March 9, 2022 | by Rachael Muggleton
In May of 2020, I was a healthy, vibrant, smart, loving, pre-med student at Penn State, nicknamed the ‘mayor’ of my large friend network … until I fell acutely ill. Within 7 days of hospital admission, for what seemed like some type of stress induced altered mental status, I became catatonic. My mom watched in horror as her daughter’s light rapidly dimmed; losing a piece of what defined me each day. By day 7, I no longer spoke or appeared to recognize anyone, my heart rate became unstable, I could no longer walk or eat, and my kidneys began to fail. I was rushed to the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) with a preliminary diagnosis of Anti-NMDAr Autoimmune Encephalitis (AE) – an illness my family had never heard of, but one unfortunately they would get to know very well over the next six months of my horrific journey.
Full disclosure — this part of my story comes from my mom; I don’t remember anything from my admission until fuzzy memories of my time in inpatient rehab 5 months later. By the time I reached URMC I was catatonic, seizures were starting to take over. My mother described the surreal experience as ‘seeing our beautiful Rachie rapidly falling through the AE ‘looking glass’ – a tumbling, bouncing, free fall which lasted for days, weeks, eventually resulting with me being placed on life support for months’.
Timing is everything, right?! It was during COVID lockdown, visitation was not allowed. My family was no longer able to be by my side. For 42 days, physicians and nurses cared for me while in a medically induced coma; trying to quell the relentless seizures. My mom sat on the virtual sidelines, distraught, making decisions regarding PIC lines, arterial lines, sedation, feeding tubes and a tracheostomy – decisions she never imagined she’d be making for her child, who outside of a tonsillectomy, was the picture of health. Without the communication, compassion, trust and love I received from the URMC team, my mother said she wasn’t so sure she would have been able to get through those first 42 days. They were her eyes, ears, and most importantly, heart.
When restrictions finally lifted and my parents were able to be by my side, they witnessed firsthand what a cruel, relentless illness AE was. There is no official playbook. My mom, a person who prefers order and predictability, was at a loss watching the team trying to control an illness that twisted and turned, never letting up. AE laughed at us and didn’t care how desperately we wanted it to release its grip. During this acute phase, one of my Neuro-intensivists explained his view on Anti-NMDAr AE (after treating a handful of cases each year) to my mom – ‘It comes out of nowhere, attacks HARD, stays as long as it pleases, eventually leaves, rarely returns. Our job is to treat Rachael with what we know works and keep her alive until it leaves”, and they did just that. I received steroids, plasma pheresis, IVIG, Rituxan and when things still seemed to be stalled, Cytoxan. I was also placed on a strict KETO diet, which in some pediatric patients has been proven effective in reducing/eliminating certain type of seizure activity.
By mid-August of 2020, my mom tells me, “Our ‘Alice’ ended her free fall and SLOWLY started to reemerge!”. Day by day, small pieces of me started coming back. Eventually, the ICU staff took me out to the children’s garden at URMC (safety protocols in place (!)) to see my brother Andrew for the first time in 4 months (pictured)!
My family and team celebrated each breath on my own, swallow of water, baby step, new word, and smile! When it was finally time to leave my nurturing Neuro-ICU ‘nest’, the team through me a dance party — sending me off to inpatient rehab in style! Since I have no memory of that time, I’m thankful it was recorded! Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Up’ will forever rock as my survival song 😊!
I was released from the hospital in October 2020, just short of 6 months. While my journey was far from over, I was on my way! I still needed to be weaned (carefully) from 8 different anti-seizure medications, regain my cognitive functions and physical strength and dexterity. Through the work of an amazing rehab team and sheer determination, I made my way back. By the summer of 2021, I was taking college calculus II and preparing for my college return in the fall.
But here’s the best part of my story! In December 2021, I spent a week in the URMC Neuro-ICU, only this time NOT as a patient but rather to shadow the amazing physicians, nurses and professionals to learn firsthand the world of intensive care neurology. As a result of this shadowing, I’m sure they hope I choose Neurology as my specialty (maybe?!), but FAR more was gained from this experience! Rarely do providers, nurses, and staff get to see the results of their amazing efforts, and a recovered AE patient rarely gets to come back to see their heroes in action — Life came full circle.
I finished my fall semester (Deans List!) and as I write this, and I’ve returned for my final semester at Penn State. I’ll begin studying for the MCATS with the goal of medical school in 2023 (maybe URMC? 😊). Autoimmune Encephalitis was a cruel thief who tried to steal me and subsequently a year of my life, but as the Mad Hatter said to Alice, ‘If you knew time as well as I do, you wouldn’t talk about wasting it’. I’m not about to waste it!!
My mom reminds me often; I have a story to tell! I think it’s a story of a young woman falling through the looking glass — finding beauty, love, compassion, and competence all along her journey. However, her name isn’t Alice, it’s Rachael.
Never. Lose. Hope ❤️.
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