NEW YORK (WPIX) — Half a million people each year will contract a brain-swelling emergency, and nearly half of them won’t survive. The potentially deadly affliction can be brought on by factors ranging from mosquito bites to COVID-19 and other illnesses, leaving some patients with symptoms including suicidal thoughts.
But many doctors still don’t know the symptoms of encephalitis. A Queens, New York, student is sharing her story in hopes of helping others recognize the signs and seek potentially life-saving aid.
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St. John’s University student Michelle Bravo-Cano was studying abroad for a semester in Paris — living a dream come true. But the experience quickly turned into a nightmare when she began having bizarre episodes.
“I was an insomniatic mess. I wasn’t sleeping for days on end,” Bravo-Cano told WPIX, adding that she also lost her appetite and experienced hallucinations.
Bravo-Cano’s new friends in Paris didn’t know her well enough to intervene, and the symptoms only grew when she returned home.
She had undiagnosed encephalitis, the symptoms of which can mimic a mental health crisis, often delaying the true treatment needed to save lives.
Bravo-Cano’s mother, a doctor and internist, was afraid of what the stigma of a mental health diagnosis might mean for her daughter.
“One time I told her that something’s wrong,” said Bravo-Cano. “And she said, ‘Don’t tell anybody or you’ll be sent to the psych ward.'”
But Bravo-Cano’s erratic behavior exploded over a family Christmas trip to Ecuador, and upon returning home she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.
“I couldn’t feel my legs,” she said. “I started screaming, ‘I’m dying, I’m dying.’”
Bravo-Cano was finally admitted to a Manhattan psychiatric ward and placed on drugs that typically calm the brain in a mental health crisis. But her symptoms didn’t improve.
Finally, a physician said her body’s immune system might actually be attacking her brain, causing encephalitis. Body scans revealed the source: a growth on Bravo-Cano’s ovary known as a teratoma. She underwent immediate surgery but was still in grave condition.
“I had multi-organ failure,” she said. “I stopped breathing. My heart stopped.”
While one person contracts encephalitis every minute worldwide, the ability to recognize and treat it remains woefully inadequate, according to a recent study.
“It can be caused by a person’s own immune system going wrong and attacking the brain in error,” said Dr. Ava Easton of The Encephalitis Society. “People might be behaving out of character, but they’ll often have other difficulties, profound sleep problems. They might be beginning to struggle with their memory.”
Bravo-Cano spent two months in the hospital, followed by many more in treatment and rehab. She still has lingering, but manageable depression. Others, however, may experience suicidal thoughts.
But she is also happily pursuing a law degree and encouraging people to “know the signs” of this widely misunderstood, but potentially deadly affliction.
The disease can strike anyone at any age, and more than 250,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with it during the past decade. Early treatment can save lives and improve outcomes. To prevent infection from viral sources, staying up to date on vaccinations is encouraged.