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Cathedral High School students’ rare diagnosis leads to lifelong friendship

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Crossing finish lines has never been an issue for 17-year-old Madison Gatto. The Cathedral High School senior runs cross country and considers herself very competitive.

“I was always kind of the one who would be, like, a try hard,” said Madison.

Those skills she gained playing various sports would soon become her saving grace during an extended hospital stay.

Gatto’s issues started in September 2021, when she began to suffer from severe insomnia. In the days and weeks following, her symptoms became even stranger.

“I would get texts and I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me. I could read it but I couldn’t comprehend what they were saying. That kind of just went on and off for a few hours each day. I had ringing in my ear and that kind of worsened over a week and then on the final day before I went to the hospital, I had numbness in my right hand and I couldn’t feel my right hand,” said Madison.

Madison’s mom Bernadette Gatto said figuring out what to do next wasn’t easy.

“We finally got to a neurologist at IU North Hospital, that diagnosed her right on the spot and we were just blown away and our family finally had direction on how to get her better,” said Bernadette Gatto.

Madison was diagnosed with autoimmune encephalitis. It’s when the immune system attacks healthy brain cells, which leads to inflammation of the brain.

While in the hospital, Madison struggled to stay positive. She said the hardest part was not being able to get up and run or exercise like she was used to.

Her feelings of frustration didn’t fool Shelley Peters, a Riley nurse at IU Health North.

“Madison had been there for several days and was going to be there for several more, so what could we do to make her stay better? Treating her emotional state was just as important as giving her the medication,” said Peters.

Peters said she knew the athlete needed to get back on her feet, or at least start using them again. So, she had a stationary bike delivered to Madison’s room.

“That was probably a big turning point because I felt like I was almost normal again,” said Madison.

The pair grew closer and the pampering continued. Madison said Peters would even braid her hair.

“She got me these, like, eye massage goggles to help me sleep because she was there when I had my night terrors,” said Madison.

Madison’s dad Craig Gatto said the special care helped him sleep better at night too.

“She was extremely supportive of us and was not only watching for Madison and her care, but as well as for both Bernadette and I and I didn’t even realize it but looking back, she really was a rock for us all,” said Craig.

The Gatto’s say Nurse Shelley Peters is forever part of their family.

“Very humbled, I don’t think I’m everything they say I am but I enjoy what I do,” said Peters. “This isn’t a job to me.”

Madison is back in school and back to running. She’s also on track to graduate with her class in the spring and will head to Butler in the fall.

Tuesday is World Autoimmune Encephalitis day.

Peters said the rare disease has actually become more common. She said she has seen at least three cases in young people after they had COVID-19.