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July 28, 2016

Brain on Fire

by Anne Paddock

She’s still in there. I can see her. She’s still there. I know it.

Brain On FireMy Month of Madness – by Susannah Cahalan is an award-winning memoir (2012) about the author’s struggle with illness and her journey back to health. In February of 2009, 24-year old Susannah Cahalan is living in a studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, working as a reporter for The New York Post newspaper and in love with her boyfriend, a man named Stephen.

Brain-On_FireWith a bright future ahead of her after working for 7 years at one of New York’s most well-known newspapers, Susannah starts noticing subtle changes in herself: an obsession with bedbugs, migraine headaches, forgetfulness, the numbing of her hands, fever, insomnia, and nausea. She sees a doctor who refers her to a neurologist who thinks she has mono. When the test comes back negative, Susannah is at a loss for what is wrong with her as she continues to deteriorate.

By March of 2009 after several seizures, Susannah is in a hospital in New York City with her parents working together (despite their general dislike of each other since their acrimonious divorce years before) to get a diagnosis and treatment.  As Susannah slips deeper and deeper into mental and physical breakdown, the doctors are perplexed because no one knows what’s wrong with her.

Told from the perspective of Cahalan  who has very few memories of the time, the author relied on medical reports, videos, and notes taken by the people taking care of her:  doctors, nurses, her parents, Stephen, and her friends to tell a story no one ever wants to go through. Cahalan takes the reader on a journey with a message: (1) always seek a second, and sometimes third and fourth medical opinion; (2) fight for what you know to be true about your child, sibling, friend, or whoever you have been entrusted to guide through a health crisis; and (3) look beyond the walls established separating immunology, neurology, and psychiatry. Without the author’s parents general reluctance to disregard a diagnosis that didn’t seem plausible and insistence to keep searching, Susannah wouldn’t be alive today.

Brain On Fire is a modern-day Dr. House story; how the people in one’s life can make a difference and specifically how one or two doctors make a life saving diagnosis through perseverance. Winner of Books for a Better Life First Book Award, Brain on Fire tells the story of one young woman’s fight to survive and how she got back her life.

You need to know where you’re coming from to see how far you’ve gone.

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