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Published 2021-10-21
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Woman Considered Crazy But Her Incorrect Drawing Allowed Doctors To Save Her Life!

Back in 2009 the then-24-year-old Susannah Cahalan was living the kind of New York life that many people could only dream of after watching a little bit too much Sex and the City. She was working as a journalist for the New York Post, had a musician boyfriend, and vibrant social life. Even her apartment was in the nicer part of town. Yet all of that changed when she began experiencing seizures, acting violent, losing the ability to speak. Going from doctor to doctor, no one seemed to know what was wrong with her until a neurologist and a clock test came to the scene and helped save her. What was wrong with Calahan and how did her story inspire a 2016 movie? Read on to find out the story of this young woman.

The Start of It All

From that alone you can tell that Susannah was having a great life with a great job yet despite all this, things began to change as she started experiencing hallucinations, seizures, psychosis, and, finally, catatonia. But how did it all start? Looking back at those early days, Cahalan said that the two things she remembers most vividly were fear and anger. Though she carried on as normal at first despite the fact that the neon signs of Times Square had caused her a blinding migraine. Later she had felt like the walls of her office “were breathing visibly, inhaling and exhaling all around her”. Then finally a blood-and-foaming at the mouth seizure, that happened at her boyfriend’s flat and led her to see a neurologist. However, they couldn’t find anything wrong with her as well tests came back fine. And so he had sent her to see a psychiatrist instead.

More Doctors Visits

When she visited the psychiatrist nearly right away she was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, a mixed episode containing both manic and depressive behavior. To help combat this, she was prescribed medication. However, Susannah’s family wasn’t satisfied with this and they didn’t believe that the diagnosis was correct and so they had taken her to a second neurologist. One that she described as “one of the best in the city”. This doctor had told her that what she was experiencing was "alcohol withdrawal syndrome" and while prescribing her more medication told her to lay off the partying. It was then that pressed by her family, the doctor had agreed to refer her to the epilepsy ward at NYU hospital.

The Privilege

The one thing that comes across strongly in her story is how lucky Cahalan was to be so privileged. Having grown up with her mother and stepfather in an affluent suburb in New Jersey, as well as having a banker father, she had access to some of the best doctors on earth and that is something that she was aware of. The treatments that were ordered had cost around $20,000 a time and her hospital bill had topped $1 million! But as she said, it was all haphazardly done because most of these top-of-the-line, best in the world doctors would say “maybe it’s this” and “try this medication” and then someone else would same the same and it would just repeat. And yet...no one still had any idea what was actually wrong. And her condition was getting worse. Read on to find out what had happened to the young woman next.

The Start of It All

The Brain

While spending her time at the hospital what Susannah had learned the hard way was that there is so much that is completely unknown about the human brain. As she revealed in an interview, she found out that we are only in the beginning stages of understanding how the brain and the body, work together and that there is so much left to figure out. She compared the state of current knowledge to being in the dark ages of our understanding of the brain and of psychiatric illnesses. She also highlighted that cases her like are the first beam of light that we are seeing.

More Doctors Visits

Her Condition Got Worse

By this time her condition had worsened and in her own words, Cahalan had described herself as “some sort of animal”. She was grunting and making abnormal movements. She began punching people and tried to escape her hospital bed and once she started seeing visions of things that weren’t really there the doctors had worried that she was losing her mind. As she recalled at those claims by the doctors her then-boyfriend had said that he knew she was still in there. That he could see the real her. But as things got worse and worse her family was desperate but they clung to hope. However soon she and her family would have answers to all the questions they had so make sure to read on to find out what helped make a diagnosis.

New Doctor Gives Hope

Just as if out of a Hollywood movie scene where no one can help until that one pivotal person makes an entrance, a new doctor appeared on the scene and that was Dr. Souhel Najjar, a Syrian-American neurologist. To finally make a diagnosis he used a standard psychiatric tool, a clock-face test. Najjar had gotten Susannah to draw a clock face and what she drew immediately gave him an answer. When he realized that she drew exactly half a clock face it was “concrete evidence that the right-hand side of her brain was inflamed”. As the woman recalled the doctor sat down near her and told this to her parents, adding that he would do everything he could for them. In her retelling, Cahalan said that this doctor was her knight in shining armor and appearing to her as a cross between Hugh Laure in House and Richard Gere in the last scene of An Officer and a Gentleman

picture: screenshot from Susannah Cahalan's Month of Madness video on the Simon & Schuster Books channel

The Privilege

What Was Wrong And Treatment

Later a biopsy had confirmed that Najjar was right, and it was then that the woman and her family had discovered that the condition she had, did in fact have a name, “anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis”. As Cahalan had described it, it’s a brain inflammation, caused by an unknown agent or infection. The reason that most doctors did not immediately think of this was that it was a relatively new disease. It was first described two years prior to her diagnosis and she was the 217th person to have had one made. As she recalled the terrifying thing was just how close she came to not getting the diagnosis because so many symptoms that she was experiencing pointed to psychosis. She also said that they had caused this in the catatonic stage that “precedes breathing failure, coma and sometimes death”.

Life After Recovery

After her biopsy, she got started on the right treatment and gradually got better but as she herself said she was lucky because had it not been for doctor Najjar, she could have ended up in a psychiatric ward, which she revealed most doctors were leaning towards that. Or a nursing home, or as she said, worst-case scenario, she could have died. Even getting treatment didn’t mean that she would get better as even with it about 7% of people still die and others are severely cognitively impaired. She suspected that there are people who have lived in institutions their whole lives and who had it but were never diagnosed. All that had happened to the now 36-year-old in the space of a month. A month of madness, as she had later, went on to describe it. While her recovery was difficult at first, with time it got easier.

2016 Netflix Movie

She ended up marrying her then-boyfriend Stephen in 2015 and the pair have two children together, photos of which she often shares to her Instagram. She is also an author, having written several books, the most famous one being her 2012 memoir Brain on Fire, where she talked about her ordeal with the autoimmune disease and her battle with it. Her story and the memoir had also inspired the creation of a movie. In 2016 the film titled “Brain On Fire” was released on Netflix which told Cahalan’s story. In the movie, Susannah is played by Chloë Grace Moretz and Thomas Mann took on the role of her now-husband Stephen Grywalski.

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