By Daniel J. Vance
In a recent column I featured 49-year-old Martha Curtis of Pittsburgh and her extraordinary battle with epilepsy.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website describes this brain disorder as a cluster of nerve cells signaling abnormally, which disrupts normal neuronal activity and causes strange emotions, sensations, emotions and behavior, and sometimes convulsions, loss of consciousness and muscle spasms. More than two million Americans have some form of epilepsy.
Curtis coped with it best she could by falling in love with music, graduating with honors from the heralded Eastman School of Music, and eventually performing as a violinist in orchestras.
Yet growing up she had daily bouts with epilepsy of varying intensity. Her seizures even disqualified her for a driver's license.
In 1990, she hit rock bottom after experiencing grand mal seizures in three separate performances. With her professional career hanging in the balance, she checked into the Cleveland Clinic for a solution.
“Doctors first put me into a monitoring unit,” Curtis said in a telephone interview. “They implanted dozens of electrodes, two in my jaw, plugged me into a computer and trained a camera on me.”
An epileptologist learned her brain was misfiring behind the right temporal lobe, which usually is good news, said Curtis, because surgeons more easily can remove that part of the brain to end the seizures.
“But they had never done this operation on a professional musician,” she said, implying that her professional skills could have been compromised. “So they went conservatively that first operation.”
After further tests, and more seizures, the brain surgeon went in again, this time to remove Curtis's hippocampus and part of her amygdala.
“After the second operation they couldn't understand why I was still seizing,” she said. “They believed what was left of the amygdala was causing it. It's an almond-shaped piece of the brain that's the hotbed of emotions.” After two more operations, and with strong medication, Curtis has been seizure-free since 1995.
And she has powerful advice, saying, “Some people with epilepsy are sitting on couches, afraid of going out and seizing in front of people. Figure out what you love and go do it. If a seizure happens, that's all right. When you come to, you will have something you love.”
She strongly recommended that people with epilepsy see an epileptologist, which is a neurologist specializing in epilepsy.
For more, see danieljvance.com [This column made possible by a grant from Blue Valley Sod, www.bluevalleysod.com]