Melissa Hunter was used to having occasional seizures — she’d been diagnosed with epilepsy as a child, but medication kept the condition at bay. When she was in her late 20s and decided to try for a child, doctors in Portland, where she lives, recommended switching her epilepsy medication. The switch caused her condition to worsen, leading to a seizure behind the wheel, a hospital stay, a long recovery, and more frequent seizures. She knew something had to change. In 2015, she decided to undergo brain surgery. She has been seizure-free ever since. This is her story, as told to McKenna Princing.
I’ve battled epilepsy my whole life. I always lived a normal life with medication: the only time I’d have a seizure was if I forgot to take my meds.
The trouble started in 2006, when my husband and I decided we wanted to start having kids. The medication I’d been taking most of my life was deemed unsafe for me to take during a potential pregnancy, so my doctors in Portland switched me to different medications.
From managing epilepsy to it running my life
One day, shortly after the switch, I was on the freeway and just got this weird feeling. I’d always get a five or 10 second warning before a seizure — a tense feeling in my neck. I started getting that warning, so I immediately took the next exit, but I had a seizure as I was coming off the exit.
I went 50 miles per hour right into a tree. Thankfully I didn’t hit a person. But I broke and dislocated my hip and had to be cut out of my car. I was in the hospital for a few weeks and had to have hip surgery. Back at home, I couldn’t walk for six months. I lost my driver’s license — I wouldn’t end up getting it back until 10 years later.
I’m a real estate agent. I worked while recovering — I sold a house from my hospital bed. But not being able to drive to meet clients became a problem. Then I started getting more seizures. I learned that this is called refractory epilepsy, when medication stops working to treat someone’s seizures.
Seizures are exhausting. They made it hard for me to work. I started having one every two weeks. I tried to go back on my old medication, but it no longer worked for me. I gave up on having kids for a while — I wondered if I wasn’t meant to have any. My life became about managing my epilepsy.
Making a big decision for myself — and my son
When I was 36, I was pregnant with my son. I was still having seizures and was on a lot of medications. Doctors kept a close eye on me and my son was born completely healthy.
In 2009, I started seeing Dr. Nicholas Poolos at UW Medicine, traveling to Seattle from Portland. He got me from having a seizure every two weeks to once a month. He was helping me get better, but it still wasn’t enough.
He told me about a procedure that could help me. If doctors could find where in my brain my seizures originated, they could perform surgery to remove that area.
I was terrified. I had to sit and think long and hard about surgery. The part in my brain the surgery would take out was where speech and memory functions are, and there was a low chance I could come out of the procedure not knowing my past or having to relearn how to speak.
But it was either take that risk or spend the rest of my life having a seizure every other week, taking medications that were slowly destroying my liver and kidneys and not being able to work or drive. I would not fully be there for my newborn son. I just couldn’t see living the rest of my life like that.
Recovering from brain surgery and medication withdrawal
It was Friday the 13th of November in 2015, when I went in for brain surgery — I decided it was going to be a lucky day. I’d had a seizure four days earlier. Dr. Jeffrey Ojemann at UW Medicine was my surgeon, and he removed an olive-sized part of my left temporal lobe.
My son was 10 months old at the time, and for two months after surgery, I couldn’t hold him. It took me about six months to recover and I got a lot of migraines during that time. But I didn’t have any seizures and I still haven’t had any since then.
Unfortunately, a different part of recovery didn’t go as smoothly. I had taken Clonazepam, a benzodiazepine, for a while. Benzodiazepines are prescribed to some people with epilepsy to help keep seizures at bay and anxiety levels low. After surgery, my doctors had me slowly wean off it — about a 5% dose reduction each month.
I would rather have brain surgery every month than go through that detox again. Each month was the same: For the first two weeks after lowering my dose, I’d be as sick as a dog, stuck in bed, having migraines and nausea and throwing up. In the third week, I’d start to feel a little better, and during the fourth week, I’d feel more like myself, but then I’d be back to weaning and feeling sick.
About nine months into it I almost gave up on life. I felt like I couldn’t keep going. I lost a lot of weight and was drained. I almost checked myself into a rehab facility. There were a few nights where I could almost have ended my life, but instead I called my grandma and sister and they came out and sat by my side.
Finally, after two years of this, I slowly started feeling better. Each day I got a little more energy back. I hadn’t been working for three years, but I could finally get out and do things like go grocery shopping. I could finally be more present for my son.
Life is better than ever, now
Today, life is amazing. I’ve recovered from medication withdrawal and surgery. Surgery was totally worth it. I’m cured from epilepsy and haven’t had a single seizure since surgery. I’m not on any epilepsy medications, either, though some people still have to take those after surgery.
I’m working again, after getting my real estate agent license back — I only had to take the test once. Best of all, I’m a full-time mom, I have energy and I can be a part of my son’s life. Every time I had a seizure I’d be in bed for the rest of the day, drained and anxious and depressed. I live a normal life now.
I still suffer from anxiety, but exercise helps: I run five miles every other morning and do yoga on the mornings I don’t run.
Part of my brain may be gone, but I can think clearer and faster than I could before. What’s also weird, but cool, is that I can smell things and taste things more since stopping medication. One day, I was eating blueberries and was amazed by the flavor; my sister laughed at me. I never had a high sense of taste. Colors are brighter, too. All my senses woke up; I’d never seen the world like this before.
I followed up with Dr. Poolos for about a year after surgery. Having a neurologist was normal for me, like having a primary care provider. But then he said I was doing well and he didn’t need to see me anymore. I didn’t know how to live life without a neurologist — but now I’ve figured it out.