UC doctors save college student from ‘crueler than death’ disease

UC medical staff helps woman with 'brain on fire' illness
UC medical staff helps woman with 'brain on fire' illness
Updated: Jun. 23, 2020 at 11:50 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Keri Martin noticed something was wrong with her daughter, Laura, several months ago.

The 19-year-old was forced to move back to her Lexington home from Transylvania University, where she was playing soccer.

“I wasn’t acting like myself at all. I was having memory lapses,” Laura said.

She began having hallucinations too, like “horror movies,” she explains. “I was hallucinating that my parents were trying to poison me. I was trying to escape the house. I wasn’t eating.”

Keri says at one point Laura tried to jump out of a moving car.

“It’s like we had lost her, but she was still there,” Keri said.

Keri and her husband took Laura to two different hospitals in Lexington. Both hospitals diagnosed her as mentally ill and prescribed her anti-psychotic medications.

But she kept getting worse.

Keri says Laura was in a constant state of terror and developed severe insomnia, with stretches of days where she wouldn’t close her eyes. She was losing her ability to walk. She couldn’t sign her own name.

“...Demons all around me... When I was in the psych ward,” Laura said, “I thought I was in hell.”

“It was the lowest we had ever been as a family and extended family,” Keri recalled. “It took three people at all times around the clock to take care of Laura.”

At this point, several medical professionals recommended the family go to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

“I told my husband, ‘This is crueler than death,‘” Keri said. “Until we went to UC, no one would listen to us.”

Then a UCMC physician told her he daughter’s brain was on fire, and just like that the Martin family had a diagnosis.

Brain on fire is an autoimmune disease where the body creates antibodies against some of the brain’s own receptors, according to Joseph Broderick, MD, Director at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute.

“What happens is that, for whatever reason, the body’s own inflammation cells that fight infection actually get turned on against part of the brain,” Broderick explained.

Broderick was one of Laura’s doctors at UCMC. He says the condition is often misdiagnosed as mental illness and is more common than people think. UCMC, he says, sees around two cases per month.

“It’s sort of like death by friendly fire,” he said. “They [the antibodies] think they’re fighting something that’s foreign, but you’re hurting something that’s close to home: your brain cells.”

Doctors told Laura had the condition progressed any further, the antibodies would have started attacking her breathing receptors and she wold have died.

Her condition began improving in a couple of days. After two weeks in the hospital, she finally got to go home.

“I’ve been constantly improving and I’ve had no hallucinations since I left the hospital,” Laura said. “I finally feel like I’m back to my old self. I feel normal. I go around my friends and feel normal. I finally feel 100 percent back to where I was.”

Laura will get to return to Tranlysvania University this fall and she will even be able to play soccer again.

Laura, an English major, says she hopes to go to grad school to become a professor and a writer.

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