University of Missouri Health System, by Staff ~ November 18, 2014

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Casey Wehmeyer was training to be a gunner’s mate in the United States Navy when he experienced his first seizure.

As a 22-year-old, Wehmeyer had been serving for less than six months when he suddenly passed out while walking to his barracks. A short time later as he was taking notes in his naval training class, he experienced what is known as a grand mal seizure — a loss of consciousness, followed by intense shaking.

“I was just really tired and just felt off,” Wehmeyer said. “The next thing I remember is waking up on a stretcher, strapped down and scared to death.”

Now 38 and an investigative analyst in Jefferson City, Missouri, Wehmeyer has lived with epilepsy for 16 years, experiencing a seizure about once every four to six months. Many individuals can manage their epilepsy through medication, but medication alone did not sufficiently control Wehmeyer’s frequent episodes.

During a seizure, brain cells spasm and send rapid signals to the body. In April 2014, Wehmeyer underwent a surgical procedure by Tomoko Tanaka, M.D., a neurosurgeon at University of Missouri Health Care, to remove a small region of his brain that was causing his seizures. He continues to take medication for his epilepsy, but he has been seizure-free since undergoing the procedure.

As part of National Epilepsy Awareness Month in November, specialists from MU Health Care’s Missouri Epilepsy Program are raising awareness about the various symptoms of seizures.

“There are many kinds of seizures related to epilepsy,” said Sean Lanigar, M.D., a neurologist at MU Health Care and one of Wehmeyer’s physicians. “While most people associate epilepsy with grand mal seizures, these kinds of episodes are less frequent than other types. It’s important to realize that a seizure can be less visible, such as a sudden loss of awareness or a generally blank feeling.”

These more common types of seizures cause a short loss of consciousness, usually lasting only a few seconds. An individual may stare blankly and then resume activity a few moments later.

“When I was in the Navy, I thought that I might have narcolepsy,” Wehmeyer said. “I’d get a really strong déjà vu type of feeling. I’m now able to recognize my symptoms were actually a seizure. I’ve had many types of seizures in the past, but only the grand mal seizures involved violent shaking.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, epilepsy affects approximately 2 million people in the U.S. Epilepsy can cause recurrent, unprovoked seizures, but many people may not realize their symptoms.

“If you’re not aware that you’ve had a seizure, you’re not likely to seek treatment,” Lanigar said. “However, delayed recognition and poorly controlled seizures increase your risk of having more seizures, and in some cases, can even result in death.”

Epilepsy can occur at any age, though it is more likely to begin in children younger than 2 years of age and adults older than 65 years.

“It’s important to seek immediate treatment if you’ve experienced a blackout or another possible type of seizure,” Tanaka said. “At MU Health Care, we have the expertise to evaluate and treat all complex epilepsy patients. Having a specialist review your symptoms immediately following an episode could save your life.”

Wehmeyer has been seizure-free since his surgery, and he’s hopeful his seizures won’t return.

“I haven’t had any symptoms of a seizure since my surgery, and I feel wonderful,” Wehmeyer said. “While there’s always the possibility that my seizures could return, I’m very thankful for the surgery and everything it’s done. It’s possible I may not have to worry about seizures ever again.”

The Missouri Epilepsy Program at MU Health Care is a Level 4 epilepsy center designated by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers. Level 4 epilepsy centers provide the highest levels of medical and surgical evaluation and treatment for patients with complex epilepsy.

For more information about epilepsy or to make an appointment with the Missouri Epilepsy Program, call (573) 882-1515.