WALNUT CREEK -- One day, Lauren Davis stood smiling among her clients and fellow staff at Changes Salon & Day Spa, looking forward to the holidays. Several days later, not knowing what hit her, Davis felt she wasn't herself.
"We thought she had anxiety," said Davis' boyfriend Brian Garcia, who had to stop working to care for Davis. "She'd been doing hair for years. All of a sudden connections weren't being made, things were not making sense."
On New Year's Day 2013, Davis had a seizure and began the long fight for her life. For weeks as she lay in a hospital bed, at times in a catatonic state -- she had no idea what was going on with her and had even suffered memory loss. To this day, all Davis knows is what was told to her by her mother and Garcia, who kept a watchful eye on her during those agonizing times.
"She tried to pull the IV tubes out. She didn't understand why these things were attached to her," said Garcia.
To all who know her and even to Davis herself, what she experienced was horrific and baffling. Even more perplexing was her diagnosis -- it took a battery of tests to finally narrow it down to anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disorder.
Garcia said Davis grew "progressively worse." She was losing weight and had to be fed through a tube.
"I didn't know if I'd lose her," he said.
She then underwent plasmapheresis, a procedure that removes infected blood and replaces it with clean plasma.
"That was the turning point," Garcia said.
The Livermore couple said prior to her diagnosis, they hadn't even heard of the disease, in which the body attacks the brain.
Now, a year after her ordeal, Davis, 33, is still recovering, working with a speech therapist and slowly getting back to her regular routine. While she's still unable to work, she makes visits to Changes where she worked as a hairstylist for more than a decade.
Her Changes colleagues are organizing a 5K walk/run on March 9, to raise awareness about the disease and funds for Davis as she continues treatment.
"We thought about how we can help. This community and our staff are into fitness and like to promote health so we decided to do a 5K," said Lauren Nicole Kindorf, a stylist whom Davis mentored.
"It was scary because we didn't know how and when she was going to recover and how long it would be," said Kindorf. "Then when things were starting to turn around, we felt there's something we can do to help her out. Everyone's helping out. We have local sponsors and our clients are donating or signing for the 5K."
"We've done so much fundraising for so many causes," said Changes owner Bonnie Waters. "But this is so near and dear to our hearts. With this event, we're able to increase awareness about this disease."
New York journalist Susanna Cahalan wrote about her own experience with autoimmune encephalitis in the book, "Brain on Fire." Copies of Cahalan's book will be for sale at the fundraiser.
Davis, who was born in Walnut Creek, continues her recovery and treatment. She's learning how to manage her stress by going to the gym, cooking, eating healthfully and playing with her cats.
"The Alameda County Fair was her first memory that came back," said Garcia. "Her dad used to work there for many years and it always had a special place in her heart."
Three months ago, Davis started to speak again, and in December was able to tie her shoes. The couple said they celebrate day-to-day triumphs such as these.
"She has good days and bad days," Garcia said. "But she loves to cook and she started to get back in the kitchen."
Davis, who temporarily lost her ability to walk earlier in her illness, said she will participate in the 5K.
"I'm walking," said Davis, who grew up in Pleasanton. "Mom wants to walk, too."
In addition to helping her, Davis said she wishes people will know more about this rare autoimmune disorder.
"People have died of this disease," Davis said. "I was so lucky for the doctors at Kaiser (Walnut Creek)."
She's grateful for the support of her mom, Garcia and her Changes family, and said her goal is to return to work in July.
"All my clients are still here. It's so great to have their support. I can't wait to come back," Davis said. "It's my home."
WHAT: Lauren's Fight for Recovery
WHEN: March 9; 7 a.m. registration; 5K starts at 8 a.m.
WHERE: Downtown Walnut Creek Library, 1644 N. Broadway
INFORMATION: Register at www.changessalon.com; visit http://changessalon.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/laurens-fight-for-recovery/