The next thing you know, you wake up, lying on the sidewalk.
You look over and see your bike in the right lane of traffic. A man who saw what happened pulls over to make sure everything is OK. You are scraped up but manage to hop back on the bike and ride away.
It was just another tonic-clonic seizure.
Scratch “normal,” because any day in the life of 37-year-old Haley Ritter is anything but. She has dealt with epilepsy her whole life. Every day she has to carefully choose how her time, energy and resources are used.
Living with this condition has not stopped Ritter from making a conscious decision to live with purpose and incorporate her passions into everyday life.
Seven years ago, Ritter started attending every city of Phoenix Bicycle Initiative Subcommittee meeting, a subcommittee of the Environmental Quality Commission, she could ride her bike to. Her commitment to bringing new ideas to the table has led her to frequently attend Phoenix City Council meetings and to be involved in the Indian School Road overlay project. She proposed that the city take out one lane of eight to create two-way bike lanes. And they did.
City of Phoenix bicycle coordinator Joseph Perez said the area of the Indian School Road overlay project had been “identified as a hot spot for bicycle collisions.”
“(With improved street conditions) we are hoping over the next four to five years that we will see a reduction in the amount of bicycle collisions,” he said.
Ritter’s father said she is becoming a bit of a political figure with all of her involvement in the bicycle initiatives, and for that, he is extremely proud.
And although critics may say Ritter is outspoken, that she talks too much and perhaps asks the right questions but not at the right time, Ritter has decided she is not going to stay quiet.
“It certainly helps that she is there,” Perez said. “When residents come out and ask the city for things it lets the city know that people do care and people do want to see infrastructure built for walking and bicycling.”
Ritter’s passions sprouted from her observations as a young girl.
She walked four blocks to school every day in suburban Chicago and every day along her route, a cyclist would zoom past her. She would wave to him, in awe as he rode his bicycle every single day even in rain, sleet, snow or hail.
Around this time, nonverbal communication in her family such as body language and expressions became profound to her, so she started teaching herself how to use American Sign Language.
“Haley would come home practicing sign language and I would ask, ‘Haley, where did you learn that?’” her father, Tom Ritter, said. “And she would say, ‘Well I read something at school and it sounds really neat,’ and that’s how she eventually became an American Sign Language interpreter.”
Along with her activism in the community, Ritter does freelance ASL interpreting and ASL interpreting for choirs around the Valley. Her full-time job is working at a state school for the deaf and the blind, but she is looking for a different career path because her epilepsy is catching up with her. A traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job when Ritter has to ride her bike to and from work every day might not be the ideal situation anymore.
Ritter had been active as a child — she was a swimmer and a musician and did well in school. She remembers being in the doctor’s office when she was diagnosed with epilepsy at 12 years old. In that moment she thought, “Oh my god, I’m special.”
Once she was put on anti-convulsion medication, her abilities started to go downhill.
“The pills made me like a wet noodle as far as my brain was concerned,” Ritter said.
After high school, she got her first job as a seamstress and danced for three years, paying her own way at ASU.
“I wanted to prove to my parents I could do it myself,” Ritter said.
Ritter was making it all by herself and she was stress-free. A year and a half went by with no seizures. But after a painful breakup in her mid-twenties, she was under a lot of emotional stress and started having two to three seizures a day. She needed an operation.
Ritter was admitted to Mayo Clinic in November 2003 and had three major procedures. In the first, eight depth probe electrodes were implanted into her brain to record the seizure activity. One of the eight probes near her brain’s right frontal lobe ruptured the main artery that goes all the way to the heart. She had a blood aneurysm and nearly died. The second procedure was an emergency vacuum of the blood and spinal fluid in her brain. In the third surgery, they removed her right temporal lobe and her right hippocampus.
These major surgeries took a toll on her cognition, and she said she lost her sense of judgment. She had to retrain herself “to be a social being and remember what was appropriate and not appropriate.”
“Every time I have an epileptic seizure, my relationship with the world around me is erased, and I have to reposition myself in my own shoes,” Ritter said.
Anyone who knows her can tell when she has had a major seizure because for the next three or four days she has pale skin and is “completely out of it.”
In May 2012, Ritter had surgery on a brain tumor discovered in 2010, but the brain tumor is still there because it is too dangerous to remove.
Now she does not take medication to control her seizures. Ritter endures massive seizures two to three times a month, which she says are based on her hormones. She has recognized patterns and things that will trigger her seizures like sounds, emotions and nostalgia.
The seizures occur during her sleep, unless she is overly exhausted, like the one she recently had one on the light rail, when she ended up at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.
Ritter was just happy her bike made it with her.
Despite her condition, Ritter has become the cyclist who inspired her so many years ago. With her focus on ASL interpreting and her passion to make the world a more synchronized, less judgmental and more livable place, she is able to keep peddling.