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UWRF student's family turns struggle into song

Brittany Shermach

Brittany Shermach was home in Osceola on her winter/holiday break from UW-River Falls last January, when she came down with what she and her family thought was a bad cold.

It later turned out that Brittany had a form of viral encephalitis. She was in a coma for nine days, and spent months in recovery after that.

Now, her family has taken their struggle and put it to music, in an album they're calling "The Awakening."

The concept album follows the story of Brittany's illness.

Mystery illness

It all started, said Brittany's mother, Kate Shermach, when Brittany became sick.

"We just imagined that her resistance was down," said Kate. "We had just suffered some pretty significant losses in our family."

Several family members had died.

She went to sleep on the night of Jan. 12, feeling pretty badly.

"Well, she never woke up," said Kate.

She was getting ready for work and tried to wake Brittany up the next morning.

"I shook her, called out her name, yelled her name right into her face, and finally I peeled her eyelid back and it was just a completely blank, vacant stare."

Brittany was breathing, but "burning up."

Knowing something was seriously wrong, Kate called 911.

What is happening?

She was taken to St. Croix Regional Medical Center in St. Croix Falls and later Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Brittany stayed in the hospital in a coma for nine days, while doctors tried to figure out what was going on.

"They had run over 200 tests on her. Even the CDC couldn't determine what was wrong," Kate said.

By process of elimination, doctors determined that Brittany had a strain of viral encephalitis.

"To this day, we have no idea how she got it. We have no idea what the actual term is for it," she said. "It was a complete and total mystery."

Kate stayed at the hospital with Brittany to be her advocate. Kate's husband and Brittany's dad Chris took a hiatus from work to be at the hospital during the day. Kate said Chris had trouble sleeping, he was so worried about Brittany.

"At one point I was a little more worried about him than I was Brittany, because I knew Brittany was getting the very best care she could get, but he was falling to pieces," Kate said.

The couple's other daughter, Taylor, was 15 at the time. She stayed with friends during this ordeal and was "just a little rock," Kate said.

Think positively 

Taylor encouraged her parents to think positively.

"We were all just grateful for her strength," Kate said.

Taylor is very musical and plays bass guitar. The family had a rudimentary studio in their home. Kate and Chris had promised Taylor they'd get a new state-of-the-art studio built over the holiday season, before Brittany got sick. Kate encouraged Chris to work on the studio when he was at home.

"He did. Piece by piece, brick by brick," Kate said. "It was so therapeutic for him."

Doctors had been encouraging Brittany's loved ones to have familiar sounds and scents around her.

So on the eighth day of the coma, Kate and Chris brought a guitar into the hospital room and played and sang to their daughter.

"We had friends with us in the room, and even though we closed the door... one of the nurses opened it," Kate said.

Staff and visitors stood outside listening and it was very touching. Brittany didn't wake that day. But she did the next day.

"It wasn't like in Hollywood when they wake up and they say 'Where am I?'" Kate said. "The lights went on but no one was home. Her eyes were open but she was not lucid."

'Miraculous'

Four or five days later, when she was moved to another hospital to recover from a tracheostomy that had been done while she was in intensive care, "the lights came on" Kate said.

She described it as "just miraculous."

The encephalitis had spread to Brittany's spine, so though she had movement, she had to relearn all of her fine motor skills: walking, talking, and "just the little things," Kate said.

"She had to really fight and struggle," Kate said. "And she surpassed everyone's expectations."

Brittany is now doing "beautifully," Kate said.

"You would never know," she added.

Brittany has a scar now from her tracheostomy. She also has some memory loss, but Kate said Brittany doesn't let that get in the way. She takes notes, journals extensively, and is physically and mentally strong.

Throughout Brittany's struggles Kate kept a journal and updated a Caringbridge account which she filled with details of the family's experience. Soon, she began drawing lyrics from her journal and she and Chris started writing songs.

"We thought hey, you know, why don't we see about adapting these lyrics possibly into a story or into songs," she said.

So they created a band, which she and Chris call Tuesday Morning—because they found Brittany nonresponsive on a Tuesday morning—and began work on what is now a concept album following their story.

The album is a way to share their story, and the family also hopes to spread awareness of encephalitis. Brittany was lucky, she said. About 20,000 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States; about 10,000 do not survive. Of those survivors about 70 percent have lifelong disabilities.

"So Brittany is in a very special minority of people who get through encephalitis okay," Kate said.

She and her family are doing whatever they can to spread awareness of encephalitis.

The album, "The Awakening" will be released Nov. 21.

For more information, visit Tuesday Morning's Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/tuesdaymorningmusic/.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048
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