Back to Normal
By Melanie Dick
High school and college is usually a time for making friends, learning new things, focusing on schoolwork and planning for the future. But for 29-year-old Laura Woltz, dealing with epilepsy during her teenage years and early 20s brought about many challenges that young adults never have to face.
When Laura was a perfectly healthy 13 years old, she hit her head on a rock going down a natural water slide at Linn Run State Park, not far from her home town of Somerset, Pa. Her right eye swelled up instantly, and she was taken to a nearby hospital where they performed a CT scan. The doctor said everything was fine, and she was sent home without stitches. Six months later she had a frightening experience: a grand mal seizure. Grand mal seizures are characterized by violent muscle contractions and loss of consciousness.
Her neurologist told her it was normal to have a grand mal seizure after suffering a head injury like she had, and he put her on a regimen of epilepsy medication. Even with the medication, Laura continued to experience terrible migraines and episodes during which she would “space out” and chew her tongue. She could carry on a conversation during an episode, but when she came out of it she wouldn’t remember anything that was said and would need to lie down to recover from extreme fatigue and headaches. This continued throughout high school, and her doctor continued to increase her medication dosage but the episodes persisted.
“Every time he increased my dose it got harder to concentrate at school, and my grades reflected that,” Laura said. “Also, people didn’t really know what to do when I had a seizure or an episode, so they distanced themselves from me and it affected a lot of friendships. I believed that I would have to deal with epilepsy and be on medication for the rest of my life.”
When she was a freshman at Shippensburg University, Laura had her second grand mal seizure. This time she was away from home, on campus, with no one who knew what to do or how to help her.
“After my second grand mal seizure, I knew it was time to get another opinion,” she said. “I met with a different neurologist in Somerset, and she referred me to Allegheny General Hospital. Being referred to AGH changed my life forever.”
Laura met with Kevin Kelly, MD, Director of the AGH Center for Neuroscience Research, and she told him all about her history with epilepsy and the kinds of seizures she’d been having.
“When I talked to Dr. Kelly, he immediately knew what was going on with me,” Laura said. “He explained that my episodes were actually complex partial seizures, which no one had ever told me before. He explained that epilepsy can be treated three ways: with medication, vagus nerve stimulation, or surgery. As soon as he told me about the surgery, I knew it was right for me. I felt a new hope that I hadn’t felt before, like I could actually be cured of epilepsy. And that is exactly what happened.”
After months of rigorous testing, Laura’s doctors confirmed that she was a perfect candidate for a unique procedure offered to just 15 to 20 percent of patients with epilepsy. In August of 2004 – eight years after hurting her head – Laura underwent anterior temporal lobectomy performed by Jack Wilberger, MD, Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at AGH.
“Laura’s seizures were coming from the area of the brain called the right temporal lobe,” said Dr. Wilberger. “Anterior temporal lobectomy can only be performed on patients who pass all levels of a very long and intense work-up process. After pinpointing exactly where the seizures are coming from, we then perform various tests to make sure the brain is able to maintain memory function after the affected piece is removed. Many times we can’t move forward with surgery because testing shows that the patient is at risk for serious impairment, and that’s a chance we can’t take. Laura passed all of our tests without question. We removed about a two-inch square section of her right temporal lobe and she has been seizure-free ever since, which was our goal going into surgery.”
Now that she has been cured of epilepsy, Laura is close to finishing her nursing degree – a career path she chose largely because of her life-changing experience with the doctors and nurses at AGH.
“Because of surgery I was able to finish my undergraduate degree, and return to school for nursing,” said, Laura, who also taught first aid, CPR and health assessment to students in Haiti through a Study Abroad trip. “I didn’t think I would ever be able to complete nursing school with the seizures and side effects of my medication, but I don’t have to worry about seizures anymore and I’m off all medication. I feel like becoming a nurse is one way that I can give back what AGH has given to me. I’m so thankful that the doctors and nurses at Allegheny General were brought into my life.”
For more information about the AGH Neuroscience Institute. To be referred to a physician, call 412.DOCTORS (412.362.8677).
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