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A better understanding of epilepsy

Lori Braegelman, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, earlier this week explains to St. Mary's School 3rd-graders about the ways they can protect their "computers" -- their brains -- to possibly avoid injuries that can lead to seizures. Two students in teacher Barb Spaulding's class are coping with epilepsy.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The word epilepsy conjures up an indelible image: A person on the floor, shaking violently at the peak of a frightening seizure.

The tonic-clonic seizure can be one of epilepsy's symptoms, but there are other signs that a person suffers from the neurological disorder that often aren't as recognizable. And they should be, the earlier the age of discovery the better.

Lori Braegelman, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, visited Barb Spaulding's 3rd-grade class at St. Mary's School this week to talk about the disorder and how to deal with it.

Spaulding's class provided a particularly apt forum. Two children in the class, Megan Hesse and Morgan Mahoney, have epilepsy. Typically, one in 60 children cope with the disorder, so to have two in a class of 15 students is unusual - and an educational opportunity.

"This is great awareness for these kids," said Morgan's mother, Peg Mahoney. "They don't know about the stigma."

Recurring seizures are characteristic of epilepsy, but the disorder can manifest itself in many ways. Injuries, disease, infection - anything that affects the tissue of the brain - can cause epilepsy.

Braegelman told the class about the three types of seizures and the best ways for others to administer first aid.

She likened seizures to the brain sending too many electrical messages to the body "like a sparkler on the Fourth of July. Like an electrical storm in somebody's brain."

There's the "absence" seizure, characterized by a short staring spell.

"It's sort of like daydreaming," Braegelman told the class. "They may wander, so they're going to need you to be their friend."

A second type of seizure, a "complex partial," is characterized by wandering, bumping into things, fumbling or fiddling with clothing or maybe confused speech. Again, the children were instructed to speak calmly, gently lead the person to a chair or desk, inform an adult and keep the person away from hazards.

A third type of seizure, the "tonic-clonic," is the most recognizable. The person suffering the seizure will likely drop to the floor or ground and begin shaking or convulsing. Contrary to popular belief, nothing should be put into their mouths and they should not be held down. They should be placed on their side, their head should be cushioned, glasses removed and tight clothing loosened.

In all cases, the seizure should be timed, and the person should not be left alone after the seizure until their confusion subsides. First aid also includes looking for identification of epilepsy or seizure disorder and medical help should be called if no ID can be located. If a seizure lasts for more than five minutes or other problems are evident, an ambulance should be called.

Braegelman's primary theme was to let the class know that anyone at any time can suffer a seizure and that those with the disorder are no different than other kids.

Peg Mahoney said she first became aware of seizure disorder when she suffered a tonic-clonic seizure when in her early 20s. She began recognizing it in Morgan this summer when she would stare and her eyes began to flutter.

The Hesses noticed Megan staring and her eyes rolling back last year.

"I wasn't sure what it was but as the summer went on we knew it was something," Joe Hesse said. "She had difficulty paying attention and she'd drift off. When it became more frequent, we knew."

Lights and other stimuli can bring on a seizure. The Hesses were at a fair when the midway lights triggered a seizure in Megan.

"She knelt down, and a woman nearby said, 'She's having a seizure,' " Joe said. "She knew exactly what was going on."

Megan had six to 10 seizures an hour, but the frequency has been reduced in part by medication.

But what's been the most helpful aspect of dealing with epilepsy has been the openness of their classmates, Peg said.

"The kids (in Morgan's class) have been wonderful," she said. "Morgan has never said, 'Oh, they made fun of me.' "

The Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota has numerous programs, workshops, camps and social events to help children and adults living with epilepsy. To learn more, visit the foundation's Web site at HYPERLINK "", or contact the foundation at (800) 779-0777.