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Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
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Brain on Fire (edition 2012)

by Susannah Cahalan

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6764614,150 (4.02)32
Member:Suzanne.speterson
Title:Brain on Fire
Authors:Susannah Cahalan
Info:Free Press (2012), Edition: 1, Kindle Edition, 290 pages
Collections:Your library, Four/Five stars
Rating:*****
Tags:Brain disease, Encephalitis, Medicine, Mental illness, New York Post, Memoir, Hospitals, Doctors, Neurology, Nonfiction

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

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In 2009, Susannah Cahalan had a rich and rewarding life, working as a respected reporter for The New York Post, living on her own in an apartment in Manhattan, and sharing her life with her handsome musician boyfriend. She was young, beautiful, and grew up in privilege and good health. One day she noticed two marks which appeared to be bedbug bites on one of her arms, and shortly afterward she experienced muscle weakness and headache, which she attributed to the flu. She then developed tingling and numbness in her left arm and foot, which led her to seek medical attention from her gynecologist, who referred her to a neurologist. Laboratory and radiographic tests were all normal, and she concluded that she had a bad viral illness, which was complicated by overwork. However her symptoms progressively worsened, as she developed anxiety, dizziness, nausea and memory loss, and after she had a seizure at her boyfriend's home it was clear that something was seriously wrong with her.

The next month for Susannah was a living hell, as she became manic and paranoiac, continued to have seizures, and went into a rapid physical and mental decline. She was hospitalized and watched closely by her parents and boyfriend, but her medical team could not figure out what was wrong with her, as all of her tests came back normal. Her loved ones became frantic as she continued to worsen, as they feared that the bright and brilliant Susannah that they knew and loved would never recover. Her neurologist that they had come to trust and respect turned her care over to a respected diagnostician, after he failed to discover what was wrong with her, and dismissed her and her family abruptly and brusquely. Her life then became a race against time: would the medical team diagnose this strange illness before it was too late to help Susannah?

Brain on Fire is narrated in the first person, based on Susannah's own recollections and those which came from her family, boyfriend, medical staff and colleagues during the month in which she experienced the worst of her nightmarish symptoms. She uses her journalistic skills to create a compelling medical mystery, which I could hardly put down until the last page. In addition to a fascinating story it is also a wake up call to physicians who are quick to label or dismiss patients' symptoms that they cannot adequately explain, and a reminder that a good medical history, a perusal of the medical literature, a curious and inquisitive mind, and a willingness to seek help from colleagues for the most difficult cases will often uncover the right answer. ( )
7 vote kidzdoc | Oct 19, 2014 |
A very interesting memoir about a sudden disease that lead to 'madness' and near death in a young journalist. A little uneven at times, but heartfelt and sincere. The language is vivid, never boring, and I finished it during an airplane trip right after buying it at the airport. Good read! ( )
  klockrike | Aug 4, 2014 |
I didn't expect to connect so personally with this. On the surface, there's not much to compare between me and Susannah Cahalan. There are a few correspondences: the start of her illness was marked with an intense fear, almost a belief, that she'd been infested by bedbugs; so was mine. On the other hand, I "just" had GAD: Susannah Cahalan had an autoimmune disorder in which her own immune system was attacking her brain. (She does mention some speculation that obsessive-compulsive behaviours and other psychiatric issues may actually be attributable to inflammation of the brain similar to what she experienced. The more I think about that, the more I want to become a doctor, maybe work in psychiatry, or maybe neurology, and push that research further. And research into epigenetic aspects of mental illness. Or at least get to the point where I can understand all of the existing research.)

(And sotto voce, I can almost hear my mother's comment: "Well, you should be a doctor.")

Anyway, despite the vast differences in the actual content of our diseases, I shared some of Cahalan's feelings about it. I felt like I lost part of myself, the steady logical voice that refutes the brain's wilder ideas about what's going on, and though Susannah lost a lot more than that, I know something about the struggle to regain your own mind. I think people often believe that my anxiety was just an emotion like all my others. It wasn't, though. It felt stronger than anything else, stronger than me. It felt like something from outside of me, subjugating the real me. It was like having another person physically holding me back, sometimes. The sheer courage it took me to step outside the front door, sometimes -- it felt impossible, alien.

So I shared with Cahalan some of the feelings of getting my old self back. Self-hate at the things that still aren't going right. Worry about what people will think of you. Celebration of tiny steps at the same time as feeling they're not enough, you're not there yet. Wonder at how far you've come. Worry that you'll relapse. I very directly share that fear Cahalan feels when she thinks she sees a bug or something. My brain conjured 'em where there weren't any, too.

I was expecting to find this interesting because of the medical content. That is interesting, though because it's from Cahalan's point of view, it's more of a layman's understanding of the disease, a memoir of dealing with it. I found it unexpectedly much more compelling than that, because Susannah Cahalan lost and regained her identity, and therefore has a lot to say about the whole idea of identity, and maybe some things to teach neuroscience, maybe even psychiatry.

The financial cost of treating a patient with Cahalan's disease is staggering, eye-watering, jaw-dropping -- there aren't enough adjectives. But to bring someone back from that state, that's beyond price. ( )
  shanaqui | Aug 3, 2014 |
Susannah Cahalan’s memoir of the terrifying illness that affected her reads more like a horror story than a medical mystery. It’s scary to realize how an illness can change the very essence of what makes someone who they are. Brain on Fire is an interesting read, and I recommend it. ( )
  JoStARs | Jul 14, 2014 |
Her experience was scary and shocking, however, I felt like I was an outsider reading the book. Felt more like a personal letter to her family and friends who supported her, and a scolding of those doctors and friends who mistreated her during her experience. ( )
  RebeccaLeaf | Jun 19, 2014 |
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"..a fascinating and compelling story told in a smart, succinct style.."
 
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Dedicated to those without a diagnosis
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Maybe it all began with a bug bite, from a bedbug that didn't exist.
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I have felt that odd whirr of wings in the head. - Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The story of twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan and the life-saving discovery of the autoimmune disorder that nearly killed her -- and that could perhaps be the root of "demonic possessions" throughout history.

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Penguin Australia

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