Patient Stories

Living With Epilepsy

Jan. 20, 2020

Imagine driving your car when suddenly it is no longer under your control—you know what the vehicle should be doing, but it does not respond.

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes seizures through electrical and chemical disturbances in the brain. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, three million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the disorder, making it the fourth most common neurological illness in the nation.

With the disorder difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat, people with epilepsy often experience increased anxiety and depression as a result of the uncertainty added to their everyday lives. Helping those who face epilepsy is precisely why Mark Callow, MD, chose to become an epileptologist.

“I started having seizures as a freshman in high school,” said Mark Callow, MD, UC Health neurologist at West Chester Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute.

“It was hard being age 14, going through puberty and also experiencing seizures. My epilepsy diagnosis led me to this career: I know what it’s like to be sitting on the other side of the exam room.”

Dr. Callow has been seizure-free for more than 10 years. He says his specific type of epilepsy is genetic, and he takes two medications every day as treatment.

People can develop epilepsy from anything that structurally damages the brain, such as events that result in brain trauma (i.e. car accidents), a stroke or a brain tumor.

UC Health offers specialized technology to both diagnose and treat patients with all forms of epilepsy. UC Health is the only adult health system in the region to offer inpatient epilepsy monitoring.

Upon arrival at the West Chester Hospital Epilepsy Monitoring Unit, patients are first examined by a physician subspecialist (Dr. Callow, for instance). A technologist then prepares the patient for an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that evaluates electrical activity in the brain by monitoring the synapses firing between brain cells.

The equipment tracks the patient’s brain waves in real time. Awake or asleep, the brain is always active—during a seizure, a surge of electricity is blasted through the network of neurons in the brain, and that episode is recorded on the EEG.

Doctors identify the specific types of electrical surges, what they mean and where they’re occurring in the brain.

“A patient could stay up to five days in the unit for monitoring, usually if they have a history of losing consciousness with no indication of why it’s happening,” said Dr. Callow. “Once we narrow down exactly where the issue is, we can treat the patient accordingly.”

Medication is the first line of treatment to limit the amount and duration of a patient’s seizures. However, one-third of epileptic patients don’t respond to medications and may require surgical treatment.

Medication is the first line of treatment to limit the amount and duration of a patient’s seizures. However, one-third of epileptic patients have intractable epilepsy—a disorder in which seizures are not relieved by treatments such as medication—also known as “uncontrolled,” “refractory,” or “drug resistant” epilepsy. These patients may be candidates for transformative technology, or dual device stimulators. Similar to pacemakers, which treat heart conditions, three types of devices may be used to stimulate the brain:

• Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS)

• Deep Brain Stimulator (DBS)

• Responsive Neuro-Stimulator (RNS)

DBS and RNS devices are implanted into the brain where they operate independently. VNS is implanted into the neck, where it delivers electrical impulses to the vagus nerve. Patients with VNS are given a wristband, and when they feel a seizure coming on, they can turbo-activate the VNS via the wristband, sending an extra surge of electricity to instantly stop the seizure in its tracks.

Uncontrolled epileptic seizures can take over patients’ lives, making it impossible to perform normal activities like going to school or work or driving a car. The Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at West Chester Hospital provides life-improving treatments for epileptic patients in the community.

If you suffer with epilepsy, seek treatment and remember that you are not alone.

“I think it’s important to share my personal story with patients,” said Dr. Callow. “Now I have a career, I’m married and have children”.