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Student Overcomes Tremendous Obstacles To Return To College After Serious Illness

Rebha Chalise
Student & Alumni Stories

A small indentation in the hollow of Rebha Chalise’s neck is the only visible reminder that not long ago she was on a ventilator, fighting for her life.

But the junior psychology major deals daily with the unseen effects of the rare form of brain inflammation that left her in a coma for six months and in rehab nearly eight more.

Since those harrowing days in 2012, Rebha has had to relearn basic skills—how to walk, how to talk, how to eat—after her immune system attacked the part of her brain responsible for such vital functions as breathing and swallowing.
And although Rebha looks like an average college student, the disease has robbed her of something most of her peers likely take for granted: short-term memory.

A knockout punch

Rebha’s fight began in March of her second year at Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond. She was 19 and on a date with her former boyfriend.

“We were on the way home, and I was just out,” she recounts. “I have no recollection.”

During the time she doesn’t remember, both her boyfriend and her roommate had taken Rebha to the ER and had called her parents, who immediately drove to Oklahoma and brought her back to Olathe. 

“My husband and I decided we’ll just take her home and care for her and maybe the next semester she’ll feel a lot better and then she’ll be able to continue with her school,” says Archana Chalise (’07), Rebha’s mom. “But she continued getting worse. She started losing her ability to even walk up to the kitchen to get a glass of water. And her speech began declining.” 

Within a week, she was in the hospital unresponsive.

Because Rebha had experienced numbness in her arms and difficulty speaking, her doctors initially thought she had suffered a stroke. But after nearly a month’s worth of tests, doctors at University of Kansas Medical Center discovered she had anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. 

Slowly back on her feet

Even today, Rebha still has no memory of college beyond her first semester or of her time in the hospital or at the rehab centers in three different states where doctors and therapists helped her reconstruct her life. 

She also had to rebuild her vocabulary, a stark reality for a bright, motivated young woman who had a stellar GPA and had taken enough AP classes in high school to put her at sophomore status during her first year of college.

“I would remember random words,” she says. “But not much. I was pretty much like a 2-year-old.” 

Now Rebha, who is enrolled at MNU, employs techniques to help her work around her faltering short-term memory. She takes extensive notes during class and uses an app called StudyBlue to help her retain information. 

“Appointments I keep in my phone,” she says. “I still have trouble remembering where I parked, so I text myself and my mom the location.”

Rebha also has more appreciation now for things she used to take for granted.

“I really value the fact that I can drive now,” she says. “Before, I didn’t really look at it like that, because it’s driving; what’s the big deal? But it took me so many tests to get that license back. I really value things that I just overlooked before.”

Small victories and steady progress  

Doctors aren’t certain of Rebha’s long-term prognosis, since the disease is so rare and its few sufferers have experienced a broad range of outcomes, including complete recovery. But everyone is hopeful. And the doctors say youth is on her side.

“It’s getting better,” she says. “Before, I could eat and then when they would bring out the dessert, I would ask, ‘OK, what are we having for dinner?’ It was weird.”

Rebha’s parents, who have been her faithful caretakers and support system, have helped fill in some of the blanks with stories and pictures. 

And she says she’s gaining more and more independence. Right now, Rebha works part-time at Sprouts and enjoys going to the gym. She is back to being able to run two miles and walk four. She also lifts weights and does yoga. 

A bright future within reach

Someday, Rebha hopes to marry and have children. For now, she finds caring for her two therapeutic dogs.

“Right now, my dogs are my kids,” she says. “Taking care of them has gotten a lot better. Now I can feed them, be home with them, walk them. This is going to sound strange, but talking to them helps too.”

Rebha plans to continue taking classes at MNU and maybe later to attend grad school in Chicago, pursuing the degrees she anticipates will one day lead to a career as a child psychologist, a journey she began before she got sick. And she’s taking each day as it comes.

“I’ve learned to be thankful,” Rebha says. “I never thought I’d get this. I’ve learned to take what life gives you.”

Story by Melinda Ablard Smith ('90)

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Summer 2019

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