Woman Thought She Had a Head Cold — but It Was a Rare Brain Infection that 'Nearly Killed' Her

In a personal essay, Amy Gruenhut shares how she was diagnosed with viral encephalitis — inflammation of the brain — that left her fighting for her life

A New York City woman is sharing her harrowing story after what she believed to be head cold turned out to be a rare, life-threatening brain inflammation.

In a personal essay for TODAY, Amy Gruenhut revealed that in early January she experienced cold and flu symptoms that she "couldn't shake."

"My doctor told me to go to the emergency room, they gave me fluids and sent me home," she wrote. "The next day, I was even worse. My parents came to my apartment and took me back to the ER. Everything went downhill from there."

"I had a fever and headache and was vomiting. I had terrible pressure in my head that felt like it was going to explode," Gruenhut explained. "My mother noticed that my speech was slurred. My vision was blurry, I was drooling and couldn't swallow. The last thing I remember is a young ER doctor suggesting a spinal tap. Once the procedure was done, I went into a coma."

Gruenhut was quickly transferred to a neurological ICU and placed on a feeding tube and ventilator, only regaining consciousness two weeks later. However, when she woke up she was still unable to speak, eat, walk, or breathe on her own.

Amy Gruenhut
Courtesy Amy Gruenhut

After several MRIs, CT scans and blood tests, Gruenhut tested positive for enterovirus and was diagnosed with viral encephalitis — inflammation of the brain caused by a viral infection — that she said "almost ended my life."

Encephalitis can cause flu-like symptoms such as a fever and headache, according to the Mayo Clinic. More severe symptoms include confusion, seizures, or problems with movement or senses.

Treatment for encephalitis focuses primarily on fighting the infection, and Gruenhut said she was treated with intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) infusions.

"It was crucial for the doctors to lower my fever and ease the pressure caused by the brain inflammation," she added. "Some of the treatments aimed at reducing my symptoms included steroids to reduce brain swelling, anticonvulsant drugs to prevent seizures and sedatives to calm me down."

Amy Gruenhut
Courtesy Amy Gruenhut

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In her essay, Gruenhut called the recovery a nightmare full of "dark days" as she remained in pain and unable to eat, breathe or speak.

She stayed at Mount Sinai Hospital for two months. When she was finally taken off the ventilator, she underwent a tracheostomy to relearn how to talk using a speaking valve. She also had to learn to walk again and worked with neurophysical and occupational therapists to get back on her feet.

"Survivors of encephalitis can suffer neurologic consequences, which can be long-term and even permanent. It was critical for me to initiate physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy," Gruenhut explained, noting that her speech is the only lingering ailment due to nerve damage in her tongue.

"I've now been out of the hospital for five months. I feel grateful to be alive. I've learned to walk without assistance, and now I can even run. I can eat, speak and do all the basic, daily life tasks that so many of us take for granted."

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