SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Kimberly Bari was teaching overseas when her life suddenly took a disturbing and unexpected turn.
She suddenly began suffering seizures and wild mood swings. Within months, she went from a woman in love with life and adventure to a bed-ridden patient in a psychiatric facility stateside, her life reduced to little more than watching cartoons and coloring.
Her road back has been one filled with bravery, innovation, compassion, care and hope. The hope, innovation and compassion supplied by the doctors at UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences.
“It was always me and my brain,” Bari said. “We were always, always fighting one another. I was fighting his brain for years.”
Dr. Robert Knowlton is among the doctors who have treated Bari at UCSF. He said the kind of battle Bari has experience touches the basic core of one’s life.
“We are our brains,” he said. “All of our reality is based on what we perceive and how we interact with our environment and all that goes through the brain.”
Growing up, Bari was a perfectionist. She studied hard and achieved academic success. She had little doubt that she would conquer any challenge that came her way.
“In 2010, I was 26 and about to start an adventure I’d dreamed about my entire life — to teach English aboard in China,” she said. “At first the experience was exciting, but soon after arriving in Shanghai my health took a turn for the worse.”
It started with the uneasy feeling of anxiety and progressed from there.
“If it (the anxiety) isn’t disabling to a degree, it’s something that is very treatable,” Knowlton said. “Kimberley’s was something that was on a whole other level.”
She suffered her first seizure while in China.
“My seizure activity increased dramatically,” Bari said. “My eyes and my mouth would twitch. My throat would tighten and I’d struggle to breathe. Often the right side of my would go numb.”
Her mind also became a battlefield.
“I experienced hallucinations and felt anxious, ” Bari said. “I couldn’t sleep and I thought I was losing my mind.”
She returned to the states in February 2011 and began to seek treatment. What followed was dozens and dozens of doctor visits, laboratory tests and trips to the hospital.
Bari wrote about her struggles in a journal.
“Events send into a complete rage,” she reads from one of the passages. “I’m cursing. I want to kill myself. I hate being alive. I would try to break things. Slamming everything in sight and saying things like I wish I were dead.”
Then during a 2015 visit to San Francisco, Bari’s battle took a fateful turn.
“I had a severe seizure, fell and hit my head,” she said. “I went to UCSF for treatment and left with a concussion and a brand new team of neurologists, fascinated with my case.”
The UCSF doctors discovered Bari’s immune system was responding to parts of her brain and identifying them as being abnormal. The immune response was attacking her brain.
The attack was inflaming her brain and the irritation triggered seizures.
“We tried several different medicines, but they either caused too many side effects or they didn’t help enough with the seizures,” said Dr. Paul Garcia. “That’s why we went to the next step of evaluating her to determine whether or not surgery would bring her seizures under better control.”
Bari decided to undergo surgery even though there were very real risks. Then she under went a second procedure.
“A successful second surgery gave me a true sense of hope,” she said. “For the time being, my battle with autoimmune encephalitis had come to a halt. And while I realized I would always have some type of seizure activity due to my epilepsy, my most debilitating seizures were gone.”
“The doctors at UCSF had great news. Through the genius of technology a new device called a neuropace or RNS could help monitor and minimize the seizures,” she added.
Think of it as a pacemaker for the brain.
What the device inserted into the skull does, doctors say, is read electro-neurological signals continuously from the brain and then sends an electrical stimulation when a seizure begins to stop it.
Today, Kimberley Bari’s winning her back to return to normalcy. She has begun integrating herself back into social setting and even has started volunteering at UCSF’s Benioff Children’s Hospital.