Ellen Clifford
Updated Feb 28, 2014 @ 6:51 am
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I’ve written about a couple of mystery novels here, but I decided it was time to move on to a book about a real life mystery, and one I could identify with. Ready?

Okay, close your eyes and imagine that when you open them that you are in a hospital bed. You are a banged-up gnarly mess, connected to all sorts of monitors and drips. You have been restrained. You have no clue why you got there, but your body isn’t working so great. Words are slow. Everything is weird. Everything is terrible. And you DON’T KNOW WHY.

Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. went through that. So did I, albeit for different reasons. Both Cahalan and I had some messy stuff going on in our brains. I had taken a rather nasty fall. I tumbled around 8-10 feet in the dark off a staircase landing that had no railing. I landed hard, smashing my right arm and bashing my head on the concrete floor. Nobody knows why I fell because nobody saw it and I have no memory of the fall, or of the next four days. According to the owner of the home I was at, I had not been drinking, though. That is what everyone always asks me. My brain swelled up with so much blood, I almost had to have surgery on it. I’m told the first several days in the hospital literally every time I woke up, people had to explain to me what was going on. Sometimes they had to restrain my arms because I kept clawing off the neck brace I was wearing. It was four days before the swelling in my brain finally started going down and that is when I have my first foggy memory.

A traumatic brain injury is a confusing and scary thing to go through. I read Brain on Fire seeking the voice of someone who understood. I found that voice in Cahalan, and much more. I dare say her situation was more complicated than mine. Cahalan’s confusion about why she was in the hospital was a mystery not just to her, but to everyone. It all began with absurd symptoms. Paranoia, nausea, migraines and memory problems were the first problems. Then came the seizures and problems with speech and movement. Cahalan seemed to be going crazy. The doctors attributed the psychosis to the seizures, but a diagnosis was elusive. All Cahalan’s lab work and tests were coming back normal. On paper, she seemed healthy. The seizures and psychosis got so bad that finally she was admitted to an epilepsy ward.

As stumped as the doctors were, one can only try to imagine being in Cahalan’s head. At times she had no idea what was going on. At last, the doctors managed to at least deduce that she had swelling in her brain: encephalitis. Once the encephalitis was detected, the mystery became what caused it. At long last, an autoimmune disease was diagnosed as the cause of the swelling, and mystery then became what caused the autoimmune disease. It is still hard to know.

It took a large team of expert doctors just to get to the bottom of Cahalan’s case. Many are not so fortunate to have a great medical team, so the mystery Cahalan leaves us with is this: how many people are afflicted with the autoimmune disease and suffer untreated because of lack of knowledge about these disorders? It is incredibly sad to consider how many people may have been written off as psychotic or schizophrenic. If you want to find out more, there is a Facebook page The Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis Foundation Inc. to help support those dealing with the disease, in themselves or others.

My “mystery” of how I got in that hospital bed was only half-solved, too. I knew, once I was told, that I had fallen, but no one knows why I toppled. And I’d rather not remember. I think falling off that landing was probably terrifying. Unlike Cahalan’s case, I feel like some mysteries are better left unsolved.

Brain on Fire reads like half-memoir, half-medical mystery, as it took a long time for anyone to figure what the heck was going on. The brain is not a simple machine. One part of the brain malfunctioning can affect many bodily functions, which make other parts of the brain do different things and… domino effect. Cahalan is extremely fortunate that she had the correct team to treat her and make recovery possible, as well as a family to facilitate the process. I was lucky to have an ace team of doctors and a family that could come take care of me while I recovered.

I am so sorry. This is a column on food, too! I just fed your brain some literature. So let’s feed our brains some food this week too, okay?

I decided that the proper recipe to make for this Brain on Fire was one that had food that is good for brains. When I was recovering, my doctor told me: eggs. One thing I recall about the months following my hospital stay was that my mom would religiously make me fried eggs for a snack because the doctor said that if I wasn’t eating fish, I better at least double-up on the eggs.

Maybe Cahalan’s body instinctively knew this eggs were important to recovery, because she cites celebrating finishing a course of treatment with eggs and coffee. Or maybe she just had eggs on the brain.

I like that these eggs have sort of a weird cranial look to them, the shell is like the skull. Hope that is not gross to you. The taste is excellent, as things involving fresh herbs and butter are want to be. So have some eggs and celebrate brain function! It is a glorious thing to have.

Brainy Eggs adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas

  • 2 eggs, hard-boiled
  • 2-3 Tbsp butter
  • Chopped parsley
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Salt

First, to hard boil eggs I recommend the method where you put your eggs in a pot, cover with water, bring the water to a boil and immediately take off the heat. For a hard boil, let them sit 9-12 minutes. Then immediately start running cold water over them until the water in the pot is freezing cold. Then put those suckers in the fridge.

The difficult part of this recipe is getting perfect half-egg shells. Take a serrated knife and tap around the chilled eggs. Then slice all the way through and use a spoon to scoop the egg into a bowl. Set aside the shells.

Mash the eggs with 2 tablespoons of the butter, parsley, salt and pepper to your liking. Heat the remaining butter in a frying pan until melted. While it is melting, take the mashed up egg and put it back in the shell. Take the filled shells and place, egg side down into the frying pan. Cook over low heat until nicely browned and crisp. Grab a fork and dig in. Brainzzzzzz!