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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Chief Justice John Roberts Has Seizure

10 Questions and Answers on Roberts' Seizure
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 31, 2007 -- U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has left a Maine hospital after having a seizure yesterday afternoon at his Maine vacation home.

According to media reports, doctors said Roberts, 52, had a "benign idiopathic seizure," meaning that they couldn't find a reason for the seizure, which happened after Roberts had gotten off a boat at a dock near his summer home on Maine's Hupper Island.

Roberts fell on the dock and sustained scrapes. He was taken by boat to the mainland and was reportedly conscious and alert when he was transferred to an ambulance and taken to the Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine.

At the medical center, Roberts got a "thorough neurological evaluation, which revealed no cause for concern," Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg told reporters.

Roberts reportedly had had a seizure in 1993. In 2001, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his health was "excellent," according to the Associated Press.

WebMD spoke with Jacqueline French, MD, about Roberts' seizures. French is a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. She's not one of Roberts' doctors and hasn't seen his medical records.

What is a "benign idiopathic seizure"?

There is no such thing as a category of seizure called "benign." A seizure is a seizure. It's not a benign thing to have a seizure. I think what they're trying to get across with that word is that there is not an underlying cause that's alarming. He hasn't been discovered to have an infection or a brain tumor or anything along those lines. But other than that, there is no "benign."

The other thing is that they are being very careful to call it a seizure but in fact -- and obviously it was a seizure -- but the fact that he has had two seizures without cause -- one in 1993 and the most recent one -- actually puts him in the category of epilepsy because the only definition of the word "epilepsy" is more than one unprovoked seizure. So once you've had two unprovoked seizures, you in fact have epilepsy. And the reason that we use that term is because the likelihood of having a third once you've had two is more than 50%.

Now, when that third [seizure] would occur is very unclear, and obviously it has been a very long time since his first seizure, at least as far as we know. So it could be a very long time -- if he was going to have a third [seizure] -- before he would have a third [seizure]. But for most people that would be the point at which you would consider trying to prevent a third by giving some kind of mild treatment.

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