GUY RAZ, HOST:
Now to a story that's gripped a small town in upstate New York for the past five months. It's about 18 high school girls in the working-class town of Le Roy; it's just outside Rochester. Reporter Susan Dominus wrote about it in this week's issue of the New York Times Magazine, and she says it all started back in October, when a high school cheerleader named Katie Krautwurst woke up from a nap.
SUSAN DOMINUS: She found that her head - she told me - was sort of jutting forward uncontrollably and, you know, it was very uncomfortable. She thought maybe it was muscle spasms. Strange tics were flitting across her face. And they thought it would maybe go away, and it didn't.
RAZ: So Katie arranged to meet her mom at the emergency room, where doctors told her...
DOMINUS: She was probably having an anxiety attack but...
RAZ: The same thing was still happening a few days later.
DOMINUS: So they demanded some more testing. And I think at the end of the testing, the doctors just sort of said to them that she had tics. And that wasn't enough of an explanation for them.
RAZ: That explanation was even harder to swallow when about a month later, Katie's best friend, a girl named Thera.
DOMINUS: Wakes up from a nap - again, a nap. This time, she's stuttering. And then goes to cheerleading. There was a game that night. A lot of people see her - that she's unable to get language out. And she - over time, her symptoms really get much, much worse.
RAZ: Two weeks later, a third girl - Lydia Parker.
DOMINUS: Lydia took a nap and woke up, same thing. She's stuttering. Her mother took her to the emergency room. And just like Thera, Lydia's symptoms got worse. They went from stuttering to arm flailing. Eventually, she was blacking out, and she also felt numbness in her legs. She was in a wheelchair for a while.
RAZ: Over the course of the next few weeks, months, this spreads to how many girls?
DOMINUS: By mid-December, I believe there were 12.
RAZ: And to date in Le Roy, New York? Eighteen students in one high school, all stricken with symptoms ranging from twitches to spasms to vocal outbursts.
DOMINUS: They - you know, what's interesting about it is, they were very different kinds of kids, for sure. There were great students; there were poor students. There were cheerleaders; there were kids who weren't cheerleaders. All of them did seem to have in common - was some kind of serious stressor.
RAZ: At the time, Katie's mom had just undergone her 13th brain surgery, and she was in a lot of pain.
Katie being a very loving girl, I can only imagine how that would feel for her to see her mom suffering like that.
For Thera, the second girl...
DOMINUS: There was a - an incident in the family that - they ask we simply describe as a traumatic loss, that happened three years ago. And then Lydia had been physically abused by her father.
RAZ: Doctors eventually suggested that the girls might be suffering from something called conversion disorder.
Conversion disorder is an illness in which the body expresses, through physical symptoms, emotional stressors that maybe are difficult to talk about.
And it can be, in a way, contagious. It can turn into what's called mass psychogenic illness. It's where the brain causes a physical reaction that mirrors activity we see in others.
It's almost like when you yawn - and if I'm sitting in the room with you, I'll yawn, too.
DOMINUS: I think that's right and probably, most neurologists would agree with you; that there is some big, complicated continuum that puts yawning at one end and mass psychogenic illness at the other.
RAZ: But many parents refused to believe what was going on, and the national news media started to converge on this small town.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORLD NEWS WITH DIANE SAWYER")
DIANE SAWYER: ...even verbal outbursts. Is it a disorder, or a kind of mass hysteria? Or is the cause, in effect, in their backyard? Tonight, activist Erin Brockovich has launched her own investigation...
RAZ: In January, Erin Brockovich sent a team to Le Roy, to test soil near the town high school. Some had suggested a train derailment in 1970 may have leached toxic chemicals into the soil there. It led to a big showdown with the school superintendent, who had the police block the Brockovich team from investigating on the campus. And some people in town wondered whether they were trying to hide something.
DOMINUS: And I do think that because they were escorted off the property, it felt like a very, Brockovich-against-the-school-superintendent kind of situation. I think it did foster quite a bit of mistrust in the community.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Parents seeking answers about a mysterious illness afflicting children in Le Roy...
RAZ: The more the story took over the town, the more town meetings were covered on local news, the more news trucks that showed up, the worse the girls seemed to get. And it took a toll on the town.
DOMINUS: There were a lot of stories about people who felt like their real estate was suffering, or that people weren't going to move there. I mean, there were parents who voted to keep their children home from a sporting event that was going to happen in Le Roy - not even at the high school, at a different school. So there was a sense of isolation. And I think that was really painful to people there, that there was something wrong with the town they lived in.
RAZ: Now, there's still no clear answer to what happened in Le Roy. Susan Dominus says some girls seem to be getting better as TV news coverage slows down. And some girls have responded well to antibiotics, which were prescribed on the hunch that the girls may have a rare condition in which a bacteria that causes strep can actually alter brain chemistry.
DOMINUS: My sense is that it's about half and half. About half the girls are on antibiotics, and about half are not. But overall, the group does really seem to be improving. One of the doctors who's seen many of the young women said that she feels that more and more of her patients are accepting conversion disorder as the diagnosis. And I think that is, definitely, one of the first steps in healing.
RAZ: That's reporter Susan Dominus. You can read her story in the New York Times Magazine online now, or in print tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.