The Internet Is Not A Doctor

My son’s epilepsy diagnosis came with words that I didn’t know. Status epilepticusRefractory. Subclinical. I had a lot of questions about these words and what they meant for my son, so I turned to the same place I always turn when I have complicated medical questions.

The Internet.

Sure, our doctor would also have been a good source since, usually, she is the one using the foreign words. But being in the doctor’s office after a long exam and a long day is overwhelming, and being a web-savvy-engineer-type, the Internet is my happy place. Besides, nothing bad every happens on the Internet.

Turns out, that’s not true.

I’m one of those people who search for symptoms on WebMD, the place where a stuffy noise quickly escalates from common cold to incurable cancer.

epilepsy dad webmd research

Searching for the words surrounding my son’s diagnosis quickly leads, after a few clicks, to truly terrible conditions, none of which could my son possible have. But the seed of despair gets planted and, after a few more clicks, somehow his epilepsy also gave me an incurable disease. I don’t (as far as I know) have a disease, but I do have cyberchondria (one of my new, favorite words).

Hello, Internet, my old friend. I’ve come to search WebMD again.
~ Simon and Garfunkel (98% sure)

Once I was able to tear myself away from WebMD, I pulled up Google. I had more questions that weren’t related to solving the riddle about why my son had epilepsy but, instead, were about what his life would be like with epilepsy. Since he was a baby, he wanted to be a hockey player. I searched for “hockey players with epilepsy”.

google hockey epilepsy

The results that came back were not promising. Wait, I thought, can he even play hockey with epilepsy? Another Google search.

google hockey epilepsy

More unsatisfying answers just led to more questions. Soon I found myself sucked down another rabbit hole, this one less about clarifying a diagnosis and more about what type of possible future my son would have, even before we knew enough to even guess at what his future would be like. Looking at my browser history, it revealed a pattern of creating limitations in my head about what my son could ever hope to accomplish. Worse, I was arming myself with information that I could use to project those same limitations on to him, which is the opposite of what my search was meant to achieve.

The Internet is an amazing tool. It has the power to connect people, to share information, and maybe one day to help find a cure for epilepsy. It can inform patients and parents afflicted with a condition and provide a common vocabulary for the exchange of ideas. But it can just as easily overwhelm and do more harm than good, particularly with a new diagnosis and especially when the cause of the condition is still unknown.

My excursion to the dark side of the Internet left me with these two thoughts that I try to remember when I find myself lost on the information superhighway.

The Internet is not a doctor.

In the future, everything is possible.

The Lesson I Can’t Teach

When my wife told me that I was going to be a dad, I think I did what most guys do when they are given the same news…I freaked out. Once I had sufficiently calmed myself down, however, I did the next thing that many guys do…I thought about all the wisdom that I had to pass on and the lessons that I would be able to teach my child.

How to throw a ball.
How to tell a joke.
How to shoot a puck.
How to ride a bike.
How to program a computer.
How to cook a meal.
How to change a light switch.
How to drive a manual transmission car.

The first five years, I was checking things off my list all the time. My son had a wicked slapshot, he could throw a ball, and he could expertly tell three knock-knock jokes.

Who’s there?
Banana who?
Who’s there?
Banana who?
Who’s there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

(It’s still funny.)

Of course, that was before he had his first seizure. After that, his epilepsy got complicated. We spent weeks at a time in the hospital trying to get a handle on his seizures and, suddenly, my list didn’t matter. What mattered was something that I was woefully incapable of teaching him, and that was what it meant to live with epilepsy.

It was a punch to the gut. When I dreamed of being a father, it always involved my son coming to me with a question and me, for some reason around a campfire (we haven’t camped since long before he was born), wisely answering his question with a profound philosophical response, expounding on complex theories and providing fatherly guidance. But here he was, on only his fifth trip around the sun, and I had already run in to an answer that I could not give and a lesson that I could not teach.

I’m never going to be able to teach my son how to live with epilepsy. But I can teach him to never give up. I can teach him, even when life gets hard, to believe in himself and to stand up for himself. I can teach him that he can rely on his mother and me, and that he is never alone. And I can teach him that his life and what he can accomplish is still wide open.

In the end, these are the lessons that are most important, anyway.

Epilepsy, The Future, And The Battle Between The Heart And The Mind

If you ask my son what he wants to be when he grows up, he always leads with “a hockey player”. Sometimes he’ll add another sport, or perhaps a doctor, but everything starts with and revolves around first being a hockey player.

epilepsy dad future heart mind dreams

According to his plan, he is going to play in the NHL and whichever team he plays for, that’s where I will live, and I will follow him around as he jumps between all of his favorite teams. “That’s a great plan,” I tell him.

Inside, my heart and my brain drop the gloves.

My heart wants him to follow his dream. It wants him to watch a hockey game or to play hockey in the basement and know that hockey is what he will do with his life, and to live and reinforce that ambition every day. My heart wants him to hold on to that goal and have it drive him to be a better skater, a solid teammate, a focused student, and to know what it feels like to overcome an enormous challenge to achieve a dream.

My brain remembers what he was like last year when his ataxia and lack of balance made most physical things, including hockey, impossible. It contemplates the odds of playing a physical sport with seizures and epilepsy that is still not fully under control. My brain wants to err on the side of caution and to focus his attention on something more realistic.

Like many hockey fights, there is no winner…the two sides just tussle for a few minutes and then have a seat in the penalty box. Neither side wins in my fight, either. The skirmish only brings on more questions. Should I encourage him to continue to pursue his dream and risk devastation when I have to tell him he can’t join a team because of his epilepsy? Should I have him set more realistic goals now to avoid that heartache? How do you tear away the dream of a six-year-old boy?

I’ve decided that you don’t.

The future is too uncertain to predict the course of his life or the part that epilepsy will play in it. Yes, he might be burdened with seizures for the rest of his life. Maybe they will get worse. But he might also outgrow them. Someone may develop a better medicine, or they may find a cure, or a new device to control or eliminate his seizures.

The only thing that I can do is focus on today. Today, and every day until it is proven otherwise, I’m going to do everything I can to support his aspiration to play hockey. We have a skating coach, and work with pucks off the ice. We talk about teamwork, and strategy, and going on the road with him and the team. We watch hockey games and talk about what it will be like when he is playing as if it is an inevitability because the most assured way of him not reaching that goal is to discourage him from trying.