By Kayt Sukel
When Michayla Sullivan approached the end of her first year of law school, the stress of school began to overwhelm her a bit. She wanted to be at her best for end-of-year exams, so she decided to go to the school’s counseling center for some help. There she was prescribed the first in what would become a long line of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications—a single prescription that would lead her into two years of serious chronic illness.
“I think I talked with someone for maybe half an hour, and then they just handed me a prescription, told me to go get it filled,” she says. “I took it and I started getting worse within a week or two, to the point where I was having anxiety that I did not previously have and all sorts of weird symptoms including fatigue. From there, they just started prescribing more medications on top of medications. I had to drop out of school it got so bad.”
The downward spiral continued once she moved back home. Michayla’s condition deteriorated to the point where her mother, Sharon, retired to help care for her. And the parade of prescriptions continued as Michayla’s doctors struggled to figure out what was ailing her.
“It was all just trial and error. Try this medication, see if that will work. No, it doesn’t. Take me off of that one, try another one,” Michayla says. “This process repeated maybe 8, 10, 12 times. I don’t even know how many medications I was on over two years. If you name an antianxiolytic or antidepressant, I probably tried it at some point. I just kept failing medication after medication. I would fail them, because I would get all these crazy severe side effects.”
After more than a year of trial and error, Michayla’s doctor said he’d heard of a genetic test that might provide some new insights. He suggested Michayla take the GeneSight test. With a simple cheek swab, her doctors gained some critical new information about Michayla’s case: She had very low level for an enzyme that would allow her body to metabolize all of the medications she had been prescribed. It looked as though it was the medications themselves that were making Michayla so ill.
“I will never forget the night that Michayla’s doctor called me. It was after dinner. I remember him saying the words, ‘Are you sitting down? I think we have finally found the problem,'” says Sharon. “What he had seen was that in her case the medicines that were being prescribed went through enzymes for which she had very low levels. She couldn’t process all the medicines they had tried on and off over the years.”
Michayla’s doctors had her stop taking all of her medications immediately. Michayla said that she was cautious at first—and wasn’t sure that the test’s results were going to provide the “magic bullet” that would help her feel normal again, especially since the doctors warned her that it would take significant time for her body to rid itself of all the medications she had been taking. Yet within six months, she and her family started seeing significant improvement. And within a year, Michayla felt like her normal self again.
“It was a process. It wasn’t just one day. But at one point, I could start driving again. I could walk a mile again,” she says. “The big one for me was when I could read a book again with a plot. That was a good day when I got through that book.”
Now, Michayla has completed two master’s degrees and is enjoying a career in library science. She and her family credit GeneSight with helping her find her way back to a healthy, happy life. “My life right now is great. It’s not the same as it was before, because you can’t be the same person you were before when you are chronically ill for two years and almost completely removed from society,” she says. “Now, I am in a career I love. I have a social life. I see friends. That was just impossible when I was sick.”
Michayla’s mother, Sharon, agrees. “The biggest lesson we’ve learned coming out of this as a parent is to be persistent and keep asking questions,” she says. “And one of those, I would say, is if you see things that don’t make sense to you is to ask for genetic testing. Ask for the GeneSight test, because you’ll have a better understanding of what are the medicines which might work and what are the ones that might not work and could possibly become the problem.”