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Epilepsy Health Center

The Unseen Side of Epilepsy

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Martha Morrell, MD, chair of the Epilepsy Foundation, says her group recently conducted a survey in which it asked people: "What's the hardest thing about having epilepsy?" The first response was having seizures. The second was difficulty with driving.

Carmen says the driver's license issue is a huge one for epileptics, because it can affect their livelihood: "Epileptics walk on a tightrope. They very definitely do."

Morrell, who is also a professor of neurology at Columbia University in New York and chief of the Columbia Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, agrees, saying that the Epilepsy Foundation survey found a quarter of epileptics unemployed, even though the economy is booming -- and for the vast majority, it had nothing to do with their ability to work. "In most cases, we believe it's because of what the employer is afraid might happen -- not what [actually] has happened," she says.

Morrell says in one recent case, an epileptic who had been working a cash register was let go because her employer feared if she had a seizure, thieves would have access to an open drawer. This occurred despite the fact that the worker got a one-minute "aura," or warning sensation, before the seizure kicked in -- giving her plenty of time to shut the drawer and get to a back room.

"For many epileptics, getting a job is very difficult," says Siegel. "One client I had lost a day care job because they were afraid she'd drop a baby. So one of the big things that comes up is vocation. What am I going to do now?"

And the truth is, epileptics can't do just anything -- even if they wanted to. Aside from the obvious "high-wire" occupations -- such as pilot, truck driver, and steel girder worker -- some epileptics have to avoid situations in which they might be under a lot of stress, since stress can trigger a seizure. Drugs help keep seizures under control, but they can still happen -- and with sometimes embarrassing results. Carmen says epileptics who suffer "generalized" seizures, involving the entire brain, may not only flail about, but also lose control of their bladder and bowel.

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