Gabriella Urena, 27, has always wanted a family. As someone who suffers from epilepsy, she never thought having children was a possibility. Then, a recent surgery saved her life and gave her hope.
Urena started having seizures in her middle to late teenage years. Early on in her diagnosis, her medications included Dilantin and Depakote, the latter of which can cause significant birth defects in children. At one point, she was told she couldn’t have children because the medications were too strong, she explained.
“I was sad. Because, I had plans for my life. I want to drive, go to school, I want to get married and have a family,” Urena said.
Keeping to her medication schedule was also challenging, Urena admits.
“I was supposed to take the pills two times a day, but sometimes I would forget, and then I’d have a lot of seizures. And I have a lot of frustration, because when I have seizures, I’m another person,” Urena said.
Surgery for Epilepsy at Staten Island University Hospital
It was when Urena went to Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) last year seeking treatment that she discovered surgery was a possibility. As someone who was not responding to medication and suffered repeated unprovoked seizures, doctors knew she was a candidate for surgery.
“The most important thing is that she does have a history of multiple admissions to the hospital,” Vahid Ghiasian, M.D., director of epilepsy and vice chair of neurology at the hospital, said.
Ghiasian explained that during some of those admissions, Urena needed emergency intubation to help her breathe while she was having prolonged seizures.
Surgery for epilepsy involves finding the area of the brain that may be causing the seizures. Then, doctors deactivate, disable or remove it in a way that it is no longer able to cause seizures to spread to the rest of the brain. In Urena’s case, she had a growth on the left side of her brain that was removed.
Ashesh Mehta, M.D., director of neurosurgical epilepsy at Northwell Health, performed the surgery on Urena and described the procedure in more detail.
“What we find is if we can surgically target that area and remove it or disable it, then we can tamp down the rest of the brain so it doesn’t have seizures and receive seizure control. And by that—no more seizures,” Mehta said.
It can take about a year for epilepsy surgery to become fully effective, and doctors like to give it time to assess how well it worked. Urena had the surgery last November and so far has not had a seizure. Meanwhile, doctors are continuing to wean her off Vimpat, the medication she is currently taking that is not known to cause birth defects.
Urena was one of the first patients to have this kind of surgery on Staten Island.
“I had the surgery because I want to have a good life and I want to have a family. I feel good now—I feel happy,” she said.
Mehta added, “She’s doing great. She’s seizure-free now.”
Epilepsy is a condition where people have repeated unprovoked seizures. A seizure is a temporary disturbance of neurological function that can result in convulsions, staring spells or other reactions. Epilepsy is a common neurological condition that affects about 1 percent of the population, or one in 100 people.
Children can suffer from epilepsy, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, about 3.4 million people had epilepsy nationwide. That’s 3 million adults and 470,000 children.
“The key message that we want to be able to spread and bring to Staten Island is to let people know that we can control these seizures,” Mehta said.
In many cases, medication works well, but sometimes surgery is necessary. Mehta explained that the surgery can help improve a person’s life.
“This really impacts a person’s ability to get around, have a job, be independent and really be safe,” the doctor explained.
Thomas Montella is an epilepsy patient who also had surgery at SIUH. Montella has suffered from seizures throughout his life. Despite taking many medications, he continued to have seizures for years.
“The best thing that has happened from the surgery in regard to lifestyle is the ability to not have those pre-seizure feelings. I never have anymore what feels like a panic attack moment. I never feel like I’m out with my friends and I have to runaway because I’m just about to hit the floor,” Montella explained.
Learn more about epilepsy treatment at northwell.edu.
Wanna read more stuff like this? Get our newsletters packed with ideas, events, and information for parents in Staten Island.