Alec Marshall felt possessed.
“Something had come over me,” he described.
The usually joyful and compassionate 18-year old — nearing graduation at Skyview High School with plans to attend Washington State University in the fall — was suddenly unable to connect emotionally with anyone.
He couldn’t sit still and cried for no reason.
“I lost all sense of myself and my realities,” he said.
Alec was diagnosed with a biochemical traumatic brain injury due to an adverse reaction to an allergy medication.
When he came off the drug, he suffered long debilitating “fight or flight” panic attacks. His amygdala, the emotional control center of the brain, was damaged and unable to stabilize his feelings. Doctors call the condition “brain on fire.”
At his darkest moments, Alec considered suicide.
After an arduous three months of hyperbaric oxygen and IV treatments, Alec is feeling like himself again. He smiles and laughs and is again charting his future.
“I have my son back,” his mother, Lydia, says.
In basketball, Alec Marshall started for Skyview’s basketball team that reached the Class 4A state tournament in March. As a “glue guy,” he provided energy, motivation and an occasional spark on offense.
Never the most physically gifted kid, Alec relied on solving problems with his mind. He was a comfort to his friends, a giver to his community.
“I’ve always been able to navigate tough situations with my brain,” Alec said. “That was why it was so terrifying when it was taken over.”
Alec started an allergy medication, Montelukast, to combat severe sinus problems and help him get through basketball season. He was on the drug seven months when his doctor told him it was OK to stop taking the pills on April 22. At that point, Alec was “focused, happy,” Lydia recalled. “He said it was the best time of his life.”
Shortly after he stopped taking the medication, Alec felt something was amiss. With many of his friends dealing with similar mental-health struggles due to the coronavirus pandemic and a sudden upheaval of normal life, Alec and his family put the worries aside.
But Alec’s condition worsened over the next month until he sat his family down on May 28. He told them he knew something wasn’t right; it was more than anxiety or depression. He needed help.
“There was nothing left and I was close to suicide, honestly,” Alec said.
They quickly connected that his mood change was related to the medication. A warning by the Food and Drug Administration in March confirmed their beliefs. Lydia went into “soldier mode,” she said.
“I thought I may have lost him,” Lydia said, choking back tears. “When you see your child in such mental fear and anxiety and terror, yes. I thought I might have lost him.”
Many times, Lydia saw the light leave Alec’s eyes. Throughout his treatment and recovery, he felt when the wave of his condition was about to wash over him and he’d tell his mom, “It’s coming.” For hours on end, Alec entered a complete sympathetic state, his body in a “fight or flight” panic attack.
This happened “day after day after day,” Lydia said.
Alec and Lydia Marshall believe they were better prepared than most to handle the situation. Alec’s father and Lydia’s husband, Michael, died in 2015 from a seizure. Alec was in middle school.
Michael Marshall’s seizure disorder, which Lydia said was caused by his dependency on alcohol, is remarkably similar to the condition Alec had.
“He basically lived with ‘brain on fire,’ ” Lydia said.
Added Alec: “It’s kind of poetic.”
While “brain on fire” can progress into a life-threatening condition, Alec’s biggest risk was himself. In his darkest moments, Alec saw no escape and considered suicide. Lydia couldn’t handle losing another loved one in a span of five years.
“It gutted me and pretty much broke me in half,” Lydia explained. “The thought of him dying or worse yet, losing his mind, was crushing beyond belief.”
For Alec, who had grown stronger as a result of losing his father, recovery was his toughest test yet.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve been through in my entire life without a doubt,” Alec said. “And I saw my dad die. This is harder than that and it’s not even close.”
Alec started treatment on May 29, the day after he professed his deepest concerns to his family. Lydia worked tirelessly through the night seeking treatment, scared to go to the emergency room with COVID-19 sweeping the country and a deep distrust in the medical route after seeing her son’s life turned upside down by a drug.
One friend told her about In Light Hyperbarics — a private facility in Vancouver that focuses on oxygen and light therapy — and naturopathic physician Dr. Kate Wiggin, who specializes in IV treatments.
“They were desperate,” In Light co-owner Caitlin Wilson said of the phone call she received that Friday in May. “Our intuition and our experience with clients, I knew what he needed was hyperbarics as soon as possible. She really just trusted us and what we do.”
Alec went into the chamber the day of the call, and met with Wiggin the following day to discuss more thoroughly the diagnosis and a plan of action.
The inflammation caused by the injury choked and suffocated the neural pathways in Alec’s brain, Lydia said.
The hyperbaric chamber simulates the pressure of going underwater and the increased atmosphere — often more than two times the earth’s atmospheric pressure for Alec’s treatment — pumps oxygen into the injured brain cells, Wiggin explained.
Alec has had more than 60 hyperbaric chamber treatments since May. In conjunction, he also receives IV treatments with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. He went to sauna therapy and was encouraged to go on hikes and get outdoors.
The IV treatments aid the brain’s recovery, added Lydia.
“He responded incredibly in just a few days,” Wiggin said.
Alec was initially treated twice per day, six days a week. After each treatment, he felt better for a short period and could communicate clearly and connect with family. Still, he was forced to drop his Running Start classes at Clark College. He later finished one of his four spring courses, and is three short of his associate’s degree.
It was immediately clear to Lydia Marshall she made the right choice. In Light became a second home for Alec over the next few months. They call the staff at In Light family now.
With so little known about biochemical traumatic brain injuries, the team at In Light had to approach Alec’s healing via trial and error. It was a roller-coaster ride until Alec stabilized in mid-August, with steady improvement each day since.
“I would be super sad or really happy,” Alec said. “My emotions were really out of whack and all over the place.”
Alec needed around-the-clock supervision early in his recovery and couldn’t drive himself to his appointments. Lydia quit her job as a dental assistant to care for her son.
Community members also pitched in to help Alec. Mentors Albert Angelo III and Mark Matthias and counselor Kaliana Schmidt were key figures during Alec’s recovery, Alec says. His stepfather, Chuck, and sisters, Ashley and Jillian, provided solace in the storm.
“I am eternally grateful for them,” Alec said.
Treatment was expensive and insurance covered little of it. A family friend set up a GoFundMe account on May 31. Within 24 hours, it raised more than $25,000 from nearly 400 people. Many posted comments about knowing Alec from basketball. Former teachers and friends reached out in support.
“It was just mind-blowing and incredible to see how many people cared for me and cared for my future,” Alec said.
The night the GoFundMe was set up, his family was in shock as they watched the donations soar. They realized just how many people Alec had impacted in his life.
“I had pride that I would need to develop a new word in the dictionary for,” Lydia said. “I felt like I was two inches off the ground, chills head to toe. The worst thing and the best thing in my life is happening and how do I process this: the polarity of darkness and the light in it?”
The money provided a big boost for Lydia, who didn’t have the financial strain that comes with hefty medical expenses and unemployment on top of the worry for the well-being of her son.
“This was probably the most stressful, agonizing, tortuously, fearful, excruciating painful things to have observed and witnessed,” Lydia said. “To Iive day in and day out at such an intense urgent level, it’s really hard on a person.”
The outpouring of support from the community gave Alec a renewed sense of purpose through his recovery. He refused to let down those who supported and donated money.
He immediately began looking for ways to give back.
“I feel as though it’s my duty now and my job,” Alec said. “I have the passion and am applying that passion. There’s no other option is how I see it.”
Inspired by his mother, Alec is starting a foundation to raise awareness and provide resources for young adults impacted by traumatic brain injuries.
He now works at In Light as an ambassador to help people going through similar injuries.
“Our why is so strong that nothing is going to stop us or get in our way,” Alec said.
Together, a mom and her son persevered again. Despite the difficult times through the recovery, the two say they’re closer than ever.
Alec still receives treatment, and is hopeful of a full recovery. He’s back to thinking about his future, something he didn’t know would exist months ago. Alec deferred his enrollment to WSU-Pullman until 2021, but is still exploring all options.
Lydia sees the light again in her son’s eyes; her own personal faith burns stronger than ever. As tears welled in her eyes and a smile stretched across her face, she made a final point:
“We’re just happy that he’s here.”