When Rose started to middle school, Mama went, too. There was an eighth grade science teacher opening which I applied for and got. There was a collective sigh of relief from all of our family and friends. The middle school was too far away from our house. I could not get there fast enough if there was an emergency. The route there was all two lane roads. What if there was a tractor, a train, a wreck…?
So Rose’s mama went to middle school. It was a good thing I did. There were sicknesses and seizures that had to be dealt with. The entire staff knew that Rose’s mama was only an intercom call away. I would hear my name followed by “Get to the gym.” or “Go the nurse’s office.” I would take a deep breath and run toward Rose as someone met me in the hallway heading toward my classroom to watch my students during my absence.
Adjacent to my classroom, I had a storage room for science equipment. We kept a fold-out cot with pillows and blankets in it for Rose to sleep off her seizures after being rolled to my room in the closest available rolling chair. It was a comfort to Rose and me that I could peek through my back door and check on her without missing a beat teaching my students.
This is how we handled her emergencies during those years. We were still searching for the perfect combination of medications. She had some learning issues and hearing issues. Then there were several surgeries. Rose needed support. I was the “mama in residence” again, there to make sure she was taken care of.
On a particularly hectic Friday, I was called over the intercom to the band room. There was a band concert. Rose played the trumpet in it. I ran to the band room to find her unconscious on the tiered floor among scattered chairs and music stands.
(Please pause here to envision this setting. A stair step type floor plan, rows of chairs on each level and tall, black, metal music stands everywhere. Lord, could we not have this seizure somewhere else?)
Two other staff members stayed with us in the band room until Rose woke up. Instead of her normally docile self, she woke up swinging. I could tell she did not know where she was. Sometimes she is blind after a seizure. I kept trying to talk calmly to her, but it was as though she did not recognize my voice. I tried not to panic as several music stands were knocked down, which caused more to fall. There was a domino-effect. More crashed to the floor. It took quite a while to get Rose calmed down. The band students were waiting outside the door. They needed to put their instruments back in their cases. It was time for school to let out. They needed to come in and get ready to go home.
Rose’s dad and brother came to help us. I made a call to the our neurologist. Drug 8K dosages would be increased. No one lost her head. The show must go on.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
I was very fortunate to get to work at Rose’s school. It got us through those years. They were not easy for any of us. I was a trained high school biology teacher with community college experience. I would not have chosen to teach middle school. I loved my students and my peers, but the stress slowly took its toll on my health. I knew this was not going to end well, but I had to make it through seven years.
The high school was right across the road from the middle school. If I did not get a job there when Rose went to high school, I would just remain the sentry across the street, only a phone call away and a quick drive across the road. The drive over would be followed by a panicked run to a designated location. I could endure seven years in eighth grade to save Rose. I could do that. I thought…
So what does this mean to you? There will be many sacrifices made for your fragile child. Do not let your own health be one of them. I lived through my time in middle school, but damage was done. I am better now, but there were times when I was truly terrified for my own well-being. I am very protective of myself now. I have to survive Rose’s seizures, too. Rose needed me whether she liked it or not. We were tethered together by her epilepsy. If one of us went down, we both went down.
Take care of yourself, too. United we stand.
It was past time to put all the cards on the table. We needed answers about where these seizures were coming from, why they were occurring, and what triggers were unleashing them in Rose’s brain. It seemed we had been trying to put together a puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. Would a stay at an EMU finally reveal the whole picture? Could we handle the whole picture when we got it?
Would this epilepsy monitoring unit give us the answers we needed? Would the electrodes finally locate the source of these electrical storms inside Rose’s brain? I felt like these hundreds of seizures were clearing pathways through Rose’s brain, so that the seizures could go farther and faster, like there was some kind of cumulative effect.
I was truly afraid of weaning her off her medications. Would these seizures be allowed to run unhindered through her young brain, or were they doing that all ready? All we knew was we were in the right place to get answers. We had faith in this hospital and its doctors and nurses. That in itself was a great comfort to us, even to Rose. We needed expert help and now we were closer to getting it. Risks or not, this was no life for Rose. She needed fun instead of fear.
The technicians that glued the electrodes to her head treated it like a spa treatment. Rose emerged with a lovely, long ponytail of colorful wires. She felt pleased and pampered. A gauze cap had to be wrapped over her head to keep the electrodes in place when she lay down. No matter, her flowing ponytail was a hit. The other end of the electrodes were hooked to a box in a pack that she wore allowing her mobility.
During our week-long stay, Rose had six seizures. It took four days of weaning down on her medications to get them started. Those last days were scary. Once the data was collected, some medications were returned, but on low dosages. I knew these dosages were too low. I showed one of the doctors our chart which showed that Rose had experienced a long and strong seizure on the same particular mix and dosages that Rose was leaving on. The dosages stayed low so a long seizure followed shortly after we arrived home. Emergency medications were used. A call was made back to the EMU, dosages were then raised.
I am a doctor’s nemesis. I am the mom with the clipboard and pen. Once during our EMU stay, a senior doctor came into Rose’s room with a group of medical students. I rose from my chair as they entered, clipboard and pen in hand. “Oh no!” slipped from the doctor’s lips as he saw me. I stood in the circle with the young doctors as they discussed Rose’s case. Mama and the medical students formed a circle around her bed, all of us trying to learn; they to save the world, me to save my daughter.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
Weaning off medications is a scary necessity in the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit process. Without the medications masking the brain’s electrical activity the electrodes can detect what is happening. In the Phase I process the electrodes are glued to the outside of the skull. These sensors show the brain’s activity as squiggly lines on an EEG. These external electrodes cannot detect activity deep in the brain. This Phase I process lets your team see what is going on in the brain as the patient is doing different activities, including sleeping. Do not be afraid of the electrodes and glue. The glue does wash out eventually. You may need to use an oily substance, like mayonnaise, to remove it.
Do not expect answers right away. The team must meet together and discuss the results before considering the next course of action. This may take weeks. Be patient. Take comfort that more trained professionals are trying to help your child.
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 home bound 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 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 know 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.
There was quite a crowd in Rose’s room at the ER when we arrived. We learned one of our good friends from the school had ridden with her in the ambulance. This was a relief to me because I did not want Rose traumatized by waking up in an ambulance among strangers. Her teacher, Ms. S soon arrived with her usual dramatic flourish. She had us laughing within minutes. Ms. S admonished her little “Turkey Toes” for leaving class early. Another friend who happened to be volunteering as a Rainbow Reader in the classroom next to Rose’s came to check on us. I stepped out in the hallway to cry with her. She knew how hard this had been on our family in the past and understood what this meant to our future.
I took notes about everything that was done on the backs of the forms and envelope from my art show. My notes were a mess by the end, crumpled and tear stained,but I was thankful that we had that paper. Things happened so fast and needed to be written down. When Rose’s dad or I left to go to the restroom, the other took over the note taking. We learned to do this in the beginning. That way her parents and caregivers all stayed on the same page in terms of her treatment.
A male nurse blatantly asked me why this seizure was so upsetting to me. I started to explain that we had hoped that Rose had outgrown her childhood epilepsy. He flatly stated that epilepsy is not something that can be outgrown. A kick while you are down is never a good thing. I will always remember his name and his face.
I know this nurse was puzzled by my extreme sadness when Rose’s medical chart clearly stated she had epilepsy. This is the same hospital where she went had gone status after her tonsillectomy three years earlier. The details were all right there for her doctors and nurses to read. I am sure I was expected to be a seasoned seizure mama by this point. I am not sure there is such a thing.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
What was not in Rose’s charts was how much we wanted to believe epilepsy was behind us, the seizures, the drugs, the side effects, and the fear. That’s not something medical workers can read in charts. They do not see the full picture. The quick parade of patients does not allow them time for reflective thinking. I know that those handling constant emergency situations have to think quickly on their feet.
It reminds me of my years as a teacher, when I had so many children I didn’t know what to do. I was never enough at school. Then I would come home feeling too exhausted and stressed to be a wife and a mother. I respect the workers on the front lines at the hospital. But they, like teachers, cannot know all the details.
That said, no one can expect to be handled with kid gloves in the Emergency Room. We have been there many times. The medical workers gather data, assess the current situation and decide on an immediate treatment. This is “life in the fast lane.” We parents must pay attention, write everything down, and be nicely but firmly proactive.
Rose made it three years without a seizure. An EEG(electroencephalogram)was done. It was normal. She was weaned off of drug 3S during the summer. She grew taller, quicker, and smarter. We felt epilepsy was behind us. We believed the seizures were due to all those ear infections and fevers. Rose was growing and thriving. We were all relieved.
Rose started third grade without much worry. Everyone involved with her care knew her history. As a precaution, Rose’s medical information was shared with her new teacher. This young woman was very funny and enthusiastic. Rose’s classroom was near the office. Rose was happy.
We were all getting into our own grooves. Our lingering fear had loosened its hold on our family. I restarted my garden art business and began scheduling shows. My son was now in middle school leaving Rose at the elementary school without her big brother. No worries.
In mid- November, I had a two-day art show in a neighboring town about forty-five minutes from Rose’s school. Anytime I was away from Rose I wore a beeper and carried a bag phone. I can confidently say that her father and I, both at once, had not been this far from Rose since her diagnosis five years ago.
The week of the show, Rose got another ear infection. She had hoped to go to her first sleepover at a friend’s house just across the road from our home. I was preparing for the show. Everyone was busy, too busy.
We kept Rose out of school on Thursday to recuperate and rest. She seemed to feel better. Friday morning was frantic. I gave Rose some over-the-counter NSAIDs(non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) and her antibiotics. I also sprayed her nose with a sinus spray as her ear specialist had recommended. We thought we had covered all the bases, but my gut was still screaming. This was too much at once; the two-day show, the sleepover and especially being far from Rose.
My husband and I delivered our two children to their separate schools. Then we headed to the town of the art show in separate vehicles. He was to help me unload my heavy pieces into my booth and immediately return home. As we were unloading my garden art, my beeper went off. I looked at the tiny screen. It displayed the number of Rose’s school with a 911 at the end. This was our agreed-upon signal to drop everything and run. I am so thankful we had this signal in place. I explained to the artists in the booth beside me that we had a medical emergency. They assured me that they would pile my art under the table and cover it. We jumped into our truck and my husband drove as I called the school.
Our friend in the office answered the phone. He said “It’s Rose. Get here quick.” I explained that we were headed up the interstate, but were forty minutes away. Our hazard lights were on and I was waving a white sheet of paper in the windshield. Still some people refused to pull over into the right lane. At one point we passed in the grass and lost a hubcap. The beeper kept going off. The calls kept coming: “What hospital do we take her to?” “How far away are you now?”
My one question was ”Is she still breathing?”
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
Let’s play a different version of the terrible game we parents play, “Second Guess Yourself.” Only this time let’s change it from ‘What if I had…’ to “What if I had NOT…?”
Examining the events described above, what if I had NOT…
1. …let Rose’s teacher know that she had epilepsy.
2. …set up an alert system including beeper and phone. (This occurred before cell phones.)
3. …left an emergency bag in the office with emergency medications in it?
If I had chosen to hide Rose’s seizures to avoid the stigma, would she still be here?
Rose and I started kindergarten together. The first two weeks were half days, so the teachers could make home visits in the afternoons. Our plan was for me to stay with Rose at school until her teachers came to our house for the home visit. They knew this plan and could have scheduled our home visit earlier. Rose and I were both known at the elementary school because Rose’s older brother was there. I had been involved in the Parent Teacher Association and volunteered often.
I will always remember those two weeks of constant action. Rose’s teacher and assistant were both amazingly patient and pleasant women. There was constant activity every minute of the day, even during nap time. I found it exhausting, but very entertaining. I felt really good about Rose being with these two women. I knew, despite their many responsibilities, they would take care of Rose as best they could.
The day of the home visit arrived. Rose served her teachers brownies and lemonade. We talked briefly about funny events that had occurred during the first weeks of kindergarten. Rose was happy to have her new teachers in her home.
They both sat on the couch as I demonstrated how to handle a seizure using Rose’s large stuffed cow, Lovey. I described how a seizure might start and then placed Lovey on her side. I opened Rose’s big red seizure bag that was to stay in the principal’s office. I put a rolled towel from inside it under Lovey’s head and pulled out Rose’s emergency medication and pretended to administer it to the cow.
After I finished the demonstration, I looked into the teachers’ faces and waited. Would they handle this for us? Could they do this? Were they willing to take this on? Most importantly, was I going to have to spend the year in kindergarten?
They looked at each other. Then looked back at us. Ms.J said, “We can handle this.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. Just because public school is obligated to make accommodations does not mean they gladly do it. Ms.S said they both knew how to handle seizures. One had a husband who had epilepsy, the other had seizures herself and was taking the same medication as Rose was. The principal knew all this. That’s why he put Rose in their classroom. I felt so blessed to have these two women be part of Rose’s team. What a relief and a gift. I will always be grateful to these two wonderful women.
Seizure Mama speaks to parents:
A “seizure bag” went wherever Rose went. In it were several towels, a change of clothes, wipes, paper towels, and a bottle of water. Her emergency medications came in packs of two syringes and were somewhat expensive. One was kept in the big red bag at school, the other one in my purse. These emergency drug syringes could not be left in the car. The drug could not get too hot or too cold, so the syringe stayed with me. This meant that I carried an over-sized purse for years. I rolled the sealed syringe in a bandanna scarf to protect it inside my cluttered purse and used the bandanna to cover Rose during a seizure. This is how you live with epilepsy on the go.