Where Epilepsy Can’t Find Us

For the last few weeks, we’ve been temporarily living in Maine.

I love living in Philadelphia. But between being confined to the close quarters of a condo and the current tension in the city, we decided we needed space. While we are all working from home, this is also a rare opportunity where home can be wherever there is internet, and that includes the Pine Tree State.

Whenever we go somewhere new, there is a part of me that wonders if it will be the place where epilepsy can’t find us. I wondered when we went back to Colorado. I wondered when we visited my family in Florida. But epilepsy found us in those places. I wondered again when we traveled further…to Hawaii…to Panama. But epilepsy found us there, too.

Still, as we took the 10 hour drive from Philadelphia, there was a part of me that still wondered. It wasn’t a good sign when my son drifted off to sleep in the back seat that a seizure work him from his nap. But we weren’t yet in Maine, though, so there was still hope.

As we pulled in to the driveway of the house we rented, I had a good feeling. The house was on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. There were steps down to a rocky shore from the front of the house and a path down to a big, sandy beach from the back. There was a big yard for baseball, and trees blocking the view of any neighbors. We were secluded. Hidden. The sun was out. There was air…cool, salty, fresh air. Our getaway had everything we were looking for, and maybe the right ingredients to keep any seizures away, too.

When the first seizure came the next day, I chalked it up to exhaustion. The long drive and the late night exploring the house were the likely causes, and that shouldn’t be held against Maine. The seizures the next night were obviously caused by the long day spent in the water, fishing and finding shells and crabs. Our bodies just weren’t acclimated yet, so those seizures shouldn’t count, either.

But by the third day, and the fourth, and most days since, I haven’t been able to explain away the seizures. They happen after we are outside on a sunny day or after relaxing inside on a wet, foggy day. They happen after we go exploring and after we hang out watching a movie.

They happen because my son has intractable epilepsy.

Wherever we go, we won’t be able to hide from epilepsy because we take it with us. We pack it up like the bottles of seizure medication and the special ingredients for my son’s ketogenic diet. It finds room in the car no matter how little space is left after we tightly pack our belongings.

But even though I want to write a post like this every time we go to a new place, trying to hide from epilepsy is not the reason we travel and have adventures. We do them because our son is a fearless explorer. We do them because we can. We do them because we won’t let epilepsy and seizures limit the experiences we can give to our son.

There is nowhere we can go where epilepsy can’t find us.

But we will not let it stop us.

 

A Year With The VNS

Last December marked the one-year anniversary of my son’s VNS surgery.

Leading up to the surgery, I was a wreck. The week before, I had to give a preview of a presentation to one of our executives. I was not present and I stumbled through, relying heavily on the notes that I threw together on a handful of index cards. A few weeks later, my boss commented that she noticed how off I was. “You’re normally so put together. I don’t know what happened.” I did, I thought. My son was about to have surgery.

As I wrote about when we were contemplating the VNS, there is something about a surgery that is so daunting. With medications or the ketogenic diet, we can stop them if they aren’t working and the side effects eventually go away. But you can’t “uncut” my child. Once the scalpel breaks the skin, that’s it. It’s done. Even if the VNS is turned off or if the leads are removed, there is no going back. That thought weighed heavily on my mind right up to when they wheeled him back to the operating room.

Thankfully, we are near one of the best children’s hospitals in the country, and the surgery went smoothly. The device was turned on a few weeks later, and the waiting game began.

For the first six months, I didn’t expect much of anything to happen, which was great because not much of anything happened. Except for the vibration in his voice from the tingle of the VNS and the two visible scars, there was no change.  We didn’t see any reduction in seizures, even as the doctors adjusted the intensity and frequency of the pulses.

At nine months, there was more of the same. His vocal cords seemed to adjust and his vibrato was less pronounced, but I could still hear it. Again, though, there was no seizure reduction.

A year after his VNS surgery, I would love to write that it took a year for the VNS to really start helping my son. I would love to write that he is seizure-free and that we were able to wean him off the ketogenic diet or remove a few pills from the handfuls of pills he takes every day. I would love to write that I sleep any better knowing that the VNS will protect my son from a catastrophic seizure and that I sleep much better at night.

But I can’t.

The obvious question is, knowing what I know now, would I have still gone through with the surgery?

The short answer is yes. The VNS helps a lot of people. At the time, we didn’t know whether it would work and I was and still am willing to try anything to reduce or prevent my son’s seizures. I’m disappointed that it didn’t do more for him, but it was worth trying.

Maybe someday it will help. Maybe it is already helping with seizures that we can’t see, or maybe it will someday prevent a really bad seizure.

The Night Watch

Every night before he goes to bed, my son takes a handful of pills.

The pills are the last line of defense that my son has against the unrelenting seizures that constantly lurk on the horizon. Especially at night, when his brain slows down to recuperate from the day, my son’s brain isn’t strong enough to defend itself against attack.

His medication is meant to strengthen his defenses so that his brain can rest. They are the guards on the parapet defending the residents inside the walls throughout the night. But the gaps in my son’s wall are too wide for the guards to cover. It’s not a question of whether a seizure will break through; it’s how many. It’s how much damage will the attackers do before the sun rises.

We’ve tried to boost his defenses. New medications. The ketogenic diet. VNS surgery. But none of them have prevented the nightly raids from exacting their toll on his developing brain. Even combined, they are no match for the electrical storm the flows wildly across the neurons and floods the cells.

It could be worse. It has been worse. Before we knew what this was, the flood nearly took my son. The uncontrolled pulses flowed through the gaps in his natural defenses and eventually breached them entirely, leaving his body frozen and his mind disconnected. We managed to beat back the invader and rebuild. We strengthened the walls. We bolstered the night watch. But our seizure calendar records the history of attacks, painting cells with yellow markers revealing every defeat in long ribbons of sequentially colored squares.

Every night before he goes to bed, my son takes a handful of pills because there is nothing else to do. We stick to our routine because it is better than the alternative. His pills, his diet, and his VNS play their part. But as he drifts off to sleep, I turn on the monitor and take my post watching over him, too. Because it’s my job on the night watch to be there when his defenses ultimately fail, to comfort him after the attack, and to help him rebuild the next day before we do it all over again.