Eliza, Purple Ribbons, and the Path to a Cure

When Eliza felt like it was time to do her part to raise awareness for epilepsy, she took matters into her own hands.

Literally.

As a recent high school graduate, Eliza took a year off before starting college so that she may have epilepsy surgery.  During her free time in a year otherwise filled with tests, hospital stays, and escalating anxiety, Eliza made a plethora of purple ribbons and informational flyers filled with facts and statistics about epilepsy.

“Wear this for me,” she asked, as she handed the ribbons out to friends and family members, then as she distributed them to local stores and businesses.  When Eliza’s friend, Julianna (see “Julianna and the Full-Circle Journey” for Julianna’s story) announced that she was going to study in Ecuador, Julianna took the purple ribbons with her to Ecuador as well.

Even after surgery was complete and Eliza started college at Hampshire College, Eliza continued her purple ribbon campaign.  During a final project relating to epilepsy for her arts education class, she handed out more purple ribbons and statistics about epilepsy to her classmates.  Now, Eliza reports that she sees a rainbow of purple ribbons on student’s backpacks at school, on neighbor’s coats at home in Vermont, and she dreams of them in homes in Ecuador.  It seems that small amount of purple satin can be enough to raise awareness over thousands of miles.

Although Eliza has had epilepsy since she was three years old, it wasn’t until recently that she was willing to talk about her seizures.  For most of Eliza’s formative years, she was embarrassed by her recurrent grand mal seizures and she tried as hard as she could to pretend that they weren’t there.  Even when Eliza had a generalized seizure in school and the other children were curious, she would shy away from discussing the event and move on to other things as quickly as possible.  Eliza’s parents responded by making sure they raised their daughter without allowing the fear of epilepsy lead to limitations.  Although seizures were a constant threat, Eliza knew the normal childhood joys of being able to swim, ride a bike, play soccer, and hang out with friends.

Looking back, Eliza credits her parents as much of the reason why she has been able to function so well in life despite her epilepsy.  “My parents never treated me differently nor implied that I couldn’t do something because I had seizures,” she remembers.   “Epilepsy was never part of the conversation.  They considered it a lot, but they did a really good job making me feel normal.”

Eliza’s neurologist is also part of why she has been able to do so well. “She recognizes who I am and has always treated me as a whole person, not just a person who has seizures.” For Eliza, the combination of a supportive family and an understanding doctor has made it much easier to get through the challenges of growing up with epilepsy.

The last seizure Eliza had at school happened when she was in sixth grade, then her seizures started to occur only as she was waking up in the morning.  Eliza was forced to miss school secondary to seizures but her illness was no longer as visible to her classmates as it had been before.  Eliza remained very quiet about her epilepsy for fear of others judging her until she was a sophomore in high school and when she began to consider moving away for college.

“Suddenly the gravity of moving away from home hit me,” she explained.  “What if I had a seizure in my dorm as I was waking up and there was no one there to help me?  What if I had a seizure when I was walking alone on campus?”  Eliza realized it was time to make a change.  Antiepilepsy drugs had never completely controlled her seizures and had led to some challenging side-effects.  Eliza knew that her options for better seizure control were a trial of a low-glycemic diet, placement of a vagal nerve stimulator, or epilepsy surgery to remove the seizure focus in her brain.

Eliza applied to college with her peers and got into Hampshire College – her top choice of schools.  Although she was excited and eager to move on to her next phase in life, Eliza deferred her freshman year on the last day possible for deferral.  It was clear to her that she should have epilepsy surgery to try to find a cure for her seizures during her year off from school.

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As Eliza came to grips with her epilepsy and learned to accept the uncertainty in her life as she grew, she also gradually became more comfortable talking about her seizures with others.  When she was 16, she started by painting a picture for the Expressions of Courage art contest for the Epilepsy Foundation.  When her drawing of an earth and the word “hope” written in multiple languages was chosen for the November page in the Expressions of Courage calendar,  Eliza had a tool to gradually step out and speak to others about her epilepsy.  Eliza remembers a teacher from high school as one of the first and most supportive people she spoke openly with about her epilepsy and the possibility of epilepsy surgery.  And once she made the decision about surgery, she began distributing purple ribbons.  “I went from being embarrassed and afraid to share to a complete reversal,” Eliza remembers.

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Eliza had epilepsy surgery on March 29, 2011.  Since her surgery, she has been seizure-free and now has been weaned off half of her antiepilepsy medication.  Her neurologist has plans to eventually wean her off all of her medication if she continues to remain seizure-free.  When I asked Eliza how it feels to be off some of her medications, her response was simple.

“It’s almost overwhelming at times.”

She’s excited for the possibility to be off medication but nervous at the same time.

Eliza is back at school and studying chronic illness and foreign languages. She states, “I hope to use my experience with epilepsy to make other’s experience with chronic illness more positive.”

At the end of our conversation, Eliza left me with one last beautiful image.

“Last year at the end of March, one year after my epilepsy surgery, my friend Julianna, my mom, and I went to the Epilepsy Walk in Washington D. C.  I’ve never felt so not alone.  There were literally thousands of people there and all the people with epilepsy were wearing purple T-shirts and all the people that were friends, family members or supporters wore white T-shirts.  It was amazing and uplifting to walk amongst a sea of purple T-shirts and to realize how prevalent epilepsy is.”

Eliza is not alone.  We are not alone.  Please pass it on.




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Meg: An RN with Epilepsy

When the neurosurgeon who performed Meg’s left temporal lobectomy was asked to describe what he saw at the start of her epilepsy surgery, he paused and explained through a undulating blue mask, “I’m looking at a bunch of yellow, contused brain slapped up against the skull that is a remnant from Meg’s previous injury.”

The surgeon’s exact description of Meg’s brain is easy to remember because portions of her surgery are available on tape and were visible for all of the Omaha metropolitan area to see.  Over the whir of a bone cutter and the staccato beep of a heart rate monitor, you can also hear the hushed buzz of the operating room staff working as the neurosurgeon comments on the findings in Meg’s injured brain.  Prior to surgery, Meg made the courageous decision to allow a local television station in Omaha, Nebraska tape portions of her pre-surgical evaluation and then parts of her epilepsy surgery to help raise awareness and inform others about epilepsy.  Even though she’s not awake, if you look closely during the video of the surgery, you can see a wisp of Meg’s dark brown hair peeking out bravely at the nape of her neck, as if her ebullient and bright personality could not be sequestered even in the confines of the most sterile and grave settings.

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Meg’s story began in the spring of her freshman year of high school, when she felt like she hadn’t a care in the world.  She was playing on the high school basketball team, had a great group of girlfriends, and had everything she hoped for.  Then one March afternoon, everything changed.  When an older girlfriend drove Meg and a group of friends home from school, the car collided with a tree on Meg’s side of the vehicle.  When Meg was being evaluated in the Emergency Room immediately after the car accident, she suffered a generalized tonic clonic seizure — the first of many to come.

Meg remained in a coma and on life-support for a week following her car accident.  When she finally awoke and studied her face in the mirror, all she noticed that was drastically different was big brown pieces of hair standing up at an odd angle on the left side of her head.  Meg’s mother gently explained that the physicians that treated her in the emergency department had to shave the left side of her head to monitor her intracranial pressure.  Meg was relieved that after a serious accident, all that had changed was her hair.  She didn’t know what was brewing inside.

Meg’s hospitalization after the car accident and traumatic brain injury was followed by a longer stay at a local rehabilitation center where she concentrated on physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.  Because Meg’s brain injury was in her left temporal lobe, she had particular difficulty with short term memory and speech.  Meg states that ever since her accident, she’s had difficulty finding the right words during conversations and naming objects that used to seem commonplace.

Despite her major accident and injury, Meg returned to high school with her class in the fall of her sophomore year after a period of rehabilitation with determination and confidence.  Meg wasn’t able to participate in her beloved basketball any more — the risk of further concussions or closed head injuries was too great — but she was pleased to be back amongst her peers.  As a result of her injury, Meg required extra time on her tests at school and some extra accommodations for learning, but she did well in her courses and achieved her dream of acceptance into a nursing school when she graduated from high school.

And because epilepsy is never predictable and tends to strike at the most inopportune times, Meg had her first complex partial seizure when she was standing in front of a class of nursing students giving a presentation about a pediatric nursing topic.

Meg wrote about her first complex partial seizure on the website http://www.myepilepsystory.org:  “. . .all of a sudden, out of nowhere, my heart began to race—not out of nervousness, but more like I was running from a train and couldn’t get away. I kept trying to swallow, but my mouth was too dry. I had prepared for this presentation, but the words I was planning to use just weren’t coming out.

“I tried to take some deep breaths to relieve what I thought was nerves, but I couldn’t even gather the breaths. The scariest part was knowing how important it was to make eye contact with the entire audience during a presentation, but for 15 seconds I felt paralyzed and blankly stared, unable to look away from one side of the room. After what seemed like forever, I regained my composure and was able to finish the last minute or so of my presentation”

When the event was over, Meg was able to complete her presentation.  A nursing instructor who saw the event, however, approached Meg later and suggested that she see a neurologist.  Soon Meg was started on her first antiepileptic drug which eventually led to another, and another, and then a different one.  Meg tried a total of four anti epileptic drugs at their maximum doses prior to her decision to have surgery.  As her stress at school increased, her seizure frequency increased as well.  Though Meg was passionate about becoming an RN, she had to slow down in the pace of her studies because the medications to treat her seizures were affecting her memory and concentration.  With hard work, true grit, and true devotion to her chosen profession, Meg graduated as an RN one year behind the class that she started with, yet lightyears ahead of the grips of epilepsy.

After graduating from nursing school, Meg worked as a pediatric nurse in an outpatient clinic and then as a school nurse in an elementary school.  Though she loved interacting with children, Meg eventually moved from areas of direct patient care to phone triage because of her worsening breakthrough seizures.

Several years after graduating from nursing school, Meg became pregnant.  Despite taking escalating doses of antiepileptic drugs during her pregnancy, she delivered a perfect baby boy, who is now three years old.   The significant hormonal changes that characterized the period after Meg’s pregnancy caused Meg’s epilepsy to spin out of control.  Her seizure frequency increased, several more medications were unsuccessful and she was determined to be a candidate for a left temporal lobectomy.  When the local news approached Meg and asked if she would be willing to participate in a series of feature news stories following her through the surgical experience, she agreed.  Although she was nervous to allow cameras and the public to view her at her most vulnerable, she thought it was an important way to tell part of the real story of epilepsy to the general public.

Meg in the hospital prior to her epilepsy surgery

Meg in the hospital prior to her epilepsy surgery

Meg’s surgery has proven successful.  She will celebrate the two year anniversary of freedom from seizures this April.  Meg still takes high doses of three antiepileptic medications but the constant dizziness that she assumed was a medication side-effect prior to surgery is gone.  Meg is now also working as a nurse case manager for at-risk mothers in the Omaha area to teach infant care and help with the newborn transition.

In addition to doing her part to raise awareness about epilepsy, Meg hopes to help others that are experiencing seizures cope with their illness.  To do this, she started Camp YouCan, a summer camp for children with epilepsy in Nebraska.  Camp YouCan is a day camp where kids with epilepsy can come together to play and learn about how to cope with their illness.  Meg was able to coordinate donations from local organizations and businesses so that 24 children could attend last year and she is planning for a bigger camp with an overnight event this summer.

From a fateful afternoon car ride to a news story that touches thousands and a camp that can impact a child’s life forever, Meg has turned her tragedy into a multitude of triumphs.  The links to videos of Meg’s epilepsy surgery are attached below  — you may want to grab a kleenex.

Please pass it on.

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Meg with her parents

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Meg and her husband

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Meg gives a “thumbs up” while wired for an EEG

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Meg at Camp YouCan, a camp she founded to help children with epilepsy

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Guest Post: A Wilderness for Aidan

Not long ago, I received an email from a father of a little boy with epilepsy that caught my eye:

 I just discovered your blog. As father of a young boy fighting devastating epilepsy and a brother of an adult sister who has spent her entire life fighting seizures, thank you. I would be interested in writing a blog about taking our son on his first backpacking trip in the Montana wilderness, in spite of his intractable seizure disorder.

I replied to Mr. Long’s email and very soon after received the most touching description of what it’s like to parent a child with epilepsy that I’ve ever read.  I hope you will enjoy the following post as much as I did.

A Wilderness for Aidan

By Ben Long

Growing up in Montana should mean growing up out of doors. Instead, too much of our young son’s life has been spent inside, looking out the sealed windows of hospitals.

In 2004, my wife, Karen, and I had a boy, our first child. We took him camping trip at four months. A challenge in those days was changing a diaper by flashlight in a tent when it was below freezing.

Aidan grew up smart and curious and fun loving, with no sign of health problems beyond the hay fever he inherited from me.  We camped, hiked, skied and canoed because, in our family, being outdoors is what we do.

I particularly love hiking overnight into the backcountry. When I was growing up, my dad took me backpacking every summer. Even before Aidan was born I started planning his first overnight hike.

Stanton Evening reflection low rez

But those plans were shattered on Oct. 28, 2008, when Aidan was 4. Aidan tipped off a kitchen stool and slammed into the floor, his lips blue and a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth. I thought he had choked on something and called 911, but the ER doctor said Aidan had suffered a seizure.

It was the first of many seizures, and many hospitalizations. There are no pediatric neurologists, let alone epileptologists, in Montana. So in search of answers we traveled to Seattle, then to specialists at Denver, Cleveland and Chicago.

Aidan’s epilepsy defies labels as it defies treatments. We’ve failed a dozen medications, have spent three years on the ketogenic diet, and invested in several nontraditional treatments. The disorder seems particularly cruel in that Aidan thrived so in his early years. His smart little brain seems at war with itself.

Aidan has several forms of seizures. They come at different times, different severities, seemingly without pattern.  Aidan is also prone to bouts of ‘non-convulsive status epilepticus’ – which essentially means non-stop seizures that are invisible but render him immobile for days, even weeks at a time.

Because of these status events, Aidan has been life-flighted from our Montana town to urban hospitals five times between age 4 and 7. Aidan has spent month after month in intensive care units, scalp wired to EEG electrodes and receiving drugs and fluids intravenously through a PICC line in his armpit.

In one of the last extended hospital stays, the doctors tried to get control of the seizures by dropping Aidan into a medically induced coma. This went poorly. Aidan’s muscles shriveled before our eyes as he lay motionless day after day, fed through a tube up his nose, breathing with hose down his throat. Finally, when he had pneumonia in all four lobes of the lungs, the doctors called the brutal experiment to an end. Seizures, if anything, were worse than ever, as was our sense of helplessness.

The hospital sent us home with the phone number of the local hospice and a pamphlet on “letting go.”  We wheeled Aidan out of the hospital in a borrowed wheelchair, and took him home to learn to walk and talk again.

That was two years ago.

The seizures come in waves and have taken a tremendous toll on Aidan, yet he is still the same, remarkable child as a young boy as he was as a toddler. He still loves to listen to books and then act out the parts. He loves Legos, building castles and spaceships. But the seizures and drugs leave him exhausted, blunted, battered and frustrated.

We have lost a tremendous amount, but to me, the worst loss is the sparkle in Aidan’s eyes. That sparkle was once a part of every waking moment; now it’s only there on his better days.

One evening during one of Aidan’s better periods, Karen and I spoke of things we still wanted to do. I said I still wanted to take Aidan backpacking. She insisted we do so.

 KMN and Aidan Stanton Lake low rez

It was the shortest hike we’ve done, but also carefully planned. We wanted to get away into true wilderness – no cars, machines, cell phones — just a million acres of pristine nature. Yet we had to be cautious. If disaster struck, I wanted to be able to throw Aidan over my shoulder and carry him back to the truck.

We picked a lake two miles from the road in the Great Bear Wilderness. As it turned out, it was in the shadow of Great Northern Mountain, a peak Karen and I had climbed on our first hike together exactly 20 years before.

We pulled our gear out of storage, shook out the dust and stuffed our backpacks full.  The night before we departed, I lay awake wondering if the entire idea was a vain, dangerous mistake.

Would the hike stress Aidan’s physiology?  Would excitement or lack of sleep trigger another bout of status?

In the morning, we decided to go for it. We loaded our packs (Aidan carrying his lunch, some water and his favorite stuffed monkey) and hiked into the forest.

The packs were heavy and my muscles unused to carrying a load up a mountain trail. But the lake was beautiful and we enjoyed it in solitude, loafing, fishing and watching the shadows give shape and form to Great Northern.

“Dad?” Aidan asked as I pitched the tent, “can I watch Netflix on the iPad?”

“Sorry buddy. I didn’t pack it and it wouldn’t work here anyway.”

Instead, we piled up rocks on shore and caught and released little trout. The evening was long and mild. In the morning, after sleeping snuggled in the little pup tent, Aidan danced the happy camper dance around the campsite.

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Part of what I like about backpacking is the physical challenge. It teaches one to endure burden, to walk through pain. The strain can be great, but at the end of the trail you shed the heavy pack and feel lighter than air as you enjoy your destination.

Epilepsy, for our family, isn’t like that.  We are learning to bear pain, to carry a burden of broken dreams. But the destination is so far beyond our reach.  The best we can do is reach out to family and friends to share the burden, share the rugged path Aidan is on.

We still believe in a day when children like Aidan and families like ours can leave this burden behind and more fully enjoy the beauty of the world around us.

That’s why we support Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy and the Doose Syndrome Epilepsy Alliance.  We hope you will too.

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morning camp dance

Please pass it on.

Carrie and the Gift of Perspective

If you believed the stereotypes, Carrie would be far from what you would expect in a typical patient with epilepsy. She is a successful professional who works as an associate director of an internship program at DePaul University, a mother of a happy, healthy little girl, an activist who volunteers with political campaigns, and still someone who lives with intractable seizures.

“When I tell people I have epilepsy, it feels like they are seeing another side of me.”

But through Carrie’s successes, achievements, and major milestones met, the “side” of her that has been occupied by epilepsy remains ever-present.

Carrie’s seizures started when she was 11 years old. First they appeared as what her parents described as “staring spells” combined with an odd nervous sensation that led to a sense of drowsiness.  Concerned that she was having fits of anxiety, her parents brought her to a psychiatrist for evaluation.  After determining this was not simply a case of anxiety, eventually an EEG was performed and she was diagnosed with a “seizure disorder.”   Carrie was started on the first of a long series of antiepileptic medications to treat her seizures and within a couple of years, received the official diagnosis of epilepsy and told by various doctors “you might just grow out of this”.

Over the next 25 years, Carrie tried over ten antiepilepsy medications, all with a different kaliedescope of side-effects and temporary successes.  Although her seizures are so mild that no one can tell she’s having one except herself, when she was 25 years old, she had her first grand mal seizure and it seemed as if her whole life changed.  Carrie realized that her grand mal seizure occurred after a period of high stress and little sleep.

“After that point and until this day” Carrie said, “I never compromise on sleep.  When my daughter was born, my husband did all the night time feedings.  If I can’t fall asleep at night, I have to sleep later in the morning to make sure that I’ve slept a full 6 hours.”

“I know that if I were to have a grand mal seizure because I was sleep deprived and it was something I could have prevented, it would be devastating.”

When Carrie was 29 years old, she had a temporal lobectomy and dreamed that she would one day be free of medication and be free of seizures.  Several years after the surgery, she is on the same amount of medication that she was taking prior to the surgery, but the number of simple partial seizures she was having dramatically decreased from 10-12 each month to just  3 – 5 each year.  Carrie feels like this is some degree of success, even if it isn’t the ultimate goal of seizure freedom.  In the end, Carrie’s walk with epilepsy has given her a very positive perspective on life in general.

“Epilepsy has given me a stronger appreciation of life and has made me feel more empathetic for people with worse diseases.  When I find out that someone has something like multiple sclerosis, I know that it affects their entire life and their entire family just as epilepsy has affected mine.  My epilepsy could be a lot worse.  It’s not like I’m dealing with cancer.  I think I have a more grateful attitude as a result of managing this disease and the risks it presents.”

Carrie states that her experiences with seizures have also given her tremendous appreciation and gratitude for the health and happiness of her 3 and a half year-old daughter, Norah.  Although Carrie had to stay on her seizure medication throughout the pregnancy to reduce the risk of having a seizure and potentially harming the baby, Norah is active, intelligent, and perfect.  Norah has had three complex febrile seizures associated with high fevers and viral illnesses in her first few years, putting Carrie on “high alert” to watch her daughter for more seizures any time she is ill.  With her history and the recurrent febrile seizures, Carrie knows that her daughter is at increased risk of developing epilepsy in the future, but she prays that the stars will align on her side this time.

Perhaps most apparent and above all, epilepsy has bred resilience and strength in Carrie beyond all else.  When I asked her what message she’d like to convey to others touched by seizures, Carrie said, “Epilepsy is part of me, but not all of who I am.  I’m not going to let this stop me from doing what I want to do.”

When I hung up the phone after talking with Carrie, I realized that short of freedom from seizures, Carrie found what we all hope for.  The ability to own a disease that has potential to overtake us is invaluable.  Carrie’s positivity, gratitude, perspective, and fortitude were some of the keys to her success.

Again I remembered that the more we talk, the more we understand.

Please pass it on.

Norah and Carriie483498_10200210628094853_1712029223_a

Brent, a Notebook, and the Power of Family

I was supposed to meet Brent for lunch last week so he could share his story about living with epilepsy for the One in Twenty Six blog.  We were both looking forward to meeting at 1:00 in the afternoon.  Then, at 11:49, Brent sent me this email:

I have I Kristin I now no to that no now that no no hard not met need new

Confused, I sat at the spot where I was working at my kitchen table and wondered.  Brent was normally articulate and brief in his email exchanges.  Was this a new creative spam email or some type of virus?  Or was Brent playing a joke on me?  Worse yet, was something wrong?

I got my answer a few minutes later.  In an email that I later learned was written by a co-worker, Brent explained his previous scattered message:

I have to cancel our meeting today at 1pm – just had a seizure and am going home.

My heart sank.  I knew that Brent continued to struggle with partial seizures and grand mal seizures despite taking several different anti epilepsy medications.  He had had a grand mal seizure at his office, where he works in internet marketing at a telecommunications company.  Unfortunately, events like this were not unusual for him.

When Brent and I were finally able to meet this week, he brought two notebooks with him.  One notebook was filled with notes detailing his experiences with epilepsy, the other notebook was filled with lists and notes that Brent’s wife and family members used to help re-train his memory and teach him to speak again after his left temporal lobe surgery in 2009.  The second notebook sent a chill up my spine.  I could see Brent cringe and his eyes well with tears and he flipped through the pages filled with notes from a different era.

Words were written in big, block letters with just a trace of feminine curvature in crisp blue ink on page after page.  One of the early pages was titled “YOUR FAMILY –>”  and followed by a list of the family members and animals that lived in Brent’s home.  Another page was adorned with a life-sized sketch of a human hand and labels pointing to different parts of the hand.  Arrows pointed out “Knuckles.”  “Fingernail.”  “Palm.”  Another page of Brent’s notebook strayed from the business-like block letter approach and was decorated with a thick bubble-letter message from a devoted wife.  “Julie loves you.  Brent is awesome.”

wife-and-no-skull

Brent showed me one of the last pages of his notebook with averted eyes and said, “you can read this.  I can’t read it or I’ll get upset.  It’s a promise I made to myself when I was in the hospital after my brain surgery.”

Touched that he would share this with me, I read a message written in shaky handwriting.

Brent, you’re f****ed up.  You’re sick now but you’re going to get better.  

One day soon you’re going to get out of this place and you’ll be able to ride a motorcycle again!!!

I looked at Brent after I finished reading and felt the disappointment brewing deep from within.

“This upsets me because I still haven’t fulfilled my promise,” he said.  “But I still hope I will some day.”  Because of his persistent seizures, Brent’s primary mode of transportation around town has been via bicycle or with his wife, parents or other family members who live nearby.  Brent is quick to point out that he is lucky to have parents, a sister, a wife, and friends who help him with transportation and help him when epilepsy strikes, but he longs for the day that independence will be his again.

When Brent describes his history with epilepsy, he always begins with the year before the seizures began.  “The period from 2006 – 2007 was the best time of my life,” he proclaims, as a smile dances across his lips and his eyes glaze over with pleasant memories.  “I married my wonderful wife, Julie, in 2006 and in 2007 and I won a national award for online journalism in the Outstanding Use of Digital Media.  In 2007, Julie and I bought a 1988 van and put a futon in the back and drove to Yellowstone National Park for our honeymoon.  We had a fantastic time.

“On New Year’s Eve 2007, Julie and I were in Florida and we were planning on going to the Outback Bowl the following day.  Out of the blue, I felt horrible — no, worse than horrible.  I sat with my head in my hands the whole time at the Outback Bowl because I felt so bad.”

Brent and Julie flew back to Wisconsin and later that week Brent saw his doctor and he was diagnosed with the “stomach flu.”  Several days later, Brent and Julie were at home when Julie heard a thump and found Brent splayed out on the floor having a tonic clonic seizure.  When Brent was taken to the hospital that night, he had recurrent generalized seizures with almost no break in between. A spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis of viral encephalitis.  “I felt like I was dying that night,”  he remembers.  Although the details of that long night are murky in Brent’s memory, he remembers waking up in between every seizure, looking his wife in the eyes and telling her that he was dying but he loved her.

Brent states that the infectious disease physician on call that evening told his wife that he had a 50% chance of living through the illness.

Despite the dire predictions, Brent was discharged from the hospital three days later.  On the way home from the hospital, Brent convinced his wife and his friend that he’d like to stop for food.  Not long after they sat down to enjoy some chicken pot pie (“which will forever be known in my family as seizure-pot-pie,” Brent states with a smirk) he succumbed to a seizure and was promptly brought back to the hospital.  And so began the litany of hospitalizations and emergency room visits, medication trials and switches, and a life pock-marked by epilepsy.

As a way to cope with uncertainty, Brent has developed a healthy sense of humor about epilepsy.  At the end of our time together, Brent listed his “best seizures” by finding something memorable in some of the most fearful moments of our lives:

  • “Once I had a grand mal seizure at a movie theater just before my wife and I were able to go to the movie.  We got our money back.  I thought that was pretty awesome.”
  • “I had a seizure at a furniture store and ended up buying the couch that I fell on.  As I woke up, the salesman was blessing me as if I had demons.”
  • “One time I had a generalized seizure at Brat Fest in Madison (a big festival where thousands of people come and eat bratwurst.)  My friends were with me and formed a protective circle around me so no one would see or could get near me and waited for the seizure to end.  I was pretty touched by that.”
  • “I had a seizure at PDQ once and someone stole my phone when I was unconscious.  That still makes me mad to this day.”

Through his frustration, Brent continues to find a positive spin on his life with epilepsy.  “It’s made Julie and I grow closer, it’s given me perspective about the things that really matter.  I don’t get worked up about the little things any more.  I  have tremendous support from my wife, my family, my employer, and friends.  I couldn’t have done this without them.”

Brent sent me one last email last night that I think sums his perspective up perfectly:

” I always want to tell all the others out there with epilepsy or any other challenges, as much as you think your future has failed it hasn’t. People will surprise you and I don’t think things happen randomly for a reason but I do believe things do happen for a reason.”

I believe Brent will keep his promise to himself and ride a motorcycle again some day.

All in good time.

Please pass it on.

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Brent’s co-workers made him a brain cake before his brain surgery

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Brent and Julie have established a dog wash and fundraiser for CURE called “Dog Days” that has raised over $8000 for epilepsy research!

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Brent’s first day walking around Madison after a long period of depression and despair after epilepsy surgery felt like he was “coming out of the darkness.”

Christine

I have known Christine for what feels like a long time.  Our children, who are now eight years old, used to attend preschool together.  I saw Christine at various birthday parties, classroom celebrations, and milestone events over the course of three years when my son and her daughter spent their days at the bright, angular school with halls filled with the music of children that buzzed with laughter and joy.

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Even though I’ve had countless conversations with Christine at parties and preschool events, it wasn’t until I posted the first entry to One In Twenty Six revealing “My Story” that I heard about her history of seizures.  Christine posted a comment on the blog and wrote, “. . .while I have not had a seizure in over 15 years, my middle-, high school, and early college years were plagued by them. Monitoring sleep, food intake, and stress levels are just second nature now, but auras are always scary reminders that there’s a sleeping electrical storm that could break at any time.”  Christine states that the week she saw the post, she was drawn to reading the blog because she recently had an interaction with her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, where she teaches technical writing.

After hearing a colleague recount a story where he suddenly lost consciousness and fell off his bicycle, Christine suggested that he should be evaluated for possible seizures.  When the colleague scoffed, Christine pressed on, adding that she had an intimate knowledge of how unpredictable and variable seizures can be, since she had lived with epilepsy for many of her adolescent and adult years.

Christine shared her story with me while we had breakfast on a grey Monday morning that promised only more cold, slush, and snow. “After I told the group about my history of epilepsy, the room suddenly became silent,” Christine remembered, the irritation visible in the smoldering fire of her dilating pupil.  “No one knew what to say. The stigma associated with seizures is still very much there,” she said.  ” Something’s got to change.”

Christine’s journey with epilepsy began when she was an active middle school student at a parochial school in northern Michigan.  Never one to be idle, she was involved in a myriad activities and pushed her body to the limit.  Christine first noticed events where she felt an overwhelming sense of sleepiness that she couldn’t shake even if she was able to get adequate rest.  Then she started to notice paroxysms of involuntary movement of her right hand, evidenced by sudden streaks of irregular writing across her papers at school where her hand jerked out of voluntary control and was suddenly guided by the brewing electrical currents within.  Eventually, when Christine was working her hardest to help prepare for the middle school graduation ceremony, she succumbed to a grand mal seizure.  Her diagnosis of epilepsy ensued and she began treatment with Tegretol.

Christine reports that once she started and increased the dose of her antiepileptic medication, she went from being a straight-A student to “sleeping through a year of high school.”  She was no longer able to participate in a variety of activities because the medication side-effects were too great.  Her grades suffered significantly as well.

After muddling through a sleepy 18 months on Tegretol, Christine was switched to Depakote, which allowed for fewer side effects and better seizure control.  She noticed that she had to exercise almost all the time to avoid gaining weight while taking Depakote. Early in the initiation of Depakote therapy, Christine was warned by her physician that while she was on antiepileptic medication, the risks of potential birth defects would likely preclude her from ever having children.  Too young to worry about it too much at the time, Christine took her medication every morning with hope in her heart that her seizures would one day be a part of the past.

In some ways, Christine got her wish. When she went years without seizures or auras in college, she talked to her neurologist about weaning off Depakote.  She was able to become free of medications before she became pregnant and delivered her first child.  Emmy was perfect, with sandy blond hair, chocolate brown eyes and an expressive smile that could light up the darkest room.  Her daughter’s life seemed unmarred by her mother’s history of seizures.

Then when Emmy was three, Christine and Emmy were walking out of the library together one spring afternoon.  They were smiling at the warming sun and looking forward to the day they would enjoy together.  Suddenly, Emmy’s hand slipped out of Christine’s hand.  Christine turned around and found her daughter spread out, quaking, unconscious, and helpless on the sidewalk.  Knowing that she needed help, Christine had no choice but to leave her daughter alone for a moment while she ran inside to call for an ambulance.

Emmy’s seizure was not associated with a fever or an illness or any of the typical culprits that may lead to benign seizures in children.  In discussion with Emmy’s physicians about use of possible antiepileptic medications to prevent future seizures, Christine states that she was “appalled to find that many of medications that we use in children today are very same with the debilitating side effects that were used for me twenty years ago.”  Currently, Emmy is not on any medications and is doing well, but Christine reports she lives in fear of the day that things may change for both of them.

Christine describes her experience as having a “brush with epilepsy” and states that she has been fortunate to not have seizures and medications affect her everyday life.  Still, while the grey changed to silver outside on a Wisconsin Monday morning, I could see slivers of how a history of seizures and years of mind-numbing medication can haunt you like a ghost forever.  Christine admits that she still monitors her sleep and stress levels diligently.  While she used to be “on the path where she needed to be in control of everything,” now she has learned to let things slide.  She also admits that she dreads the hormonal changes in life more than most women.  Where puberty and menopause are headaches to some, they may mean resurgence of seizures to women like Christine and Emmy.

Christine looks forward to the day when she can talk about epilepsy in a room full of colleagues and not be met with awkward silence.  The more we talk, the more we understand.  Please pass it on.

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Photo source: http://the-second-half-of-my-life.com/2010/09/16/mothers-daughters-9/

Lisa

Lisa sits across from me in a crowded coffee shop and speaks in a combination of hushed and muted tones as she recounts her story of living with epilepsy.  Her bright blue eyes are rimmed with emerald specks of green, the brightness of which belies the hordes of medication I know she takes every day.  There’s a single man sitting close by, laptop open, who seems to study us in a pirate-like one-eyed stare when Lisa mentions “grand mal seizure” or “brain surgery.”  He seems to be searching for the image he would expect to accompany those words — instead of two thirtysomething women on a Sunday evening.

Lisa’s epilepsy story began in 1977 in the idyllic village of Wonewoc, Wisconsin, population 834, set in the unglaciated region of northwestern Wisconsin 30 minutes west of Wisconsin Dells on State Hwy 33.  Lisa’s first seizure began when she had a high fever and a viral illness as a small toddler.  Her parents tried desperately to cool their quaking child by struggling to put cool washcloths on her while her limbs twitched and placed her in a cool bath as the seizure continued.  Because the local hospital was not equipped to care for critically ill children, a still-seizing Lisa was transported via ambulance over country roads to Madison to seek medical care.  By the time her seizure abated, she had a temporary right sided paralysis and a permanent change deep in her brain that would last a lifetime.

Lisa doesn’t remember her first seizure, but she remembers receiving anti-epileptic medication in sugar-sweetened water every day until she was five.  She recognizes the fear in her parent’s faces as they recount the story of her first febrile seizure.  And she can remember stark details of the day when her seizures came back.

UW – LaCrosse seemed like the perfect place for Lisa to go to college.  It was a well-renowned university, a reasonable distance from home, and had a fantastic art program, which was Lisa’s chosen major.  Early in her college career, Lisa remembers waking up, almost in a trance, as EMTs and her boyfriend were talking to her. She had heard a sudden crack which she later realized this was the sound of her head hitting the bed frame as she succumbed to a grand mal seizure. Later that same day in the hospital, she had a hard time recognizing her first visitor, her mother, but as her memory returned she also began to understand that the unusual “episodes” that she’d been having throughout her childhood and early adulthood were actually complex partial seizures.

Even as Lisa’s health history was starting to make sense, her seizures were spiraling out of control.  Not too long after her first seizure, Lisa had a grand mal seizure in her residence hall at college.  Unaware of her seizure history and uneducated about epilepsy, the residence hall personnel assumed that Lisa had used drugs.  Lisa was strapped to a metal chair and “questioned” in her unconscious state until her friend found her, rescued her, and brought her to medical care.

Shortly after her seizures returned, Lisa was re-started on anti-epileptic medication.  Although she had improving control of seizures, she noticed extreme fatigue and significant difficulty focusing on her school work.  Her art work suffered enough that she had to change majors.  Lisa became a graphic design major at UW-Stout and hoped that starting over at a new campus may give her a reprieve from epilepsy as well.

Lisa continued to have a combination of complex partial and intermittent grand mal seizures.  She has tried a variety of medication combinations, each with their own list of side effects and benefits.  In 2010, she had surgery to remove the portion of her left temporal lobe that was the focus of her seizures.  In Lisa’s words, “I haven’t had any big seizures since the surgery, but I have a ton more auras so I’m on more medication than before.  I don’t know which is worse.”

Despite her obstacles, Lisa is now working successfully part-time as a graphic design artist and has learned how to predict the patterns when her seizures are most likely to appear.  She has learned how to live with epilepsy, but still feels the stigma from coworkers, employers, and friends who don’t understand the disease.  Lisa recounts a time when she had a seizure in on the way to a choir concert while she and other choir members were crowded into a taxi.  After she woke up in the hospital from her grand mal seizure, none of the choir members treated her the same again.

Lisa is excited to join our efforts to raise awareness and decrease the stigma associated with epilepsy. Even our friend in the coffee shop was searching to understand how his misconceptions could align with the normal-appearing women sitting 2 feet from his table.  The more we talk, the more we understand.  Please pass it on.