Dr. Siegel: Neurologist Was Stumped by Susannah

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Brain On Fire" by Susannah Cahalan. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who was Dr. Siegel, the neurologist who couldn’t diagnose Susannah? How did he try to help?

Dr. Siegel is a neurologist that joined Susannah’s medical team and reassured her mother. He suspected brain inflammation and pulled Dr. Souhel Najjar into the case.

Read more about Dr. Siegel, neurologist, and his contributions in Brain on Fire.

Dr. Siegel, Neurologist

Dr. Siegel arrives. He’s a world-famous neurologist, and he assures Susannah’s mom that everything will be fine. Susannah’s mom clings to his words as if they’re a lifeline.  

Dr. Siegel informs Susannah’s mom that Susannah’s spinal tap shows an elevated number of white blood cells. This is usually a sign of infection or inflammation and indicates that Susannah’s illness is physiological rather than emotional in nature. The news finally gives Susannah’s mom a clue she can wrap her head around. She spends the rest of the evening Googling medical terms like “meningitis” and “multiple sclerosis.”

The brainstem is one of the oldest and most primitive parts of the brain. It controls life-or-death functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. 

Diagnosing which part of the brain is responsible for a certain behavior is difficult, as one behavior may be controlled by many different areas of the brain. If one area goes out, many connections are altered. 

Susannah’s bloodwork and autoimmune tests come back negative. Her MRIs and CT scans are clean. Forced by this evidence to rule out most of the diagnoses they had in mind, Susannah’s doctors begin to wonder whether they’ll actually be able to figure out what’s wrong with her. 

Changes to the Medical Team

Dr. Siegel, the physician on whom Susannah’s mom has pinned her hopes, quits Susannah’s team. Susannah’s mom is devastated. She now believes that Dr. Russo is their only hope—until Russo brings up the name of a Dr. Souhel Najjar, the doctor to call when nothing makes sense. Both Russo and Najjar order a second spinal tap for Susannah. Unbeknownst to Susannah’s family, Siegel asked Najjar to join Susannah’s team.

Dr. Siegel: Neurologist Was Stumped by Susannah

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain On Fire" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Brain On Fire summary:

  • How a high-functioning reporter became virtually disabled within a matter of weeks
  • How the author Cahalan recovered through a lengthy process and pieced together what happened to her
  • How Cahalan's sickness reveals the many failures of the US healthcare system

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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