medical anomaly, Estela’s case was far more common than most people might believe. These calcified fetuses are known as lithopedions, and they’re caused by a condition that affects a small fraction of the female population.

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Experts have long suggested that a lithopedion is often the side effect of a a pregnancy where the fetus develops outside of the mother’s womb. As expected, these types of abdominal pregnancies are extremely risky, as the mother and child are both in danger of losing their lives.

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The vast majority of abdominal pregnancies eventually end in a miscarriage. If the fetus is still small and undeveloped, it is often reabsorbed by the mother’s body. When these fetuses are larger, however, a more invasive surgery is often required. If no operation is performed to have the fetus removed, it can calcify.

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According to medical records, the first known case of a lithopedion can be found during the 10th century and was described by Abulcasis, an Arabic physician. The earliest observable case was actually unearthed at an archaeological site in Texas and dates back to roughly 1100 B.C.

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Other examples include a woman named Colombe Chatri, who lived in France in the 16th century. When she became pregnant at 40 years old, she began to experience extreme labor pains, though she never actually gave birth to her child.

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Colombe’s physician later examined her body and discovered the calcified fetus of a baby girl inside of her stomach. Other similar cases have been reported around the world for centuries, each as devastating as the last.

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The other most recent recorded case of lithopedia, prior to Estela’s, was when an 82-year-old woman from Colombia was believed to have gotten a severe stomach bug. When she underwent further examination, though, they discovered a 40-year-old fetus.

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Unfortunately, in Estela’s case, the doctors at Claudio Vicuna Hospital knew that there was very little that they could do for Estela. Her unborn fetus would likely remain in her stomach for good, since an operation and removal would be too risky at her advanced age.

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While Estela was learning to cope with the tragic news of her unborn child, her family was equally devastated. “Can you imagine?” her nephew Luis said in an interview. “More than 60 years!”

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While Estela was happy that the “tumor” inside of her stomach would not harm her health, the news was understandably bittersweet, as it proved that she was, indeed, able to conceive children after all. Now she would be forced to live the rest of her days with a constant reminder of the family that she’d always wanted.

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What a heartbreaking revelation to discover that Estela and Gonzalez were so close to making their dreams come true. On the bright side, it’s a blessing that she was in good health than she realized.

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