Ntombizethu Maxhawulana was only 11 months old when she had her first seizure and even though she is taking anti-epilepsy drugs, she still has seizures at least once a week. Ntombizethu did not want to speak about it but she asked her mother Noluvuyo Maxhawulana to speak on her behalf.
“At first Ntombizethu was a perfectly healthy child. She started getting sick only when she was 11 months old. The doctor told me she had the condition of epilepsy. And, because of the repeated seizures, her left arm was damaged and, till this day, it’s not working properly,” Noluvuyo said.
Ntombizethu is now 32 years old and recently gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The family was not aware of her pregnancy until she was six months pregnant — Ntombizethu did not want to tell her mother or any other member of the family. “Her pregnancy was a difficult time for all of us. She would have seizures up to three times a day,” said Noluvuyo.
Her pregnancy placed the Maxhawulana family in a difficult position. Ntombizethu’s first doctor suggested that she should terminate it because of the strain of repeated seizures on her unstable health. But Ntombizethu refused — she wanted to keep her baby.
“We went for a second opinion and the second doctor said that, at six-and-a-half months, it would not be safe for her to terminate the pregnancy. The doctor also said it is possible for a woman living with epilepsy to give birth to a healthy child,” Noluvuyo said.
On April 25 this year Ntombizethu gave birth to a healthy baby girl but, because of her compromised left arm and her epilepsy, Ntombizethu needs help to care for her infant.
“You can’t leave Ntombizethu alone with the baby because you don’t know when she might have a seizure. She also struggles to hold and breast-feed the baby because she has only one arm. Basically, I have to help her with everything,” said Ntombizethu’s aunt, Nomakhaya iKiti.
According to Epilepsy South Africa, there is only a 6% chance of mothers passing epilepsy to their child if the mother has had the Âcondition since childhood.
“Epilepsy means that a patient manifests with recurrent seizures. The seizures are these attacks that patients get — a patient falling down, jerking, biting tongue â€¦ that sort of thing. So, someone who’s got these fits or seizures repeatedly â€¦ that condition is called epilepsy. There are different variants. They don’t all need to be dramatic falling down and the whole body jerking,” said Dr Andre Mochan, a specialist neurologist working at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
Mochan said there are no obvious causes of the condition, although some patients have suffered a brain tumour or an injury to the head. “Most of the epileptic patients actually do not have an obvious cause. Obviously, there is something wrong with the brain because it comes from the brain â€¦ because a seizure or fit is basically an abnormal discharge of nerve cells in the brain that produces that clinical manifestation of a fit,” he said.
Children are most prone to epilepsy. “They can be born with it [but] it can manifest in childhood or in adulthood. It can occur pretty much at any age but, most commonly, the classic form of epilepsy where there is no obvious cause occurs in childhood. Many children then grow out of it and are not bothered by it later on, but some do persist into adulthood as epileptics,” said Mochan.
The condition is controllable with medication. “More than 70% of patients with epilepsy can be well controlled on medication. But there is a smaller percentage that is difficult to control and, despite taking multiple medications in combination, they still continue to have these attacks and fits,” he said.
Mochan said many people with epilepsy can feel a seizure coming on but he advises them to stay away from potentially dangerous environments such as sitting next to an open fire or driving a car. “It’s a good thing in many patients before having an attack â€¦ they get some kind of a warning symptom. Some of them get a funny taste in the mouth, a strange feeling in the stomach rising up â€¦
We call that aura. When a patient has that, it’s a good thing, because then a patient knows he’s going to have a seizure. At that point, a patient should remove himself from any dangerous environment and, maybe, sit down and lie down somewhere for the seizure to then take place,” he said.
This article was originally published by health-e on www.health-e.org.za