Alex and George: Living a Full Life Despite Seizures

Twin brothers Alex and George share many things.  They share their love for the martial arts.  They both have achieved the level of black belt in tae kwon do.  They also love to ski, both near their home in Wisconsin and on the significantly more challenging slopes of Colorado.

Alex and George also share their diagnoses of epilepsy.

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Alex and George snowshoeing in Colorado

 

 

 

The tale of Alex and George was told to me by their mother, Maureen, who talked with a combination of emotion and pride over the bluetooth phone in her car while she drove her slumbering teenage sons back from vacation in Michigan.  Every so often, a mumbled “hhhmph” of assent or “harrumph” of question emanated from the teenagers in the back of the car.

Maureen started our conversation by making sure that I knew how far her boys had come despite the challenges that they had faced with epilepsy.  “My mother socializes with a large group of women in the Michigan area and she is holding a fundraiser to raise awareness about epilepsy next week,” she said.  “One of the goals of the fundraiser is to show the important and relevant realities of the disease and how it affects the whole family.

“On the invitation to the fundraiser, my mother and I wrote:  Since their diagnoses 10 years ago, George and Alex have taken about as many medications that are available, have had a myriad of tests,  George had intracranial EEG monitoring, and George had brain surgery.

 Despite all that, they are active, funny, engaging teenagers.”

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Alex, Maureen, and George at Pope Farm Park in Madison, WI

Maureen’s journey with epilepsy began on a Christmas ski trip in 2003 when 5 year old twins Alex and George were sitting outside having a snack in between runs down the hill.  While sitting quietly in the afternoon sun, George started acting differently and stopped responding to external stimuli.  By the time his parents realized something was wrong, he succumbed to a generalized seizure.  The ski patrol office was right next to where George collapsed, so he was promptly put in an ambulance an taken to the local hospital, where a CT scan and all diagnostic studies were normal.  George was discharged from the hospital the next day and he returned home with his family seemingly unscathed.

But George continued to have seizures.  He established care with the Children’s Epilepsy program at Children’s Hospital of Phillidephia and was started on tegretol.   When George’s family moved to the Milwaukee area, his care was transferred to the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where his neurologist recommended an evaluation for possible resection of the focus of his seizures.  George had surgery for placement of intracranial electrodes and then was monitored in the epilepsy monitoring unit at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.  His seizures were found to originate from the left temporoparietal region of his brain, the same portion of the brain that houses, among many other things, the circuitry needed for speech and language.

“I’m a speech pathologist,” Maureen stated.  “When Dr. Zupanc  told me where George’s seizures were coming from, it was a low point in this journey.  I knew that if they resected that region, he would never fully regain his language again.”

Instead of having a resection of a seizure focus, George had a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) placed, which has been helpful to reduce the number of seizures.  He still has approximately one to two seizures a week, despite taking three anti-epileptic drugs.  George continues to ski in Snowmass with his family with the help of a program called Challenge Snowmass that pairs a skier with disabilities with a ski buddy.  George clips into the chair lift and uses a climbing harness while skiing to keep him safe in case he would have a seizure while skiing.  George has also achieved a black belt in tae kwon do and enjoys swimming with his family at the beach — though never without a life jacket.

When George and Alex were 7, in the midst of George’s evaluation for possible surgical treatment for his epilepsy, Alex began to complain of intermittent periods where he “couldn’t see.”   The visual complaints were determined to be focal seizures and before long, Alex had his first generalized seizure.  With both children undergoing treatment and evaluation for epilepsy, Maureen felt like she was being pushed to her limits.

Alex’s focal seizures didn’t always generalize, but they often did.  He began having about one to two seizures a week, but his seizures didn’t seem to be progressing as quickly as George’s had.  Because she was now struggling with recurrent seizures in two boys, Maureen decided to put both boys on the ketogenic diet when they were eight years old.  “I was bound not to fail for lack of compliance,” she said, “so I measured every morsel of food for one year.  The worst part of it was the daily grind and the limited repertoire of what we could eat.”

Maureen remembers Alex’s last seizure like it was yesterday.  “I took Alex to Michigan in December for a holiday music performance and he had last seizure in the lobby of the Interlochen Music School Auditorium.  After that, we were able to sit down and enjoy the performance.”  Not long after that, Alex stopped the ketogenic diet and was switched to Depakote.  Alex has been on the same dose of Depakote for the past seven years and has not had a seizure since.  His EEG his still active, but his clinical seizures have stopped.

Maureen has realized that raising two boys with epilepsy has not only changed her perspective about seizures, but molded her view of life in general.  For better or for worse, she’s gotten used to watching her sons’ seizures and supporting them through them.  “I’ve seen George have 95% of his seizures.  After the initial panic is over, I’m the one consoling everyone else.  I’ve seen it before and I’m used to it.  George had a seizure on the first day of middle school and the case manager was a wreck.  I was the one that had to calm her down.”

And having Epilepsy as an additional family member has also given Maureen and her family a chance to appreciate the simple things and celebrate the small successes.  She reflected, “It’s pretty easy to get bogged down in the worry about the future.  Every parent gets worried about their kids.  It’s 1000 times worse when you have a child with a medical problem or some sort of special needs.  But, you need to look at every day and the success of each day and see that they accumulate and trust they’ll find their way in the world.”

When I asked Maureen how she’s managed with a life of uncertainty, she replied, “You have to take every day and prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.  It’s a balance between worrying about what’s going to happen and being thankful for every good day that we have.”

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Alex at Cascade Mountain, Wisconsin

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George at the UW arboretum

Never Too Far Away

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to write a blog post. Between work, family, and finding time for adequate sleep, blogging has (temporarily) gone to the wayside.  However, it’s never too long before I’m reminded of the omnipotence of epilepsy both in my life and the world around us.

Last week I accepted two new patients into my general pediatrics practice with intractable epilepsy.  The mother of one young girl with Lennox Gastaut Syndrome brought pictures taken of her daughter during infancy.  The bright-eyed toddler with an open mouthed grin in the picture acutely defied the image of the now 8-year-old non-verbal and minimally interactive young lady reclined in a wheelchair.  The same day, I met a three-year-old boy with a genetic syndrome and subsequent seizures.  I smiled as he toddled around the exam room and touched everything within reach to explore his environment.  Still, as I typed in his medication list and reviewed his history of past hospitalizations, I worried about how his recurrent prolonged seizures would affect his development.  Time can only tell how each child will endure their significant challenges.

Earlier this month, I had an article published in Epilepsia, the journal of the International League Against Epilepsy, discussing what it’s like to navigate life as both a professional and patient with epilepsy.  You can see that article here:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/epi.12501/full

And later this month, I am looking forward to participating in an event sponsored by Madison Friends of CURE and Joey’s Song (see the past post about Joey here)  If you’re in the Madison area and would like to participate in a great event to raise awareness about epilepsy, please click on the link below:

http://www.joeyssong.org/madisoncure/

In the meantime, to those of you who don’t live with epilepsy or have a loved one with seizures, thank you for opening your heart and mind to understanding this incredibly common but still stigmatized disease.  And to those who intimately understand what it means to live with seizures, God bless and let’s continue to raise awareness and find a cure.

DSC_0576(This is my daughter’s way to learn about the human body!)

Joey’s Song

In October 2005, Mike and Nory Gomoll celebrated with joy when they adopted a beautiful baby boy named Joey from Guatemala.  Joey had large, chocolate eyes, a thick mat of dark hair piled high on his head, and an infectious smile.  Joey arrived to join his family when he was six months old, about the same age that his older brother and sister were when they were adopted from Guatemala as well.

Joey quickly adapted to life in the U.S. and loved playing with his older siblings.  He loved music, Elmo, and had an early appreciation for songs and  rhythm.  Things changed, however, when Joey was ten months old.

Joey was visiting his grandparents when he had his first seizure.  At first, his grandfather didn’t recognize the unusual, rhythmic movements of his arm and upper body when Joey sat on his lap. When his Aunt walked by and observed the scene, however, she knew that something was amiss.  Since Joey’s grandfather lived across the street from Illinois Masonic Hospital, his family members ran the short distance to the hospital for an evaluation.  Because of the unusual nature of his first seizure, Joey was admitted to the hospital and he received an extensive evaluation.  All of his initial testing was negative and Joey eventually discharged with the diagnosis of a simple febrile seizure.

But it wasn’t so simple.  Several weeks later, Joey had another seizure.  Because he had a fever at the time of the next seizure, Joe’s again was diagnosed with a febrile seizure.  With increasing frequency and unrelenting insidiousness, the seizures continued.  Sometimes Joey would just stare into space and have involuntary movements of his wrist, sometimes the seizures were much more ominous.  Early on, the seizures were almost always associated with fever.  Joey was started on phenobarbital for treatment of recurrent febrile seizures but his parents were told that he would eventually “grow out of it.”

Soon enough, Joey was having seizures with increasing frequency.  The recurrent attacks on his growing brain began to show adverse effects on his development.   Joey never learned to speak more than a few words, although he loved to interact with others.  He learned to communicate with loved ones and family members  in other ways.

As Joey continued to have seizures, he tried multiple different medications with little or no improvement.  His parents noticed that excitement  triggered seizures so they tried to keep Joey as calm with as little stimulation as possible.  The Gomoll family fell into a natural rhythm.  Mike watched after older and more active Sam and Julia and Nory stayed with Joey to protect him as much as she could from the constant threat of seizures.

Desperate for answers, Mike and Nory took Joey to see a pediatric neurologist at the Pediatric Epilepsy Center at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.  Joey and his family met with the physician there who, after hearing his story, diagnosed Joey with “classic Dravet syndrome.”  This was the first time that Joey and his family had heard of the severe form of intractable epilepsy associated with recurrent febrile seizures, developmental regression, behavioral changes, and prolonged seizures.

Mike states that once Joey received the diagnosis of Dravet syndrome, they “finally understood what was going on.”  While the Gomoll family continued to fight Joey’s seizures, they also found ways to revel in the small things.

“When you have a child with Dravet syndrome, life is pretty simple,” Mike remembers. ” Joey knew how to take out DVDs and put in DVDs.   He would do that over and over again as he watched Elmo movies.  The stuff that other parents would take for granted, you don’t.  You revel in every bit of connectedness that exists.  You celebrate every moment of joy, every moment that you’re not in the back of the ambulance.”

“A lot of my memories of Joey are of laying with him for hours after his seizures.  He would lay on my chest with his hand behind his head and lay quietly.  I knew he didn’t feel well, but we were there together, and that meant a lot to me.”

In March 2010, Joey died from complications from epilepsy.

Joey didn’t speak much, but he had several words for dance.  He understood rhythm since early childhood and music always seemed to calm him.  In Joey’s memory, Mike and the Gomoll family have started Joey’s Song , a nonprofit foundation supporting special needs children and all those suffering from seizures.  Joey’s Song has produced four CDs with contributions from famous artists such as Roseanne Cash, the Cowboy Junkies and the Crash Test Dummies.  Joey’s Song has an upcoming benefit concert in Madison, Wisconsin on September 19, 2013.  Please visit http://www.joeyssong.org to learn more about Joey and Mike Gomoll and the work Mike is doing to fight epilepsy.

And, to continue to raise awareness for all of us, please pass it on.

Joey gomoll 7

Lisa, Bear, and a lifetime of miracles

Lisa was accustomed to giving birth to big babies.

Her first child was a robust 9# 5 oz at the time of delivery.  Her second child was a strapping 11# 8 oz by the time she met the world.  But when her third child, Bear, was born, he weighed 12# 11 ounces just prior to his descent down the birth canal.  Because Bear was such a big baby, a relatively common but potentially dangerous complication occured during his delivery that would affect his life forever.  His fleshy shoulder became lodged against his mother’s pelvic bone.  Although Bear’s infant circulation separated from his mother’s as the birthing process happened, his body could not get out to receive his first life-giving breaths.

When Lisa’s obstetrician determined that a vaginal delivery was not possible, the pair was rushed to Cesaerean section.  Within moments, Bear was extracted from his mother’s womb — limp, blue, and already showing evidence of seizure activity.  The neonatal team present in the delivery room performed CPR, administered medications, and resuscitated Bear for twenty minutes.  Lisa, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit herself, remembers that at one point the neonatalogist who was guiding Bear’s resuscitation consisdered “calling it,” and letting Bear slip away.  Yet, with the determination and strength that Bear would display throughout his life, the pediatrics team was able to regain a steady heart beat after 20 minutes of resuscitation.  This was the first of a lifetime of miracles.

Although Bear was safely outside of his mother, his neurologic prognosis was grim.  After his birth, Bear was placed in a drug-induced coma to quell further seizures.  As the medications were lifted, he was noted to have low muscle tone, decreased reflexes, and absence of a suck/swallow reflex.  A tube was placed in his stomach to provide nutrition and later he had a more permanent gastrostomy tube placed.  Bear was hospitalized for the first six weeks of his life.  He left with a diagnosis of “severe hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy” related to birth trauma and a future that was uncertain.

“Bear became everyone’s baby,” Lisa remembers.  Her father, a surgeon, and her mother, a nurse, babysat frequently and helped care for him when needed.  Other family members and friends helped pitch in to give rides to the doctor or hospital if needed.  Everyone cheered when Bear met each of his developmental milestones — although later than typically developing children — one by one.

When Bear was three, he had his first generalized seizure.  Because the seizure was prolonged, Bear had an evaluation for infection in the emergency room after the seizure.  He was not officially diagnosed with epilepsy, however, until after he had another generalized seizure approximately a year later.  Bear was started on Tegretol for control of his seizures.

Soon after Bear’s official diagnosis of epilepsy, he started participating in school.  The aide that was assigned to work one-on-one with him noted other subtle seizure activity throughout the day.  Repetitive chewing on a sleeve, staring off into space, and smacking of lips were determined to be seizures.  Keppra was added and Bear’s seizure activity decreased.

Since Bear’s diagnosis with epilepsy, Lisa has learned to identify the triggers for his seizures.  She’s recognized that sickness is a trigger, fatigue is a trigger, and abrupt changes in schedule are a trigger.  She also realizes that Bear is constantly at risk, since he attends schools where viral illnesses are a constant reality.  As a result, Lisa reports that she is “constantly checking on him” to make sure that Bear is OK and “someone is always with him.”  Lisa states that Bear was invited to some friends’ houses in the past for play dates after school.  Once she explained to the other parents Bear’s history of seizures, he wasn’t invited back.

 

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In many ways, Bear is the living example of a miracle.  He has gone from a small infant who almost didn’t survive neonatal resuscitation to a strapping young man who likes to bike, run, and play with his siblings.  He evolved from a baby without a suck/swallow reflex to a toddler with a G-tube to a boy who eats everything in sight.  Yet Bear is still susceptible to a multitude of seizures that can ruin a day, a week, a lifetime.  In so many ways, Bear is miraculous, yet a cure for seizures sometimes even alludes those who have obtained the unobtainable.

In Lisa’s words, “epilepsy is like an intruder in our house with a gun.  You never know when it’s going to go off, and you never know how it’s going to affect you.”

Please pass it on.

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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.

Aidan tent 2 copy low rez

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.

brain-cake

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

brent-julie-dog-day

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

out-of-the-darkness

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.”