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10/15/09

Living With Epilepsy

In High school, walking between classes, I saw a group of kids standing around something. When I got to the crowd, I saw a boy on the lawn, his legs and arms jerking spasmodically. He was wholly unconscious. Fourteen years old, I didn't know what to do. I had never seen anybody behave like that and had no idea how to help him.

Suddenly, two teachers and the school nurse pushed through the crowd. We went on to our next classes. They took care of the boy. That afternoon, I learned that he had an epileptic fit. I didn't know the boy but I felt sorry for him. As a teenager, he had been publicly seen in a very un-cool situation. I didn't understand that was the least of his worries, although I am sure he felt stigmatized. Much later, I learned the terminology. The boy had what was then called a grand mal seizure. That was a big-time problem.

Seizures are strange things. "Depending on the part of the brain affected, seizures can produce hallucinations, anxiety, feelings of religious ecstasy or bizarre psychological tics such as 'hyperfamiliarity,' a delusional sense that you're already acquainted with everyone you meet."

I wonder if the boy is still alive, or how long he lived. "There is some debate about the long-term risk from repeated seizures." Some scientists believe seizures can cause brain damage. Most certainly uncontrolled seizures can lead to "lasting memory problems, cognitive deficits, personality changes—and death."

Curiously, specific recurrent events can cause seizures. Oliver Sacks described a woman who went into a seizure whenever she heard Neapolitan music.

Nowadays some epilepsy can be controlled by electronic devices such as the vagal nerve stimulator. It sends an electric signal to the brain through the vagus nerve in the neck. More

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