April 18, 2019  

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USM Alumna Overcomes Incredible Adversity to Pursue Doctoral Degree

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Pictured left to right: Dr. Amy Miller, Professor and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs; Jasmine Whiteside and her mother. (Submitted photo)

Jasmine Whiteside still struggles to articulate all of the amazing aspects of her story. That’s understandable—she only recalls pieces of it.

Today, The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) alumna and Hattiesburg native is a successful graduate student at The Ohio State University, well on her way to a doctoral degree and a career in a field that will benefit communities across the country. But as she progressed toward her USM graduation in 2013, she contracted a rare and life-threatening illness that left her in a coma. And when she awoke six months later, before she could think about the graduation stage, she needed to learn to speak and walk again, to read and write again, and to take care of herself again.

She’s done all that and more. This is her amazing story.

From Hattiesburg to The University of Southern Mississippi

The distance from downtown Hattiesburg, Miss., to The University of Southern Mississippi is just a few miles—but that proximity was not appealing to Whiteside, at least not initially.

“As a first-generation scholar from downtown, I just wanted to get out of Hattiesburg,” Whiteside said. “I love Hattiesburg, but I was ready to get out, explore, study abroad somewhere, and do all of these different things. I thought, ‘You can’t do that at Southern Miss. I’ve lived down the street from campus; I’ve seen what they have to offer.’”

But her visit to campus, and her interactions with the staff of the Luckyday Citizenship Scholars Program at USM, changed her opinion.

“It was everything I wanted in a school, and it didn’t feel like I was in Hattiesburg,” she said of her orientation to Southern Miss. “It felt like I was in a different place. Their (Luckyday) main focus was servant leadership and learning how to give back to the community. It’s not all about academics, although that’s a big part of college, but it’s also about forming a good community, making memories, and building relationships.”

“That’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to stay in Hattiesburg,” she added. “Then they said, ‘These are the dorms.’ I said, ‘Wait a second; the dorms are nice. The people are nice. Everyone’s friendly.’ So, I ended up enrolling at Southern Miss…Luckyday drew me to USM, and it made me love it while I was here. It gave me a lot of different opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have gotten if I had gone anywhere else.”

“When we first met Jasmine it was evident that she was a special,” said Dr. Larry Sparkman, director of the Luckyday program at USM. “She was engaged, intentional, determined and dedicated. I can remember meeting her during orientation as she was still trying to make up her mind on where she would attend school. We were delighted she chose Southern Miss!”

Sparkman said the staff and Whiteside’s peers immediately recognized Whiteside’s leadership abilities.

“She was a leader at every level of our program from mentoring to service and threw herself into every opportunity she felt was positive and community focused,” he said. “She was a joy to work with, and we had such high hopes for her bright future.”

The Illness and the Road Back

Immersed in the Luckyday program and her studies, Whiteside was well on her way to successfully securing her bachelor’s degree with honors. But in 2013, a rare illness derailed her progress, and the challenges of exams and papers on deadlines became replaced by tests monitoring her brain function and vital signs.

While she does not remember exactly when it started, others tell Jasmine that late in her time as a Southern Miss student she began to exhibit behavior that was out-of-character. Family, friends and mentors initially thought she was stressed and sleep-deprived from applying to graduate school. They became increasingly concerned, however, as she started dropping responsibilities, struggling with insomnia, crying frequently, and expressing fears that people were following her or stealing from her.

“They thought maybe I had been drugged or was having a mental breakdown,” she said. Her condition, though, could not be diagnosed.

At the end of fall 2013, Whiteside’s mentor Amy Miller became very concerned about her well-being when Whiteside came to her house seeking guidance. Over a period of three days, “she unraveled and became increasingly delusional, hallucinating, and fearful of everyone,” said Miller. Within a few days, the situation was unmanageable, and Miller joined with others to seek emergency assistance to assess her physical and mental well-being.

Then the seizures began.

“I started to have uncontrollable seizures,” Whiteside said. “They ended up flying me to Jackson to UMMC (University of Mississippi Medical Center). While I was on the helicopter, according to the reports, I fell into a coma. I had all of these seizures, and they couldn’t do anything to make them stop. I can’t tell the story as good as anyone else can because I can’t remember it. It’s just bits and pieces to me.”

Whiteside was diagnosed with encephalitis, and over a period of weeks it was determined that she had a rare auto-immune form called “anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.” Because the symptoms include flu-like effects, memory problems, sleep disorders, speech dysfunction, confused and delusional thinking, hallucinations, disinhibited behaviors and movement disorders such as spasms and catatonia, it often does not look like typical encephalitis or other infections. Instead, it seems like a mental illness.

“It causes you to have these psychotic symptoms to where most people are diagnosed with schizophrenia,” Whiteside said.

The rare illness was made better-known through the book, “Brain on Fire,” by Susannah Cahalan.

Whiteside's symptoms were more severe than Cahalan's, Whiteside believes. She was in a coma from December 2013 until June 2014, during which time she was unresponsive, fighting infections, and ultimately undergoing surgery in a desperate search for tumors associated with her condition. Luckily, microscopic tumors were found, which improved her chance of recovery and reduced her chance of relapse.

After about six months in the coma, Whiteside began to awake. She moved from intensive care at UMMC to the Methodist Rehabilitation Center, then to Forrest General in Hattiesburg for her final phase of in-patient treatment. Those steps began a long road to recovery, a recovery that is still in progress in some ways. Eventually, she was able to return home and begin therapy at Wesley Medical Center (now Merit Health) and the Speech and Hearing Clinic at Southern Miss, as well as continuing out-patient therapy at the Methodist Rehabilitation Center.

“This form of encephalitis was so rare that they don’t know exactly what causes it, and I don’t think they know exactly how to treat it,” Whiteside said.

“I don’t remember much about being in Jackson except for I was really thin, and I made a lot of friends because they said I was very honest,” she added. “They said I definitely left an impression on the therapists.”

Eventually, well over a year after her diagnosis, Whiteside was cleared to return to school to finish her bachelor's degree.

“I did not do well when I came back to Southern Miss and finished that semester,” she said. “I had to complete my Capstone seminar that semester. I knew that was all I had to do so I thought I could do it, and then I realized it was tougher than I thought…It was hard, and I was not 100 percent, but I was well enough to finish it.”

Whiteside was able to walk across the Commencement stage in December 2015 along with her sister, who also earned her degree that day.

An Ongoing Journey

Today, Whiteside is a doctoral student at The Ohio State University, where she has found another support system and research for which she a passion. As she continues her recovery, she is finding she is more like her pre-illness self each day.

“I feel like I am where I need to be now,” Whiteside said. “I don’t feel overwhelmed, but I don’t feel it would have been possible if it wasn’t for those mentors that I have at OSU now who are similar to the mentors I had at Southern Miss. It’s because they are both willing to take that extra step and provide those extra resources.”

Whiteside hopes to pursue research examining educational resources and the effects of those resources on achievement. The mentors who have meant so much to her are one reason for her interest.

“It (mentors) mattered a lot to me,” she said. “It continues to matter for where I end up.”

Miller, Sparkman and many others from USM and the Hattiesburg area are continuing to keep in close contact with Whiteside, as she pursues her doctoral degree.

“When she became so desperately ill it was traumatic for us all as she was so invested with so many people and very loved by our community,” Sparkman said.  “Jasmine may be the most stable and determined student I have ever worked with and to see her in such a delicate state was hard to get my mind around.

“Her determination and tenacity have helped her recover from such a near death experience to flourish in a graduate-level program,” he added.

Regardless of where her journey ends, Whiteside already has a lifetime worth of lessons she can share with others.

“I know what I have taken from this whole experience is to be persistent,” she said. “A lot of times I kind of wanted to give up because I felt like I would never get back to where I was…I didn’t know why things happened, and I’m still not 100 percent certain as to why I got sick. Instead of asking why this happened to me, I’m achieving the goals I set out before I got sick and new goals I set after I got sick.

And no matter where she goes, Hattiesburg and The University of Southern Mississippi will be with her.

“I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for my Hattiesburg community and my Southern Miss community,” she said. “I think I’m that person at OSU who is always like, ‘Hattiesburg is so much better than this, or Southern Miss is so much cooler than this…Southern Miss and Hattiesburg High School paved the way for me to be where I am today, and their continued support is amazing. That’s what pushes me to keep moving.”

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