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Most people with epilepsy can lead normal lives

Randy Sorgenfrei maintains buildings and grounds for Hall County, likes to hunt pheasants and watch football. He also has epilepsy.

But today he lives a normal life, going to work and wherever he wants.

“I’m capable of doing anything I want,” Sorgenfrei said. “I’m living a regular, normal life. I have no concerns about any problems (with epilepsy).”

November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month. Dr. Richard Andrews, a neurologist who specializes in epilepsy and sleep disorders, said part of the goal of the event is to increase awareness of people who are normal, but who just happen to have seizures.

“The vast majority of people who have seizures do very well and are perfectly capable of doing almost anything with certain restrictions,” Andrews said, adding that it is only about 20 percent of people with epilepsy who have extensive problems, usually because there is something else wrong with that person’s brain.

Epilepsy is defined as a neurological condition that from time to time produces brief disturbances in the normal electrical functions of the brain.

Normal brain function is made possible by millions of tiny electrical charges passing between nerve cells in the brain and to all parts of the body. When someone has epilepsy, this normal pattern may be interrupted by intermittent bursts of electrical energy that are much more intense than usual. That may affect a person’s consciousness, bodily movements or sensations for a short time.

In 1989, Andrews opened an epilepsy clinic in Omaha. He sees patients at the Grand Island Clinic two days a week.

Sorgenfrei has had epilepsy since he was 12 and at one point was having up to four seizures a month. He had surgery on his brain in July 2001 and since then his seizure episodes are few and far between. It has been about three months since his last seizure.

“It has made a big difference in my way of living,” he said of his life since his surgery.

He said he does make sure that his co-workers at the Hall County Parks Department, where he has worked for 24 years, know what to do if he has a seizure.

“I’ve explained my situation so they would understand, if something would ever happen, what it is,” Sorgenfrei said.

Andrews said there is not much an observer needs to do when they see someone having a seizure as long as the person is away from anything that can hurt them.

“The best thing you can do is sit on your hands,” he said with a smile, adding you shouldn’t try to hold the person down or try to stop his or her movements. Don’t put anything in their mouth, including your fingers. “It’s not true that they can swallow their tongue.”

The only thing recommended is to either gently cradle the person’s head or put something such as a folded jacket under the head so it doesn’t hit the ground hard. Andrews said the observer doesn’t even need to call an ambulance unless the person having a seizure has been injured or the seizure has gone on for 10 minutes.

However, Andrews said it is important to actually time a seizure to determine if it has gone on too long because watching a person have a seizure is hard and a four-minute seizure can seem like 10 times that long, especially for someone who is unfamiliar with them.

Many times it may not be known what initially causes seizures, but Andrews said the most common reason is simply in the way the brain was formed before the person was born.

Sometimes, however, a seizure in a person who has not had epilepsy in the past can be caused by a rapidly climbing fever, an injury to the brain such as a stroke, a brain infection, or, the least common, a brain tumor.

Seizures are a symptom of epilepsy, but having a single seizure does not necessarily mean a person has epilepsy. About 18 to 20 percent of the population have had a seizure at one time, while only about 2 to 4 percent of people in the United States have epilepsy.

Andrews said controlling epilepsy is very individualized. Each person can respond to a medication or surgery differently.

“It’s like a fingerprint,” he said, indicating that no two cases are alike.

That is why Andrews said the most important thing for an epilepsy patient to do is not give up on finding the right treatment.

“They must be absolutely stubbornly persistent,” he said. “Too many people give up too soon.”

Andrews said the goal of a treatment, whether medication, surgery or even a new device that works similar to a heart pacemaker but for the brain, should be no seizures, not just one or two a month or even one or two a year.

Another important consideration for treatment is whether there are adverse side effects.

“Newer medications are not necessarily more effective, but they have fewer adverse side effects,” he said, adding that there are several new medications for epilepsy recently approved.

He also noted that a newly prescribed medication has to be given time to work and that could mean trying it for six weeks to three months.

“Unfortunately with epilepsy, bad things happen overnight and good things happen over time,” Andrews said.

He said the biggest restriction usually placed on those who have active seizures is their ability to drive, and that sometimes does affect their life because it makes them rely on someone else to get to work and to go out socially.

Sorgenfrei said that was a big deal as he got his driver’s license after his surgery 10 years ago reduced his episodes.

“It was like I was 16 again,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t have to rely on others to get me places.”

By Amy Schweitzer TheIndependant.com

Epilepsy Quiz

How well do you understand epilepsy and what to do if you see someone having a seizure? The answers are at the bottom of the quiz.

1. What is epilepsy?

a) Head injury

b) Stroke

c) Mental Illness

d) Recurring Seizures

2. What is a seizure?

a) Your heart stopping

b) Abnormal electrical discharges in the brain

c) Involuntary movement and convulsing

d) Falling on the ground

3. When a person is having a seizure, you should put this in their mouth:

a) Spoon

b) Tongue depressor

c) Finger

d) You should never put something in the mouth of a person having a seizure

4. Epilepsy can be treated with:

a) Diet

b) Medication

c) Surgery

d) All of the above

5. What is a sign or symptom of a seizure?

a) Jerking and convulsing

b) Staring

c) Picking at clothes

d) All of the above

6. What should you do if you see someone having a seizure?

a) Shake the person

b) Give them liquids or medication

c) Gently direct the person away from hazards and remove sharp objects that may present danger

d) Put something in their mouth

ANSWERS: 1. d 2. b 3. d 4. d 5. d 6. c

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