Laughing, my darling Linda twirls the jump rope for her nieces and nephews. Her father’s roses unfold in the slanting sunlight, and the children frolic in the front yard grass.

Stepping back, Linda trips. She strikes her head on the bricks lining the flowerbed and then goes briefly out. The children run screaming for their grandparents in the house. Linda wakes up and seems fine except for a headache; she does not go to the hospital. The staring spells begin a few months later. Linda’s MRI scan does not show any abnormalities and her EEG is negative. My colleague tries to convince her that the spells are psychological, but I feel differently and start her on seizure medication. Her staring spells stop. Soon she trusts no other neurologist, but me, her husband.

Later, the spells become drop attacks. Without warning, Linda drops limply to the floor and awakens confused. My son, Michael, watches as his stepmother goes down in the kitchen. Awakening, Linda does not recognize him or me. She regards us gravely but does not talk. Her confusion worries Michael more than her limp fall to the ground, but he watches me sit with her. He sits with her, too, and comforts her until she recognizes us and can speak. He learns to stay calm. Years later this will help him when his grandmother, alone with her grandchildren, has a massive heart attack; he will dial 911 himself, comfort her, and give a complete history to the paramedics when they arrive.

When seizures happen, we both feel helpless. The drop attacks come with no warning. Even a walk to the kitchen is dangerous. Seeing Linda’s bruised face fills me with anger and guilt.

During the medical evaluation of Linda’s drop attacks, a cardiologist rules out cardiac arrhythmia but reports her anyway to the Department of Motor Vehicles, in accordance with state law. I go to the Motor Vehicles hearing with Linda. As a physician, I have been sending patients to these hearings for years. I know that most of the hearings officers are reasonable people, but the impending bureaucratic ritual gnaws at our confidence. Maybe she’ll get the one officer who just started last week or the one who hates doctors’ wives. As it turns out, her hearing officer proves receptive to the logic of Linda’s story and doesn’t take away her driver’s license. We can relax.

But not completely. Linda drives. She can stay up late, but not too late; she can have only one or two drinks, but not more. Different seizure medications give her different side effects. One makes her tired; others make her dizzy and edgy. Every antibiotic, every late night, every big party has to be reviewed for its possible affect on her seizures.

How have these experiences changed my approach to doctoring? Even before Linda’s spells, I cautiously considered the diagnosis of hysteria and believed that I was keenly aware of the importance of medication side effects and the significance of not being able to drive.

But the biggest impact of Linda’s seizures on me as a physician has been to increase my awareness of the helplessness and anger that spouses and other family members feel about the illness itself. Now, when a patient’s husband or wife comes screaming into the exam room wanting to know why someone didn’t fix his or her spouse’s seizures (or headaches or back pain or tumor) yesterday, I can choke down my own rising anger and empathize with the enraged person. Nine times out of ten we can succeed in forging an effective partnership to fight the real enemy- the crackling, uncontrolled electricity in the brain that underlies seizures.

As a family member, I am still learning the same lessons over and over again: We are fragile beings made of seawater clinging to a skeleton of chalk. Tidal rhythms still tug us at the cellular level, and no more than a heartbeat separates us from the morgue. Each day we live is a treasure, and each day lived with the people we love is a treasure beyond price.


The Brainstorms Healer: Epilepsy In Our Experience edited by Steven C. Schachter, M.D. and A. James Rowan, M.D., Raven Press, 1998, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

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