Linda Suter knew something was wrong.

Her boss, Moira Shaughnessy, 36, a take-charge Main Line executive, hadn't shown up for work in Ardmore the morning of Jan. 2.

Worse, the gregarious Shaughnessy wasn't making sense over the phone.

"I kept asking her, 'Where are you? Are you OK?' " Suter said, "and she would answer me with 'Are you OK?' " in an odd, girlish voice.

Alarmed, Suter summoned family members, who rushed Shaughnessy to a hospital where alert physicians diagnosed viral encephalitis, a rare, often fatal disease that causes acute brain swelling.

Doctors at Roxborough Memorial Hospital and then Hahnemann University Hospital moved swiftly to save her life, but the disease injured Shaughnessy's brain, causing memory loss. When family members gathered around her bedside, the young executive didn't know them.

"It caught us completely by surprise," said her sister, Mary McGill, 42, of North Wales. "It's unbelievable."

As specialists at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern fight to help Shaughnessy regain her cognitive skills, a different campaign has begun in Ardmore.

Friends, coworkers, merchants, and those whose lives she touched in five months as executive director of the Ardmore Initiative, a nonprofit business-district booster, are rallying to help.

They will hold a fund-raiser at Brownies 23 East, an Ardmore nightclub, on St. Patrick's Day, March 17. The $20 ticket price goes to defray Shaughnessy's medical and ongoing-care expenses.

Donation canisters will be placed at venues in Ardmore, Bryn Mawr and Haverford during the Main Line First Friday event March 2. Shaughnessy helped create the program in October to showcase the Main Line's musical and artistic offerings.

"We also plan to ask local pubs and restaurants to donate a portion of their St. Patrick's Day proceeds to Moira's trust," said Christine Vilardo, who is acting as director of the Ardmore Initiative.

The cost of Shaughnessy's care cannot be calculated until it is clear how much brain function returns. Whether she'll ever work again, or require supervision around the clock, is an open question, said her doctor, David Long, director of Bryn Mawr Rehab's brain-injury program. Every patient heals differently.

Shaughnessy's condition has improved. She can recognize family but has trouble placing people and events in time.

"Are we late for the wedding?" she asked repeatedly one day last week, referring to her sister Megan's wedding, which took place Dec. 30. At that wedding, Shaughnessy suffered flu-like symptoms and went home. The symptoms developed into encephalitis three days later.

Doctors don't fully understand viral encephalitis. One known cause, though, is the herpes simplex virus, the same dormant virus that causes cold sores, Long said. It isn't known why some patients sustain only a cold sore while others develop full-blown encephalitis.

"People need to recognize that the herpes virus is extremely prevalent in the U.S., but most people don't end up getting encephalitis - but some do. Where it happens, it happens for no apparent reason," Long said.

Lawrence L. Livornese, the infectious-disease specialist who treated Shaughnessy in the emergency room, said there is no test other than a spinal tap to predict who will get encephalitis. He stressed that Shaughnessy's case was not sexually transmitted.

"It's a lightning strike in medicine," Livornese said. "It's completely unpredictable."

Shaughnessy's job is being held for her. Fred Shaughnessy, her father, said the family would try to care for her at its Blue Bell home, whatever the cost.

Friends such as Carla Zambelli, who worked with Shaughnessy on the First Friday project, say they don't care that her memory might be a bit scrambled - they'll stand by her.

"Her friends are all here, and we have a lifetime to get to know her again, and that's all that matters," Zambelli said.

For Information

A fund-raiser for Moira Shaughnessy's long-term care will be held at Brownies 23 East, 23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, from 6 to 9 p.m. March 17. Tickets are $20, and will include a buffet and beer, wine and soda.

Contributions also may be made to the Moira Shaughnessy Medical Fund at TD Banknorth, 551 W. Lancaster Ave., Haverford, Pa. 19041.

For more information, call the Ardmore Initiative at 610-645-0540 or visit theardmoreinitiative.org.

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Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.