USM grads to recount battle with rare disease


Two individuals who contracted an uncommon illness – one, a bestselling author, and the other, a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) alumna now pursuing a Ph.D. – will share their story of recovery and resilience at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept.18, in Bennett Auditorium on the Southern Miss campus during the first University Forum of the fall 2018 semester.

Susannah Cahalan was successfully pursuing her dream of becoming a reporter when suddenly everyday tasks became more difficult. She became increasingly paranoid, and her behavior became erratic. It would take months of misdiagnoses before Dr. Souhel Najjar diagnosed her with a rare autoimmune disease, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which caused her body to attack the reasoning and emotional centers of the brain. “Her brain,” Dr. Najjar told Cahalan’s distressed parents, “was on fire.”

Cahalan recovered and wrote a memoir, Brain on Fire, which was made into a Netflix film.

After her Forum address about her experience, Cahalan will be joined onstage by Southern Miss alumna Jasmine Whiteside, who in 2013 was diagnosed with the same disease, and spent six months in a coma.

Whiteside is now pursuing a doctorate at Ohio State University.

“Cahalan’s resilience - and Jasmine Whiteside’s - is remarkable and inspirational. However, their story is also about science and superstition,” said Dr. Andrew Haley, professor of history and director of University Forum.