Case Studies in Physiology: Untangling the cause of hypoxemia in a patient with obesity with acute leukemia

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2021 Aug 1;131(2):788-793. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00867.2020. Epub 2021 May 6.


Diagnosing the cause of hypoxemia and dyspnea can be complicated in complex patients with multiple comorbidities. This "Case Study in Physiology" describes an man with obesity admitted to the hospital for relapse of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, who experienced progressive hypoxemia, shortness of breath, and dyspnea on exertion during his hospitalization. After initial empirical treatment with diuresis and antibiotics failed to improve his symptoms and because an arterial blood gas measurement was not readily available, we applied a novel, recently described physiological method to estimate the arterial partial pressure of oxygen from the peripheral saturation measurement and calculate the alveolar-arterial oxygen difference to discern the source of his hypoxemia and dyspnea. Using basic physiological principles, we describe how hypoventilation, anemia, and the use of a β blocker and furosemide, collaborated to create a "perfect storm" in this patient that impaired oxygen delivery and limited utilization. This case illustrates the application of innovative physiology methodology in medicine and provides a strong rationale for continuing to integrate physiology education in medical education.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Discerning the cause of dyspnea and hypoxemia in complex patients can be difficult. We describe the "real world" application of an innovative methodology to untangle the underlying physiology in a patient with multiple comorbidities. This case further demonstrates the importance of applying physiology to interrogate the underlying cause of a patient's symptoms when treatment based on probability fails.

Keywords: A-aDO2; Hill equation; blood cancer; obesity hypoventilation syndrome; physiology education.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Hypoxia*
  • Leukemia*
  • Male
  • Obesity / complications
  • Oxygen
  • Partial Pressure


  • Oxygen