Article originally featured in The Gainesville Sun.
Danielle Petree was months away from graduating from the University of Florida with a fine arts degree when she experienced her first seizure. She was in a metal sculpture class in February when it happened, leading to a life-changing epilepsy diagnosis.
“It kind of pulled the rug out from under me,” she said.
Petree, 25, said she is now taking a medication that has been working for the most part and is considering brain surgery. She is unable to drive because Florida law requires a person with epilepsy to be seizure-free for six months before getting behind the wheel.
She said the restriction and stigma of epilepsy has made her post-graduation job search more difficult and caused her to feel isolated. But she is hardly alone in her experience: Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder, with a prevalence greater than autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease combined. One in 26 people develop epilepsy, including more than 400,000 Floridians.
“Epilepsy is Florida’s hidden health care crisis,” said Monica C. Gonzalez, epilepsy advocate for Epilepsy Florida.
The causes are unknown in most people with epilepsy, but when they can be determined they include genetic factors, head injuries, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Florida has a higher percentage of epilepsy in its population than any other state, Gonzalez said, due to its large number of elderly residents and military veterans who had traumatic brain injuries during wartime service.
Gonzalez, Petree and Immaculee Tebakouna, an advancement and education specialist with the Gainesville office of Epilepsy Florida (https://www.epilepsyfl.com), recently visited The Sun as part of an effort to raise awareness about epilepsy. They’re also dispelling myths, such as the false belief that you should hold the tongue or put something in the mouth of someone having a seizure to prevent them from choking or biting their tongue.
Experts actually recommend clearing things out of the way of people having a convulsive seizure, cushioning their head and putting them on their side. But there are many different forms of seizures, which often don’t resemble the convulsions typically associated with epilepsy.
While epilepsy can be managed through medication and brain surgery in certain cases, there is no cure. Epilepsy Florida is seeking to raise awareness in part to help increase research funding for epilepsy, which lags behind many other less-common conditions.
The prevalence of epilepsy calls for greater support and awareness. As Petree said, “It can happen to anyone.”
Nathan Crabbe is The Sun’s opinion and engagement editor.