DISABILITIES

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By Daniel J. Vance

Concert violinist Martha Curtis of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was featured on CBS's 60 Minutes due to her extraordinary fight with epilepsy.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website, epilepsy “is a brain disorder in which clusters of nerve cells or neurons in the brain sometimes signal abnormally,” thus disrupting normal neuronal activity and causing strange emotions, sensations, and behavior, and sometimes convulsions, loss of consciousness and muscle spasms.

“I had my first seizure at age three,” said Curtis, 49, in a telephone interview. “It started with status epilepticus, the state in which people often die in. It was one grand mal seizure after another.”

Hers also was intractable epilepsy, meaning the seizures of varying intensity couldn't be fully controlled by medication. So she grew up with epilepsy affecting her daily. The seizures disqualified her from having a driver's license.

What kept her moving forward was music. “I began playing piano before switching to violin at ten,” she said. “Playing violin 'saved' my life. Straight from a seizure, I could put my violin on my collarbone and my hands would know what to do. That put me into the passion and beauty of Beethoven, for instance. I could go from having a chaotic brain right into leaning on someone else's beauty. I knew things were all right when I could play again.”

In time, she graduated with honors from Eastman School of Music. She would play regularly in four orchestras, occasionally having seizures of lesser intensity on stage, in which her lips smacked, left hand and shoulders froze, and she become glassy-eyed.

“I'd be sitting first or second stand, leading the second violin section,” she said. “I taught my stand partner to get my violin and bow out of my hands and onto the floor (during a seizure), so I wouldn't harm the music. If she didn't, I'd play garbage. My left hand would freeze and my right hand kept moving.”

Then in one concert she had a grand mal seizure, yet somehow got off stage. It would happen in three more concerts. “When that began, I knew no one would pay me to have grand mal seizures,” she said, meaning having continual seizures in concert would end her professional career.

In 1990, she checked into Cleveland Clinic. What happened next could be described only as miraculous.

So read what happened next column.

For more, see danieljvance.com. [This column made possible by a grant from Blue Valley Sod, www.bluevalleysod.com]