My name is Ardis and I am an avid reader and budding writer. I want to share my love of books with others. I work with kids and am interested in finding and creating books that will ignite the reader in everyone. Contact me at: ardis.atkins@gmail.com

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Synopsis (From GoodReads):

One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four year old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.

Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined her team. He asked Susannah to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history. 


I listened to this as an audiobook and was fascinated by this medical mystery from the start.  A seemingly healthy young woman goes from having it all to being on the verge of being committed to a mental institution.  She is misdiagnosed with everything from alcohol withdrawal to schizophrenia.  With doctors ready to give up, her parents push to find a physical illness that would explain her symptoms.  

This book is written as a memoir be Susannah Cahalan, who had been a reporter for the New York Post prior to her illness.  Since she has no memory of what happened to her during her "month of madness", she uses her reporting skills to sketch out what happened.  Her book reads like a good detective story, fitting all the puzzle pieces together to come up with what really happened.  

I liked that the author uses objectivity and doesn't blame the medical community for their initial mistaken diagnoses.   Her disease was so rare that even one of the most respected neurologists in New York City hadn't heard of it!   She could have used this book to bitterly complain about how long it took doctors to find the cause of her illness.  Instead she acknowledges the difficulty of their task and shows how the medical system creates the need for doctors to quickly assess a patient with as little information as possible.  With a complicated illness such as hers, it is nearly impossible for people to find doctors willing (or able) to take the time to root out the underlying cause and find treatments that will give hope to these situations.

If I have one criticism of this book, it is with the audiobook narration by Heather Henderson.  Susannah Cahalan is a young woman.  As a memoir, it would have worked better for the narrator to have a younger voice.  The person reading the book sounds like a woman in her mid forties.  It would have sounded more authentic if the speaker sounded younger to reflect the youth of the author.  Overall this was a very interesting book and I highly recommend it.


Source:  Public Library

Format:  Audiobook

Recommendation:  If you like medical mysteries and gripping family drama, this book is for you.  I loved it.

Would I read more from this author?  Yes.



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  1. Replies
    1. It was a reminder that our health is a tender thing! It was also interesting how friends and acquaintances treated her when she was ill, and later when she slowly recovered.

  2. I have this book and have been wanting to read it for a while. I'm glad you liked it!

    1. I found it fascinating. I'm glad that she got a diagnosis! I think others have this disease but are misdiagnosed.

  3. This sounds very interesting. I will definitely have to check it out.


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