She Was Catatonic 20 Years Before a Breakthrough

Story of April Burrell raises hopes for others diagnosed with mental illness: 'Washington Post'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 3, 2023 4:40 PM CDT
She Was Catatonic 20 Years Before a Breakthrough
   (Getty / CIPhotos)

She was a straight-A accounting major with a seemingly bright future until everything changed in sudden fashion: At the age of 21, April Burrell of Baltimore was diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia, writes Richard Sima in the Washington Post. "The former high school valedictorian could no longer communicate, bathe or take care of herself." For the next 20 years, Burrell lived in a catatonic state in a psychiatric hospital—until 2018, when she began to come out of it after novel treatment. The key to it: A doctor interested in her case ordered a full medical workup and discovered she also suffered from the autoimmune disorder lupus, which was attacking her brain. "After months of targeted treatments—and more than two decades trapped in her mind—April woke up," writes Sima.

The breakthrough in Burrell's case came from Sander Markx, director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University, and it's now being applied to others. In New York state alone, researchers have identified 200 patients, some of whom have been institutionalized for years, who might benefit from the insight. "The impact of the work is already beginning to reshape the practice of psychiatry and the way many cases of mental illness are diagnosed and treated," writes Sima. Markx refers to patients who might be helped as "lost souls," and the research will ring familiar to anyone who's seen the movie Awakenings, based on the cases of patients treated by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Markx, in fact, saw the movie as a teen and it resonated. Read the full story, which includes the case of another successfully treated patient. (Or check out other longform stories.)

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