JOLIET – At age 3, Aiden Young of Joliet regressed.
He became hyperactive and jumped off furniture at day care. He started head banging. He backslid on his potty training. He had periods of crying, screaming and daydreaming. He picked up a tic, eye-blinking.
His mother, Jenni Martinez of Joliet, said she often mentioned the change to Aiden’s pediatrician, who always reassured her that Aiden was fine. So Martinez attributed it to her going through a divorce.
Martinez, who has a seizure disorder, said she never dreamed Aiden, now 7, was having seizures, too, because he never convulsed – until Aiden had a teacher who said, “I think he’s having absence seizures.”
So Martinez told Aiden’s pediatrician, whom Martinez said referred them to Dr. Takijah Heard, pediatric epileptologist and neurologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston. Martinez said a neurologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem also treats her seizure disorder, also known as epilepsy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder (neurological disorder) in which nerve cell activity in the brain becomes disrupted, causing seizures or periods of unusual behavior, sensations and sometimes loss of consciousness.”
Epilepsy is a broad term to describe any number of seizure disorders, Heard said. Some forms occur only in childhood; some are genetic; and some are triggered by illness, injury (as was Martinez’s case) and even hyperventilation.
Heard can spot this last type in the office after asking the child to blow on the windmill. Once she induces the seizure, Heard said she’ll ask the parents, “Is this what you’re seeing?”
That’s what Heard did with Aiden, Martinez said. And it worked. An EEG, a test that measures electrical activity in the brain, confirmed it, Martinez said.
“Here I am, a woman in my 40s and I have epilepsy and I don’t even know my son is having seizures,” Martinez said. “I’m so grateful to this teacher.”
While many people associate a seizure with eyes rolling back in the head and stiffening and jerking of limbs, some seizures are very subtle and can be difficult to diagnose if people never see them, Heard said.
They affect Aiden’s ability to learn, she said, since the seizures cause gaps in the information he receives. This was important, because Martinez said Aiden was having upwards of 100 seizures each day.
“Once we realized what the seizures looked like, we began counting them,” Martinez said.
Depending on the type of seizure, some children, as Heard anticipates with Aiden, may outgrow their seizure disorder. In most cases, the seizures never return, except in a small percentage of adults, Heard said.
It’s been a year since Aiden’s diagnosis and he’s doing much better with treatment, which includes medication and an individualized education program, Martinez said.
“He’s had some seizures since we’ve seen Dr. Heard, but not what you’d call full-blown seizures,” she said.
In the beginning, Aiden had checkups every three months. That recently was changed to every six months, Heard said. Once Aiden is seizure-free for two years, he can be weaned off medication and re-examined every six months to ensure the seizures are not returning, Heard added.
Martinez said her seizures began shortly after she was attacked and raped at age 14. But because she was trying to deal with the pregnancy, and then raising and financially supporting her child, Martinez, who lived alone, said she didn’t recognize her intermittent shaking as seizures, until she was 16 and in a hospital’s emergency room.
“The doctor said, ‘You’re having grand mal seizures and need to be medicated,’” Martinez said.
Heard said testing showed Aiden’s seizures were not genetic. Although seizures can be scary, Heard said many have this trait in common.
“They’re treatable,” she said.