Making the Grade: Brain Surgery as a Treatment Option for Refractory Epilepsy
I was sorting through the sea of email, when I saw the Epilepsy Foundation of New England’s posting in purple and black font: Epilepsy Support Group Beyond Medication: A Discussion about Surgery. Though my seizures had been under control for almost three years, I still reviewed the foundation’s notifications. I noticed immediately that all the panelists were medical practitioners. There were no patients on the panel, and I felt indignant about this oversight. They needed a patient in the room – somebody who chose surgery as an epilepsy-treatment option, who could answer patients’ questions firsthand. I felt compelled to be that person, and avail myself to whomever showed up, so I registered, lined up childcare, and marked my calendar.
The event was held on a damp evening last spring. I took the subway to the Charles Street stop. As I navigated the streets in front of Mass General Hospital, I observed the traffic controller directing the EMT’s parking the incoming ambulances. I was struck by the sheer number of personnel required to deal with each traumatic predicament. As I watched, I was immediately brought back to the day I required emergency brain surgery: I had been rushed to this very place, where a neurosurgeon on call performed the operation. I thanked my lucky stars that day was almost three years behind me. Now I was at MGH by choice, on my own terms.
The panel was held in a cramped nearly windowless conference room. I settled into a chair, and looked around the table. The MGH doctors were easy to spot in their standard white coats, and I recognized the third doctor from the Epilepsy Foundation’s website. The fourth practitioner was the nurse who was leading the meeting. The patient turnout was even smaller than I expected: There were four of us, one patient for each presenter.
We each introduced ourselves and I learned that every patient in the room had already had elective brain surgery to try to control seizures. (So much for my good intentions of sharing the scoop on surgery with somebody who was on the fence.) The nurse gave a PowerPoint presentation, complemented by a three dimensional plastic model of the brain. She passed the molding around, and explained the basics about seizures and brain surgery, acknowledging that everybody in the room probably already knew a lot of this information. I suspected she was more disappointed than I was.
The attendees’ demographics were varied – we represented different races, genders, and ages. Only two of us had full seizure-control – myself, and another patient whom I’ll call Marie - and each of us had two different brain surgeries a piece. Marie had initially had a vagus nerve stimulator installed, which entails inserting a silver dollar-sized pacemaker-like device into the upper chest that a neurosurgeon winds around the vagus nerve in the neck. When Marie’s seizures recurred, she resorted to a full-fledged craniotomy, which was successful.
I first had an elective right temporal lobectomy in April 2014. I was seizure free for two months, until my brain imploded due to a subdural hematoma that had developed subsequent to the surgery. A subdural hematoma is like a giant bruise on the thick membrane under the skull, surrounding the brain. I’m still not sure why the hematoma developed. The neurosurgeon said it may have been caused when a vein in my brain got stretched during the temporal lobectomy. But it may have been brought on when I accidentally banged my head against the freezer door, while retrieving the ice cube tray. The emergency craniotomy was harrowing, and brought on a series of grand mal seizures – four in a week. Full recovery took over a year, as I had to take inordinate amounts of anticonvulsants, to control seizure activity. The medications made me lethargic, but over time I was able to titrate them down to something tolerable. Eventually I was both functional and seizure-free.
My neurologist calls my story a success, which feels like a misnomer. While it’s true my seizures were ultimately brought under control, it seems misleading to call a procedure “successful” when it results in a grueling near-death experience. Yet as I listened to the others’ stories – those who had only had one brain surgery, and still had refractory seizures – I felt lucky. One patient also had severe memory loss resulting from the surgery. The other spoke of the disappointment that came with having his driver’s license revoked after the seizures returned. Their journeys are confirmation of surgery’s poignant fallibility.
Brain surgery has a 70% success rate as a treatment option for refractory epilepsy, a percentage most teachers would call C minus. When you get a mediocre grade at school, there’s typically wiggle room to make it up – an extra credit assignment, or retake exam, perhaps. When brain surgery doesn’t work, the only possible option for a grade boost is a second surgery. At best this is a huge undertaking, beset with a multitude of invasive extensive pretests. Yet that is what the neurologist is likely to suggest to a post-surgery epilepsy patient who still has refractory seizures.
When the panelists asked for feedback I piped up, “I think it’s surprising that everybody in the room has already had surgery. I expected there would be patients here with questions about surgery, but we’re all old hands at this.”
“My patients think if they attend something like this, they’re committing to having surgery, and they’re not ready yet,” an MGH neurologist responded. “What advice would you give to a patient considering surgery?” she asked the group.
“I’d tell them that if they’re brave enough to live with uncontrollable seizures, they definitely have enough chutzpah to undergo surgery,” I offered. “I’d tell them it’s a scary, taxing procedure, and no matter how good your doctors are, there’s a lot they don’t know. Also there’s no guarantee of success.” I looked at the others around the room – we were living proof.
Perhaps the doctor would pass my insights on to her anxious patients. One thing I knew for sure: a doctor cannot convey the huge disappointment a patient feels if s/he goes through this procedure, and still has seizures. For the patient choosing brain surgery to treat uncontrollable seizures, there’s a 30% chance of that outcome, making it a significant gamble. They should make that wager only after they’re fully informed about the mediocre success rate, and the ample risks involved, as they are taking an enormous leap of faith. Hopefully, they will make the grade.
Laura Beretsky is a writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with her husband, children, and cat. Her poetry has be previously published in Poetry Motel, and The National Library of Poetry's Moment in Timejournal. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up and living with epilepsy.