Story 26 (September 2002)
After the toxicity scare, we no longer had confidence in neurologist #1. The doctor’s responses to our questions seemed short and unfocused. The drug and dose changes that she recommended seemed random. Our chart of drug changes was full of changes in dosages and seizures.
We asked for a second opinion. This first neurologist sent a letter of introduction for Rose to another neurologist in a different city. The letter described Rose’s condition and drug trials and requested a second look at Rose’s possible treatments for the future. I bet neurologist #1 was happy to pass hot-potato Rose off for some re-enforcements. I appreciated that a second specialist was going to have input into Rose’s care.
Our first visit with neurologist #2 took hours. He was very thorough and reassuring. He wanted to nail down the type and source of these seizures. He felt that Rose had been prescribed too many drugs on too small doses to rule them out as an effective treatment. He wanted Rose in an Epilepsy Monitoring Unit(EMU) to get a video-EEG. He said he felt we had been yawing around the pond of treatment choices.
This was a relief for us. We felt the same way. I was like Rose had been part of a badly designed experiment with too many variables. We were now going to get some hard data we could use to get better results. We finally felt hopeful.
We felt like this doctor heard what we were saying and understood what we were feeling. We didn’t just want to try something new. We wanted what we did next to be the right choice, not just a random change. We needed all the cards to be put on the table. It was time. Rose needed to learn and grow, not fall and fail.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
No one doctor knows everything. Each has his/her own training and experiences. It is always good to get a second opinion. Do not be afraid to ask for one. It may be just what you need to get a better result. Your current, struggling physician may appreciate your nicely worded, respectful request.
Do not, however, bounce from one specialist to the next in hopes of finding a quick fix. Patience is needed when trying out drugs and doctors. Do not secretly sneak around because each physician needs to see all your child’s records to make informed decisions and avoid repeating failed treatments.
I would also advise getting a second opinion for any surgical procedure. Even though installing a VNS(vagus nerve stimulator) may be a simple procedure, the device is permanent. You are making decisions for your child. Do it carefully and wisely. Get as much input as is reasonable.
Story 24: June 2002
Of course epilepsy came on vacation with us. Rose had three seizures during our week at the beach. Two occurred while she was swimming in the pool. She always wore a life jacket in the water and someone stayed an arm’s-length away. I knew it was risky to let her swim, but she loved it so much. We live on a lake so our family and friends swam a lot. We could not forbid Rose from participating in something we all enjoyed together. If she seized in the water, we just held her until the seizure ended and carried her out to a lawn chair to sleep afterward. We suspected extreme temperature changes triggered seizures, and so we tried to avoid the water in the mornings when it was cooler. We also covered Rose with a towel when she got out so she would not get chilled.
Rose also loved the ocean,but swimming with her among the waves made me a complete wreck. I was afraid we would both go under if she seized in the ocean. She was content to go in for only a few minutes and then play in the tidal pools with her shovel searching for little fish and shells, and building sand sculptures.
One day Rose and I had just walked down onto the beach and picked our spot on the edge of a tidal pool. I set down our bags and towels just as Rose fell face first into the sand. I placed her on her side to seize, as I tried to wipe off some of the sand that stuck to her face. A nice lady nearby offered me a bottle of water to wash her off. The seizure soon ended, but Rose was covered in wet, sticky sand. I swaddled her in a towel and sat close beside her to wait out the thirty minutes or so it would take before she woke up. My family could see us from the porch of the condominium, so I knew help would arrive when someone spotted Rose lying still under a towel.
While I was sitting quietly beside Rose, two boys about her age walked by. They were carrying a surfboard, table-fashion, covered with an assortment of shells and seaweed. They both glanced at Rose as they passed, but soon put down their board and walked back to me. They asked what was wrong with Rose. I explained that she had had a seizure but would be fine when she woke up. I asked about the treasures they were carrying on their board. I shared that Rose would have loved to see their haul from the sea if she were awake. They walked back to their board and one returned carrying a giant pin shell. “Give her that when she wakes up” he said. We still have this treasure.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
There will be many children who do not understand seizures Some children will be afraid of your child after seeing him/her seize. There will be a stigma. It will be harmful and painful.
There will also be children with great kindness, who will be protective of your fragile child. They will be loyal friends. Relish the memories of the kind kids. They are the angels of this broken world.
Story # 23 (August 2002)
Rose’s latest drug combination became a recipe for disaster. Now she was constantly dizzy and nauseated. She was limp and barely moving or responding. She was silent. She was being poisoned.
We put her on the couch so we could all keep an eye on her. At this time, she was on three drugs,one of which was an extended release form. One drug must have amplified the affects of the other two. Her nausea and vomiting soon turned to dry heaves and bile. Her seizures were clustering. We knew she was in danger.
We called the on-call neurologist at about 11PM. The doctor’s foreign accent made our conversation difficult. My husband and I were both on the line listening. We thought the doctor said to use the emergency drug if Rose had another seizure and then take her to the Emergency Room if she had another seizure after that. Was that really what the doctor said? Two more seizures and then the ER?
The next morning Rose was very pale, weak and, listless. She barely moved. We tried desperately to get her to eat and drink each time she woke up. She was fading before our eyes. I called the doctor’s office as soon as it opened to report Rose’s condition. I cried as I explained that she seemed poisoned by these three anti-convulsant drugs.
The wise nurse calmly told us to get a timer. She said to set it for twenty minutes. Every time it went off, we were to wake Rose up and make her sit up, and sip some water. We set and re-set the timer all day long. For hours we watched her and waited for the timer’s bell to ring, over and over.
Hours later she began to improve. The poison was being diluted. Rose was re-hydrating. The color came back in her face. She was safe. No trip to the Emergency Room required.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
We kept gel in the refrigerator to put on Rose’s arm for nausea. There were several times when her vomiting led to seizures because she had thrown up her medication. We began sifting through her vomit if it occurred soon after a dose of medications. I know this seems gross, but you need to know whether a dose needs to be replaced or not. Doubling a dose may be worse than missing a dose. You need to be sure which to do.
This particular situation was the exact opposite of seizing due to lack of medications. Rose was sick and seizing before ever throwing up. Her dosages were too high. The combination was too much. She was listless and unresponsive. I still distinctly remember this because I was so afraid.
Know your child’s dosages and drugs. If you go to the Emergency Room, drawing blood and checking drug levels may be an important piece of information for the doctors involved in the treatment.
We wrote down all dosages on a calendar and used a pill organizer. There was no guessing about the medications that were taken. We also recorded how the dosages affected her. This information was used to convince the neurologist that she needed a different drug or combo. Do not count on your memory. Write it down.
Story #22 (Most of 2002)
The drug roulette regimen made everything worse. Rose was not herself before a seizure nor after a seizure. She was lethargic, floppy, and dopey. She moved from her bed, to a chair, to another chair, and back to her bed. The seizures came with us wherever we went. She seized in restaurants, at birthday parties, at Brownies, in the yard, watching television, in a big box store while shopping for a helmet, at a family reunion, in a funeral home and even in swimming pools.
We took a plastic Adirondak chair with us on outings. The chair reclined slightly, so she could seize in it without falling out. For us every party was BYOC(bring your own chair), and of course the seizure bag went with us everywhere. We evaluated the risks of each outing. Should we go eat at this restaurant? No, it would be too hard to carry her out through the gift shop. She we go to a ballgame? No, seizures in bleachers are too dangerous. Should we go? No. Eventually, we stayed home waiting for the next seizure. I really wanted to buy a little wheelchair, so we could go places, but was advised against it by other family members. “Rose would look handicapped and feel handicapped.” Yes, but she would be safe.
We walked everywhere linked arm in arm with her. A fall could come at any second. We went up and down our stairs as a unit so she would not fall. We called this method ‘stair pairs.’ To go down Rose would put her left hand on the person in front’s shoulder and her right hand on the handrail. The front person would put their left hand on hers and also hold the rail with their right hand. Going up would be reversed with her escort behind her. Rose would announce when she wanted to go up or down and someone would stop what they were doing and escort her. We made it a point to not say no to her requests to use the stairs. There was so much she could not do at this point; at least she could be free to move about in her own house.
When no one was in a room with Rose, her father, brother or I would whistle two notes and she knew to echo the two notes back. We whistled instead of calling her name so she knew we were just checking on her instead of needing her to come to us. We whistled to her about every three minutes. It got to be so much of a habit that I would catch myself whistling notes when Rose was not with me. She slept with me during these terrible months. Sometimes she would whistle in her sleep.
We referred to this technique as “echo whistling.” If she did not repeat our two notes we would call her name. If she did not answer, we would rush to find her. Sometimes she was just too busy to answer, but a few times we would find her unconscious, leaving me feeling feel guilty about leaving her alone. Negligent for three minutes. Shame on Seizure Mama!
Take a chair, echo whistling, stair pairs. This is how we kept her safe as the seizures took over our lives.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
You need to devise methods like ‘echo whistling’ and ‘stair pairs’ as part of your everyday routine to keep your child safe. We used two notes for ‘echo whistling’ because Rose had complex partial epilepsy and could do repetitive automations, even at the onset of a seizure. She could probably whistle during these periods, but could not echo the two notes from someone else.
I want to make sure that folks who find us know that these events are NOT in real-time.
Our book is to give others hope NOT make them sad.
From now on, I will include a month and year with each story.
Rose is doing GREAT at the university and has decided to triple major.
We are pleased and proud of her.
Story # 21: The Painful Appointment (May, 2002)
We had felt good about the first neurologist in the beginning. The doctor was observant and thoughtful. We had previously left each of our appointments with several written plans of action in case the first option did not bring the results we hoped for. If plan ‘A’ did not work, we also had plans ‘B’ and ‘C’ if needed. Now we felt like Rose was part of a chaotic experiment without planned strategies or goals.
Rose had a long and strong seizure the day before this appointment. She slept on the way to the doctor’s office and wouldn’t hold her head up during the visit. The doctor seemed not to notice Rose’s lethargic condition. Instead I was scolded for the numerous calls I had made to the nurses. The doctor mentioned wanting another EEG(electroencephalogram) and mentioned the possibility of VNS(vagus nerve stimulator) placement.
We were taken aback by these suggestions. We thought we had come for a much needed plan for our next trials with different medications. Instead it seemed that we were at the end of the medication regimen and headed for surgery. Our instructions were to stay on drugs 3S, 4L and 5Z. Stay on these three drugs? What we were doing was not working. Why were we not doing something different?
Here was our nine year old daughter slumped down in a chair, pale and unresponsive and we were supposed to continue on with these same drugs and dosages. We left the appointment and went downstairs in the building to eat lunch at one of Rose’s favorite restaurants. Rose’s hand was so shaky that she couldn’t use a fork. I had to feed her the slaw. I was feeding my nine-year-old because she could not feed herself, but there would be no change in her treatment? This was unacceptable and infuriating.
We all went back upstairs to the doctor’s reception area. I was so shaken that I could barely speak as I explained to the receptionist why we were back. We had to wait until all the other families finished their appointments before the lunch break. It was interesting watching the other struggling families while we waited. The parents were anxious while the children were bored and restless. One father was irate and loud about a mistake that was made by the receptionist.
Finally we got to speak with the doctor again, and before we left we had a new plan. I had the doctor write it down. I still have the paper. Rose was to go down on 4L, off of drug 3S go up on drug 5Z and add a new drug 6K. Was this a plan or a punishment? This was like playing a game of roulette using strong drugs on a young child. Was this new plan better than no change? It gets worse from here.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
You must be politely proactive. Although different dosages and a new drug made things worse in this circumstance, sticking with the same regimen would have prolonged the process of finding the right combination. Months later we concluded that 4L was the drug from hell. We never found the therapeutic dose. The effective window was so small that we shot past it and Rose eventually went toxic on this drug combination.
Keep good records and write down everything. Things got so bad that I couldn’t think straight. I was a wreck during these months. We felt damned. Maybe you know how that feels. God help us all.
Story # 20:
Things fell apart. Drug 4L had been added to drug 3S after the seizures during the holidays. At first drug 4L made Rose mean. Getting her schoolwork done was a battle. Either she would not or could not concentrate. Were these changes due to the new drug, the new homebound situation, or the seizures? Her ear infections continued, so antibiotics were frequently in the mix.
We kept records of all her drug dosages and combinations, along with seizure descriptions on a chart. We couldn’t keep all of it straight unless we wrote it down. The months were a blur of seizures, side effects and sickness. I read books about epilepsy and researched epilepsy drugs and treatments. It was all so confusing. How could we help our Rose if we did not understand this disorder and the effects of its medications? I felt helpless and hopeless. Rose was changing as her drugs changed.
Appointments with the neurologist became very frustrating. The partner of the practice had left, so our doctor was handling a double load of patients. We used to feel like there was a set plan for Rose’s treatment; now it seemed like one long experiment. The doses for drug 4L kept increasing and we saw nothing but side effects. Her seizures became longer and stronger. We must have missed the window of effectiveness for drug 4L. Finally it was dropped and drug 5Z was added to her doses of 3S. Experimenting with the wrong drugs and dosages went on for months. Every few days, Rose would have a long, strong seizure. She would spend a day or two recovering before another seizure knocked her back down. I did not leave her anymore. I was too scared.
Sometimes on the weekends when Rose’s dad was home, Rose’s brother would ride the trails through the woods around our house. I would go with him carrying my camera and a walkie talkie. If a seizure occurred, her dad could call me to come back. I would hike through the woods and allow myself to cry. This was the only time I would leave the house. I walked the paths in our woods relieved to be out of our sad house where the walls kept closing in.
I never let Rose see me cry. We did not want her to see us saddened or scared. We were losing her. Her essence was disappearing. She was a groggy, foggy, tired mess. The drugs were not helping anything. The seizures were wearing her down and the drugs were ruining the time in between them.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
I am ashamed to look at the records from these terrible months. Why did we not get a second opinion sooner? Why did we not demand to go to an EMU? The awful reason was that we thought going to the EMU was a big step toward surgery. I had read about the different surgeries that were used to stop seizures. I wanted to give every drug a full chance to work. When I look back at her charts of medication combinations now, I am horrified.
Drug changes were being made frequently and almost in a random fashion. I think the neurologist was on overload and was pushed to try things because of my constant calls and letters. She was seemingly experimenting with various possible remedies.
It took the terrible scare of Rose going toxic for us to decide that enough was enough and seek a second opinion from a different neurologist in a different city. That was a turning point for us. Don’t wait that long.
Rose was busy playing in our workshop, which has a concrete floor. Her dad and I were both busy with our own art and construction projects. Rose was making something of her own while standing at my workbench. She suddenly seized and fell to the floor between the workbench and the sink. Thankfully there was a large, but dirty, rug under her on the floor.
The first dose of her emergency medication did not stop the seizure. We waited a few minutes and then used the second syringe. Finally the convulsions stopped and she lay still on the floor. Our relief was short-lived. We realized that we now had no more emergency medication and it was a Friday afternoon.
I called our friend at the pharmacy and explained why we needed more of Rose’s emergency medication as soon as possible. Unfortunately,this particular drug was not kept in stock because it was very expensive and had a short lifespan. It also had to be protected from temperature extremes. The pharmacist explained that the drug would have to be ordered and then delivered, which would take time.
He knew, just as we knew, that we may not have that kind of time. We could be in the middle of a status situation with nothing to save Rose. The pharmacist was thinking out loud when he offered that maybe he had some of a “dead girl’s medicine” at the other pharmacy. A dead girl’s medicine? We needed a dead girl’s medicine to save Rose. I was so stunned that I hung up the phone before I started crying.
We knew that Rose’s emergency bag with more medication was in the principal’s office. It was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, but maybe someone would answer the phone. When I called the school’s office, the assistant principal answered. She and the guidance counselor were there wrapping Christmas gifts for needy children and their families in the community. We told her what we needed and that one of us would immediately come and get the big red bag. She offered to deliver the bag to us, so that we both could stay with Rose.
Here was one good person taking her time to do something helpful. What a blessing. We could relax. The drugs were on their way. Rose would be safe now. What a gift that was.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
Saved by the bag again. I cannot stress this enough. You must always be prepared for a seizure. It is the only way your family can carry on responsibly and safely. You have no choice about where the seizures occur, but you can make the choice to always be prepared.
I want to add here that SUDEP or death by seizure will always be in the back of your mind if your child has the tonic clonic/grand mal type of seizures. Hearing the pharmacist offer a dead girl’s medicine, first sent my mind to her poor family and then to the possibility of Rose’s death. No one wants to have these thoughts. There is no point in dwelling on such sadness.
Yes, living with epilepsy is like living with a terrorist or a time bomb. But none of us knows what will happen in the future. Your life is now, with this precious child of yours, so live it now. I call it “nower.” It means the power of now. That’s all anyone has. Live now. Whatever will be, will be.