Susannah Cahalan’s “Brain On Fire”

Synopsis: When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Cahalan tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

Outlook: Susannah’s story is one of triumph, but getting there was difficult, frustrating, and exhausting.  As a reader of her tale, I truly felt the pain her and her family went through over the course of the year.  Yes, her 30 days were in hospital, but there was symptoms leading up to her admission as well as post treatment.

It is so unfortunate how much is still unknown in the medical field, but even more disheartening is how little doctors can, or want, to do about it.  There is so much politics involved in hospital administration, and most of it comes down to cutting costs across the board.  Ever been to your GP and you discuss a problem you have had for a year or more, and he gives you an Rx for 10-30 days? GP’s here in Canada are only allowed by law to see X number of patients a day, to keep their billables from going into the $220,000/year range.  As a result, no GP can take longer than 5-10 minutes per patient and they leave by 2:00PM.

The only way Ms. Cahalan received proper treatment (she wrote about this in her book) was because the insurance provider she is with at the Post was great, and what couldn’t be covered her parents paid out-of-pocket.  Cahalan says in order to save her life, the bills were a bit above $1,000,000 USD.  Politics aside, let’s look at the book.

Cahalan was initially diagnosed as a schizophrenic / alcoholic by her GP and hospital staff at the psychiatric facility she was sent to.  Her symptoms were that of a mental patient, and since scans came up negative they said it [schizophrenia] was induced from alcohol withdrawal (Cahalan drank 1 to 2 glasses of wine a night with dinner, light years from alcoholism.)

Progressively, she deteriorated.  Cahalan got so bad so quickly, that all signs pointed to a mental disorder.  In her book, she writes that much of her writing comes from expanding on her fathers journal during her ordeal.  To this day, most of it is still a blank.  A gap in time.

Brain On Fire contains detailed medical records and medical jargon about the authors diagnosis and treatment.  The staggering thing is, once recognized, how treatable it was.  All they [hospitals, staff, doctors] needed to do was show a bit of compassion, and go back to the drawing board.  It wasn’t until Dr. Najjar (an outside the box, real-life House neurologist) received her case, that Cahalan improved.

Over all, I found this book fascinating both from the view of the author and the doctors.  I also appreciated Cahalan throwing in all the medical talk, in turn keeping me from having to Google it.

All of this made me wonder, how many people are strapped to a bed right now, because of an undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed), treatable brain condition.  Nothing to do with being schizophrenic.

6 thoughts on “Susannah Cahalan’s “Brain On Fire”

  1. Nel says:

    That is quite staggering. Ironically enough I heard something similar on NPR this morning but it was in regards to women dying in childbirth. They were saying how hospitals here in America are well equipped for fetal complications but not for maternal complications so as a result a lot of mothers end up dying from things that should not have been fatal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Jacobs says:

      Statistics like that always startle me. For example, the highest success rate for a mother and fetus to survive is in Italy. The worst? The US. Mortality ratio: Italy at 3.9, the US at 16. In 2nd to last place is France at 10, but you can see how big the gap is from 38 to 39.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nel says:

        It is quite startling. And we’re supposed to be ahead of our time in terms of technology and medicine. Clearly, whatever these doctors are doing or not doing is not working.

        Liked by 1 person

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