April 21, 2019  

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Cahalan, Whiteside Share Story of Recovery at Southern Miss University Forum

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Brain on Fire author Susannah Cahalan, right, and University of Southern Mississippi alumna Jasmine Whiteside discuss their battle with the rare brain disease, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

Brain on Fire author Susannah Cahalan joined University of Southern Mississippi alumna Jasmine Whiteside for a unique edition of the school’s University Forum Sept. 18, featuring both discussing their battle with a rare disease, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

The disease caused Cahalan to become increasingly paranoid, and her behavior became erratic. After months misdiagnoses, Dr. Souhel Najjar diagnosed her with the disease, which caused her body to attack the reasoning and emotional centers of her brain. It was Dr. Najjar who described her brain as being “on fire” to Cahalan’s parents. Brain on Fire is her memoir of the experience, which later was made into a Netflix movie. 

Whiteside, who was diagnosed with the same disease in 2013, spent six months in a coma. She is now pursuing a doctorate in sociology at Ohio State University.

“The focus of this forum is one disease, one disaster in one’s life, but even a lot of people can wind up being misunderstood, or hit roadblocks without having a disease like this,” Whiteside said. “This is an opportunity to hear from us, and give USM students a chance to reflect, that if I can overcome this, then they can overcome whatever hurdles they may be facing.”

Cahalan said misunderstood symptoms like those sometimes associated with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis can lead to misdiagnosis, which can result in the patient not receiving proper treatment or experience unnecessary delays in the recovery process, or both. “You’re often also dismissed or sidelined into a different diagnosis,” she said.

The University Forum event was the first time for Cahalan to be paired at a speaking engagement with someone like Whiteside who had the same disease and faced similar challenges.

“Joining Jasmine for this event is very special for me,” Cahalan said. “I hope USM students and the rest of the audience come away with not only a newfound perspective on this disease, but the knowledge that someone in their own community has faced this same challenge.”

University Forum is presented by the Southern Miss Honors College. For information about University Forum, visit https://www.usm.edu/honors/about-university-forum.