Thanks to developments in modern medicine, we can live healthier, longer lives than ever before. But that doesn’t mean medical professionals are perfect – even the most skilled physicians and nurses can improperly diagnose a condition. If that happens, the consequences can be grave.
When Susannah Cahalan was hospitalized for “insanity”, she had no idea that she was about to face the fight of her life. At just 24 years old, Susannah began to suffer from a condition very different than what her doctors believed it to be. That was when an uphill battle to prove that they were wrong began…
In 2009, Susannah Cahalan was a happy, healthy young woman – six months into her first serious relationship and with a job at the New York Post. Her future was anything but dim.
Unfortunately, all of Susannah’s promising days ahead were put at risk when she suddenly began to experience a random series of strange sensations throughout her body…
When she suspected bedbugs might be the cause, she called an exterminator. However, the possibility of creepy crawly creatures causing her health woes was quickly ruled out when the exterminator found no evidence of them.
Over time, Susannah started to experience more paranoia, hallucinations and seizures so severe that it eventually got to the point where she was unable to work. She was lethargic and in serious distress…
Susannah had no choice but to be admitted to the New York University hospital. Even then, it wasn’t long before she began acting out, eventually becoming violent with the staff.
Susannah would later compare this period of her life to something out of a “zombie movie.” She wasn’t acting like herself, and was frequently aggressive toward everyone – even her friends and family felt threatened.
Judging from her highly uncharacteristic behavior, Susannah’s doctors believed that she was on the verge of a mental breakdown. They eventually suggested that she be transferred to a psychiatric facility, but before she could leave, one man made an unusual suggestion.
Dr. Souhel Najjar decided to take a deeper look at Susannah’s condition. As much as this seemed to be a mental issue, he wasn’t convinced that the cause was as straightforward as a nervous breakdown.
That was when Dr. Najjar asked Susannah to perform a simple task, one that would test and change everything…
All Susannah had to do was draw a clock. As strange as it was, from the moment she put pen to paper, Dr. Najjar’s suspicions were confirmed.
Susannah’s troubling turn towards “insanity” was not borne only out of her own mind, but also her body. It turns out she had a rare disease that was now affecting her mental faculties in some very serious ways…
The clock that Susannah drew in front of the doctor showed all of the numbers on the right-hand side, while the rest of it remained blank. Apparently, this was a clear indicator of brain damage!
Soon after the drawing, Dr. Najjar diagnosed Susannah with Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis, a rare condition that causes the immune system’s antibodies to attack the brain.
If this condition had been left untreated for much longer, Susannah could have faced a devastating illness or even death. Dr. Najjar ultimately saved her life!
Thankfully, Susannah received the life-saving treatment that she so desperately needed as soon as possible. In a stroke of miraculous luck, she was completely cured after spending just one month in the hospital.
Once fully recovered, Susannah wrote a book detailing her experience with the hopes of it helping others with similar symptoms.
Published in 2012, Brain On Fire was even adapted to film in 2016, starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Susannah.
Today, Susannah continues to share her story by speaking publicly about her experience with this illness. Her openness might save the lives of others suffering with untreated brain trauma.
Susannah is well aware of how fortunate she is to have been able to resume a relatively normal life. She’s not one of the 15% who recover but suffer severe cognitive deficits, or even the 20% who suffer mild ones.
The experience has, of course, changed her, though she’s not exactly sure how. “When I look at photographs of me ‘post-‘ versus pictures of me ‘pre-‘ there is something altered, something lost – or gained, I can’t tell – when I look into my eyes.”
If things had turned out differently, Susannah would be spending the rest of her life in an institution, or brain-damaged if she were to live at all. She’s one of the few who have been to the dark side of the brain, and survived.
Susannah’s experience sounds absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, she is healthy once more, all because one doctor refused to give up on her!
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