The surgery that changed my life: controlling the seizures

Leigh with her mom Leslie

Seventeen-years old, waking up on a Sunday morning wondering who I was, where I was, and how I became that way. That was the first time memory loss had become part of my life.

However, it was not the first time I had been overcome by confusion. In fact, that cycle began at age four — on the night I had my first epileptic seizure.

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that produces seizures affecting one’s mental and physical functions. The night my epilepsy began, I was sleeping in my room when my parents heard me breathing rather oddly. When they went to check on me, my eyes were rolled back, I was smacking my lips, and my body was limp. When I woke up, I was in the hospital.

All my life, I have taken medicine to control my seizures. Between the ages of 4 and 12, I would have grand mal or tonic clonic seizures, which would occur a couple times each year. As I continued to grow, my seizures changed to complex partial and nocturnal seizures, which eventually resulted in severe memory loss.

Medicine has kept me stable and safe, and thus, I never minded taking it. However, the medicine began to become less affective and by the time I was 21 years old, I began having more seizures than usual. The problem with this is that every time an epileptic seizure occurs, there is a possibility that damage can be done to the brain. Therefore, the change that would soon occur in my life would be brain surgery.

When I first heard this, I laughed. I have always looked at epilepsy as an adventure — as the factor that simply makes me special. I have never thought of myself as disabled or sickly, and always try to remember that it could be worse. With these thoughts, I disassociated myself from the idea of brain surgery, thinking that it would always be unnecessary. However, the circumstances continued changing. My seizures began occurring two or three times per day, rather than once a month.

The daily seizures were complex partial seizures, during which I would shake and drool, lasting from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Afterward I would speak very slowly, be somewhat confused and forgetful, and my head would hurt immensely, always in the same area. Because the seizures were happening so often, I had to convince myself to follow through with the brain surgery, which occurred on September 17, 2012.

My surgery was performed by Dr. Kim Burchiel, head of the neurological surgery department at within the OHSU Brain Institute. The surgery lasted four hours and went extremely well. I spent five days in the hospital and improved a little bit each day. I was told from the beginning that it will take me at least a year to recover, and that I need to be patient.

It has been six months since surgery, and my seizures have changed immensely. I now have about two or three seizures per week, as opposed to every day, and can usually predict when they will occur. I also stay awake during the process and no longer lose my memory. Although my seizures still cause headaches and slow speech, I am continuing to improve each week, and am very thankful for all that has occurred.

I have received so much support throughout my experience as an epileptic, which is why I began volunteering for the Epilepsy Foundation Northwest. Because I was able to go to college and major in sociology and Spanish, I have always wanted to use my skills to support other cultures. Group support is extremely important in regard to any illness, which is why I would like to continue supporting and helping others who have experienced epilepsy.

Although I do not know what will happen in regard to the stability of my seizures, I have decided to look at this change as a positive factor and use my past experience to help others who need inspiration.

Leigh Schommer, Portland

Schommer, 24, is currently studying and teaching English in Puebla, Mexico. The story of her epilepsy, her brain surgery and recovery was recently chronicled by the Oregonian.