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Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

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Susannah Cahalan is the first to admit she is a lucky young woman. She chronicles why in her gripping memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.

Susannah was 24 years old, living in New York City and working as a reporter at The New York Post when she thought she had bedbugs in her apartment. She then got sick with flu-like symptoms and soon developed numbness in her left hand. She also started feeling paranoid, and her moods swung wildly. Then she had a seizure. “”

She saw a neurologist who thought she drank too much but grudgingly referred her to NYU Lagone Medical Center, where after a month of misdiagnoses, she eventually met her savior, Dr. Souhel Najjar. Najjar had a reputation for being able to solve difficult cases (Susannah’s mother said at one point, “He’s a real life Dr. House”). He was the first to look at all the symptoms she had from the beginning of her illness and realize she was acting so strangely—Susannah had deteriorated to a catatonic state by this point—because her brain was inflamed. She had a rare form of encephalitis.

Dr. Najjar’s treatment, which included steroids and plasmapheresis, took months to run its course. Susannah recovered slowly and painfully but fully. She recalls next to nothing of the month she spent in the hospital and had to reconstruct it by reviewing medical records and interviewing people. She has a few video recordings of her stay in the hospital, which she looks at now and wonders: Who is that girl? Where is she inside me?

Cahalan’s journey is harrowing and fascinating at once, and she tells it at a page-turning pace. Even though it is clear from the outset she recovered, Brain on Fire reads like a frantic medical mystery, leaving the reader needing to know what happens next. I couldn’t put it down, and I bet you won’t be able to either.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.