Inside Epilepsy

TORONTO – It’s been two years since Global Toronto reporter Mark McAllister had a seizure while reporting the news, but he still recalls the day vividly.

“The moment they came to me, I started reading and it wasn’t there. I was aware that I wasn’t saying what I needed to,” he said.

McAllister, a seasoned journalist with 18 years of experience in the field, was reporting live on the latest on Ottawa’s efforts in Libya in March 2011.

Following his pre-taped package, McAllister meant to offer more details. Instead, he stumbled on his words, forming incoherent sentences. Doctors later told him he was having a seizure.

Behind the scenes, producers who had spent years working with McAllister immediately knew something was wrong. They called him an ambulance; they insisted that his wife take him home.

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“In television, you have a million different scenarios that can go wrong and this was one that none of us had ever seen before,” Global Toronto’s executive producer Jason Keel said.

“I was pretty firm with Mark that he ought to call his wife and have her come and pick him up.”

McAllister returned two days later to continue his daily storytelling.

Meanwhile, the incident garnered attention online as media outlets and viewers watched what happened.

“We had emails, phone calls and people reacting outside of Canada, outside of Toronto and making fun of what happened. That hurt,” McAllister said.

A month later, in April 2011, he was diagnosed with epilepsy.

Years have passed since his prognosis, but McAllister is still living with this condition.

This week, Global News is launching a five-part series called Inside Epilepsy examining the disease and the people it affects. If you or a family member is living with epilepsy, or you’d like to spread the word about this condition, please use the hash tag #InsideEpilepsy on Twitter and share your comments on our Global News and Global Toronto Facebook pages.

Special:Focus Ontario – Inside Epilepsy

Part I: Inside Epilepsy

Part II:Inside Epilepsy: Patients turn to brain surgery for treatment

Part III:Inside Epilepsy: Toronto woman’s crusade to shed light on treatment options

Part IV:Inside Epilepsy: Program offers support, learning for those living with epilepsy

Part V: Inside Epilepsy: Answering a call to action

“It’s upon me to own this. Tell people what happened to me and as a result, help others share their story as well,” McAllister said.

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What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a physical condition marked by sudden, brief changes in the brain’s function.

The unusual activity in the brain causes patients to have recurring, unprovoked seizures, according to Dr. Danielle Andrade, director of genetics at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre’s epilepsy program.

There is a wide spectrum when identifying a seizure, from convulsions on one end to tuning out for just a few seconds before returning to regular activities.

“A seizure is an abnormal electrical discharge in the brain. So some part of the entire brain starts firing up very quickly and this may cause symptoms depending on what part of the brain is firing abnormally,” she told Global News.

For instance, if a seizure triggers the part of your brain that controls vision, you could have problems with vision during the episode. If the seizure affects the part of your brain that deals with speech, you’d have speech difficulties, Andrade explains.

If both sides of the brain fire up simultaneously, patients could experience a convulsion – a medical condition in which the body’s muscles contract and relax quickly causing uncontrolled shaking.

Andrade says some people note the onset of a seizure. They feel “something strange,” whether it’s a sensation in their stomachs or a feeling in their heads.

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Sometimes they’re still conscious as it’s happening. “But as the abnormal firing continues and spreads to adjacent brain regions that may cause more symptoms,” she said.

At that point, consciousness may be lost.

How is epilepsy identified?

Doctors will test electrical brain waves via electroencephalograms to confirm epilepsy in their patients, Andrade says.

Imaging tests are also conducted to study what may be causing the seizures.

MRIs take a snapshot of your brain to help researchers determine if electricity activity in unbalanced.

If there are witnesses to the seizure, their information on what happened provides doctors with valuable information. They can help doctors determine how long the seizure lasted, how intensely he or she was convulsing, if the person was in a blank stare or seemed to be conscious and other factors.

In 50 to 60 per cent of cases, the cause of epilepsy is unknown, according to Epilepsy Canada.

The rest of the time, they’re caused by brain tumours or strokes, head trauma of some type, the aftermath of an infection, such as meningitis, or poisoning.

Situations such as stress, poor nutrition, flickering lights or lack of sleep could trigger a seizure.

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Seizures aren’t the only concern: 25 per cent of those with epilepsy have learning disabilities and psychological problems, such as anxiety, panic and depression.

How prevalent is epilepsy in Canada?

Epilepsy Canada says that about 0.6 per cent of the population has the disorder. This includes anyone who’s had a seizure in the past five years.

It’s the third most common neurological disorder in adults after stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, according to the University Health Network.

Each day, about 42 people are diagnosed with the condition, according to the organization. That’s about 15,500 people a year, on average.

But the numbers could be higher.

“Due to stigma surrounding epilepsy and the prejudice with which society has historically treated people with epilepsy, many with the disorder are reluctant to admit it or to seek treatment,” the website says.

About 44 per cent are diagnosed before the age of five, but half of these cases dissipate completely. It’s the most common neurological disorder in children.

How is epilepsy treated?

If the cause of the seizures is identified, medication can be administered to patients.

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About two-thirds of patients have their seizures controlled with medication, meanwhile one-third of patients can’t have their seizures controlled.

Andrade says that if the first two drugs a patient tries aren’t effective, the chances of becoming seizure-free aren’t high.

In those cases, doctors determine if the patient is a good candidate for brain surgery.

How to help the cause

Many of the organizations that offer support to those with epilepsy and their families are non-profit groups that rely on donations from the community.

With Epilepsy Toronto, Canadians can make a general donation, donate in honour of a loved one or donate in memory of someone, according to its website.

Click here to get involved with Epilepsy Toronto.

You can also donate or fundraise for Epilepsy Canada here.