Three years ago, Christa Thesing suddenly began hallucinating and found herself unable to sleep. Her frightening symptoms baffled doctors near her home in Andover, Minnesota. Doctors initially suspected bipolar disorder, but then Christa's condition worsened. She became confused and began losing the ability to walk, talk and eat.
After two days, Christa was transferred to Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, where doctors determined the cause. She was diagnosed with a form of autoimmune encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. Mayo Clinic "was where I needed to be," Christa says. "They knew right away what to do." That was important, because a further delay in treatment could have had dire consequences. "If left untreated, encephalitis can wreak havoc on a patient's memory, personality and emotional stability," says Michel Toledano, M.D., a neurologist at Mayo Clinic.
Even with a prompt diagnosis, Christa's recovery wasn't easy. She spent nearly three weeks in intensive care as doctors worked to get the inflammation under control. Then she spent an additional month in Mayo Clinic's inpatient rehabilitation facility, where she received physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Christa says her family also played an important role in her healing, which included about 10 months of outpatient rehabilitation after she returned home. "I'm so lucky I have the family I do," she says. And while life has in many ways returned to normal — she's even returned to her job in real estate — there are reminders of what she lost. "I'm still asking questions as I'm learning more about the disease," she says. "Almost a year of my life is missing."
It could have been even worse. Fortunately for Christa, Mayo Clinic is a leader in encephalitis care. In 2006, Mayo created the nation's first autoimmune neurology clinic specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. "Establishing the diagnosis and identifying the underlying cause, whether infectious or autoimmune, helps guide treatment and greatly improves the chances of recovery," Dr. Toledano, says. Even then, survivors "often face brain injury and a long rehabilitation, making return to school or work difficult," he says.
Dr. Toledano and others are hoping to raise awareness of the disease beyond Mayo Clinic and other specialized centers of care. "More awareness of the disease is needed by the public and health care providers," he says. Lack of awareness can result in health insurers declining rehabilitative care. It can have social consequences, too, as friends and family may find it difficult to understand what their loved ones are experiencing.
That's why yesterday, Feb. 22, designated as World Encephalitis Day, people in some of the world's great cities were seeing red. Iconic landmarks, including the fountains at Trafalgar Square in London, Sydney Town Hall in Australia, and the Plummer Building in Rochester, were all glowing red as part of the Illuminating Encephalitis campaign. The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness for the rare and potentially serious disease.
If you missed the light show, you can see how they day unfolded on Instagram. Then, make us blush by leaving a comment below. You can use the handy social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.