Emily Gavigan was a carefree student attending the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, but things suddenly took a very frightening turn when the sophomore began acting “bizarre.”
She became a paranoid, 19-year-old woman who was convinced someone was following her in a truck, making calls to family and friends, warning them they were all in danger of something terrible happening, according to PIX11.Screenshot/PIX11
Emily’s father, Bill Gavigan, explained:
“Emily was like a different person. We didn’t know who she was. We had gone from having this daughter who was perfectly normal, happy, vibrant … with a bright future ahead.”
Her strange behavior came out of nowhere in 2009, and her confusing words continued to grow.
“All of a sudden, this all came crashing down,” Bill said.
Then Emily just vanished.
She had hopped in her car and took off, making her way from Pennsylvania to New Jersey without any money with her, blowing right by toll booths before she turned up at her grandparents’ house after being missing for 24 hours.
The woman explained to her grandfather, Joseph Chiumento, that she was being chased, but he realized she was only telling a story after coming up empty-handed when peeking out the window for the mysterious person who was following her.
Emily’s parents picked her up and headed right to the hospital to get help for their daughter.Screenshot/PIX11
Doctors began treating her in psychiatric facilities for a mental illness, but that wasn’t working. Emily was becoming physically worse, suffering from seizures and numbness in her hands and face. Doctors didn’t find any brain tumors, and a multiple sclerosis diagnosis ended up being wrong.
“They just kept trying medication after medication after medication, and none of it worked.”
The confused and devastated parents watched as their daughter slipped further away. Her father would ask her to say, “I love you, dad,” and his daughter could barely shake her head to say “no.”
Then, a year later, a light bulb went off in the family’s head when they saw New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan discuss her “mysterious lost month of madness” on the “Today” show.
Cahalan also suddenly acted odd, claiming she could feel bed bugs on her hand and face, and she suffered from paranoia, just like Emily.
But her neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, believed she might have a neurological issue, not just a psychiatric one, after having Cahalan draw a clock and seeing all of the numbers placed on the right side. The doctor realized it could be the right side of her brain misfiring, and that could be treated.
All it took was a simple test that can be performed on blood or spinal fluid to find out that Cahalan was suffering from an autoimmune disease, causing her proteins to attack her body. The immune system creates antibodies to help fight bacteria or viruses, but that was working against her by going after a receptor in her brain.
The disease was given the name anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, also known as NMDARE, in 2007. A neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who discovered the disease, Dr. Josep Dalmau, said many patients have been incorrectly misdiagnosed with a mental illness.
Seeing that made Emily’s mother and father turn to her doctors and beg for the test.
But according to Bill, the doctors didn’t give them the response they were hoping for, telling them no, explaining:
“You two have to come to grips with the fact that you have a child with mental illness. You’re not doing anybody any favors by grasping at these type of straws.”
They continued to fight for the NMDARE test as their daughter fought through seizures and a blood clot in her brain while they were still searching for an answer why.
They finally got the test cleared, and they finally had an answer. Bill said:
“Everybody was cheering that we had a diagnosis of autoimmune encephalitis.”
Emily’s father explained the road to recovery took some time for his daughter, an avid figure skater, to go from her wheelchair to the ice:
“It did take a long time for Emily to fully recover, but there were some milestones. It was probably about a year after Emily was released from the hospital that she got back on the ice.”
Another family followed in Emily’s footsteps to recovery when a Nebraska mother, Mandy Jensen, figured out her 6-year-old daughter, Madison, was showing the same eerie symptoms.
Out of nowhere, Madison would drool, throw tantrums, and forget how to speak and read.
She was diagnosed with the same disease after her mom saw the same story. Madison is now a healthy 10-year-old who hopes more people learn about the disease so more lives can be saved.
“Maybe we could help someone, and then … it’d just keep going.”
Watch the story from PIX11 below: