From College Soccer Player to Survivor of Autoimmune Encephalitis

By Matt Martin

Laura Martin is a 20-year-old college student from Winchester, Kentucky, right outside of Lexington. She was a Kentucky Governor’s Scholar and student at Transylvania University, as well as a standout goalie for the university’s women’s soccer program.

In August 2019, Laura’s future was on the rise. But in a matter of a few days, she and her family were soon facing their lowest moment. Her health suddenly declined. And no one knew if this promising student and gifted athlete would make it past 20 years old.

As she was getting ready for her sophomore year and second season with the women’s soccer team, Laura started behaving differently. Her friends began to notice she wasn’t herself. They told her family, who also noticed a drastic change in Laura’s behavior.

Laura wasn’t sleeping and started having intense paranoid delusions, acting in a way that was completely unrecognizable to her friends and family.

“I didn’t even know who this girl was,” Keri Martin, Laura’s mother, said.

Laura’s condition continued to decline. On Aug. 28, 2019, her family decided to take her to the Emergency Department at a Lexington hospital close to where they are from. When the family arrived, they were told that Laura was suffering from mental illness. Doctors took Laura into the behavioral health unit to be placed on a 72-hour hold.

With no family history of mental illness, Keri requested neurological testing for her daughter. But Laura’s doctors were dismissive of her request, and released her from the hospital after seven days without any solution to her symptoms.

“I thought this was how life was going to be for me now,” Laura said. “Coming back from the hospital was hard. Not being in school and missing my friends was difficult.”

Although Laura seemed better when she returned home, she immediately reverted back to behaviors that frightened her family. After having a poor experience at another healthcare system, Keri and James, Laura’s father, didn’t know what to do. They had many sleepless nights as they tried to take care of their daughter. With help from other family members, they watched Laura around the clock as she got worse day by day.

Laura wasn’t able to sleep and couldn’t walk, write or remember who her family members were. She was losing her cognitive ability at an alarming rate and she could no longer take care of herself for basic tasks.

“As a family, we were broken and at the bottom. There was nothing that could be worse than this,” Keri said.

Keri fought to get Laura in to see a neurologist in Lexington, only to be once again rejected by another physician. The family was told that Laura should be sent to a behavioral health unit. Keri felt that if they sent Laura back to a psychiatric facility, she would die there.

“We didn’t know what to do or where to go,” Keri said.

Running out of time and answers, Laura’s parents decided to bring her to Cincinnati to UC Health, home to the region’s No. 1 preferred provider for neuroscience care.

Immediately upon arrival at University of Cincinnati Medical Center on Oct. 9, 2019, the Martin family knew this experience would be different. Clinicians compassionately spoke to the family and quickly arranged for Laura to have a private room in the neurological unit.

Laura’s treatment when she arrived at UC Medical Center was led by Jordan Bonomo, MD, UC Health neurologist, associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and director for Neurocritical Care Fellowship at the UC College of Medicine.

An experienced group of residents and nurses made Laura’s family feel at ease, leaving them with a glimmer of hope for the first time in months. One resident involved with Laura’s care even told her family that she would advocate for her.

Another resident, Laura DiDomenico, MD, remained in the unit with Laura even after her rotation ended so she could see her treatment through. Laura’s entire care team was united and committed to finding out what was wrong and how to save her life.

“It was an entirely different experience from the moment we walked through the doors of the Emergency Department,” Keri said.

Laura’s Recovery after having “Brain on Fire

Laura had an EEG that revealed she was suffering from many small seizures, leading to her unusual behavior. The seizures were part of a neurological disease called Autoimmune Encephalitis, which refers to a group of conditions that occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy brain cells, leading to inflammation of the brain. This condition is often referred to as “brain on fire.”

Her family suspected this was the reason for Laura’s rapid health decline, but it wasn’t until they came to UC Health when this was confirmed. No other healthcare system in Lexington would even consider offering Laura neurological testing.

Over the next 12 days at UC Medical Center, Laura’s care team worked tirelessly to find a way to improve her condition. Joseph Broderick, MD, director of the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and professor in the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine at the UC College of Medicine, took over Laura’s care on her third day in the hospital.

“Inflammatory disorders of the brain can be devastating and challenging to diagnose,” Dr. Broderick said. “But patients can also respond dramatically to the correct treatment.”

In order to improve her condition, Laura started Intravenous Immunoglobin (IVIG) treatment, which is used to treat various autoimmune diseases. The first couple days were difficult for Laura and her family, but as time wore on, her condition gradually improved.

By Oct. 21, 2019, Laura had completed her IVIG treatment and was well enough to return home. Laura’s treatment included IV steroids, and to this day, she continues using oral steroids. Both of these have contributed to her improved condition.

After discharge, she continued to improve further and subsequently went back to work while waiting to restart college. “Laura is a walking miracle,” Keri said.

“It’s gratifying to see such a positive response from Laura. We are very proud of our treatment team who made the diagnosis and started her on the appropriate therapy,” Dr. Broderick said.

Post-hospital treatment, Laura is seen by Aram Zabeti, MD, director of the Waddell Center for Multiple Sclerosis at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and associate professor in the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine at the UC College of Medicine.

“As the region’s academic healthcare system, we are proud of our ability to diagnose and treat rare diseases such as Autoimmune Encephalitis,” Dr. Zabeti said. “Early intervention in Laura’s devastating disease saved her education, productivity, family and even her life.”

Handling the COVID-19 Pandemic

When the COVID-19 global pandemic began, Laura’s family made sure to keep a close eye on her to protect her from possible infection due to her compromised immune system. Laura continued her post-hospital steroid therapy during the pandemic. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to continue her part-time job she recently started, as the store she worked at temporarily closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

With the help of Dr. Zabeti, Laura successfully completed her steroid therapy and is no longer considered immunocompromised. She will be able to return to her part-time job when the store reopens.

Going from a healthy, successful college student-athlete to a neurological patient was something Laura could never have expected. She and her family went through adversity, frustration and fear along the way. But now, Laura is able to return to her life she had to give up prior to her diagnosis.

She’s able to sleep, walk, drive and work. Her next goal is to return to college in August 2020 and complete her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Secondary Education.

“It’s amazing to know that I have a condition that I can live with, that’s also treatable,” Laura said.

After being written off by other healthcare systems, Laura and her family found hope at UC Health. They know where to go in the future if anything happens.

“Everyone went out of their way to help Laura and all of us,” Keri said. “UC Health gave us our daughter back.”

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