What it’s like living with epilepsy in the Ivy League

And knowing you can seize at any time

On April 13th, I walked home from my Thursday night macroeconomics exam, listening to my daily Soundcloud playlist the entire way back. I walked into my dorm room in Mary Donlon Hall as I had countless times and sat down at my desk, ready to watch some Netflix and relax.

Then the indescribable, unmistakable buzzing feeling began in the back of my head. I tried to make it go away. I mentally told the buzzing, “No, you are not going to beat me this time.” The buzzing intensified and developed into a sharp pain. Suddenly, all I could feel was the buzzing. My entire body was numb and I couldn’t hear anything outside of my own head. The vivid hallucinations began, and my body was transported to an imaginary reality where I was laying on a sidewalk underneath a tree. I snapped back to reality, still sitting in my desk chair. I realized the buzzing had already won and that I was going to have a seizure. Standing up from the chair, I tried to stay coherent enough to make the three foot walk to my bed so I could pass the seizure there.

I didn’t make it.

I collapsed the second I stood up, hitting my head on the corner of the armrest of the wooden chair, and fell to the carpet where the seizure took over my body. Fifteen minutes later, I woke up on the floor, disoriented. Barely conscious, I stumbled into bed and went to sleep for about four hours. I woke up at midnight, ironically enough, to take my epilepsy medication. It was then I realized that I was sleeping in a pool of blood. I was still wearing my gray Puma hoodie and blue Warriors Klay Thompson t-shirt, both of which had been soaked through by my blood. I took off my navy blue sheets, and I saw that my pillow and mattress pad had been stained red where I was sleeping. Then, I stood up and went to the mirror. My face was covered in dry blood, my left eye was bruised and swollen, and there was a massive gash where the end of my left eyebrow used to be.

The head injury

It took a few minutes for me to figure out that these injuries came from hitting my head on the chair. I calmly took my medication, cleaned myself up, put on a Band-Aid, and went to sleep.

The next day, when I went to the doctor’s office to get my cut glued up (because apparently you can’t get stitches more than twelve hours after an injury), the doctor was shocked to hear about my seizure. But sadly, these episodes have simply become a part of life.

Post-glue

I had my first seizure when I was in eighth grade during a basketball game, and I was formally diagnosed with epilepsy a few days into my freshman year of high school. Since then, I’ve had probably somewhere between 15 and 20 seizures with varying levels of severity. There have been ones so bad that people call an ambulance and ones so mild that I’ve re-entered baseball and basketball practices and games after they pass.

I’ve had five seizures since I got to Cornell, and considering that the doctors think they are stress-related, I’m expecting many more to come in my remaining three years in Ithaca. Cornell is constantly ranked as one of the most stressful colleges in the country. That makes the possibility of a seizure real at any time. I also tend to have seizures when exercising, so just a simple game of pick-up basketball on a Wednesday evening can have terrible consequences.

But the worst part about having epilepsy at Cornell is the mental toll it takes. As any Cornell student knows, we are constantly being bombarded with homework and tests. There’s almost never any true down time, as relaxing always shifts into thinking about what’s up next academically. This high level of stress leaves the idea of a seizure constantly in the back of my mind, especially when I work out or play pick-up sports. I have to take extra precautions during exam season because I become even more susceptible to seizures. This has caused me to significantly decrease my athletic activity in the days leading up to exams, which is very bothersome because I’m a person who values being physically fit.

Still, the most important thing Cornell has taught me is to not let my epilepsy control me. Even though the possibility of a seizure is ceaseless, if I stop going out, exercising, or going to class because I’m afraid of a seizure, I’ll lose who I am as a person. So even if I know I have a decent chance of seizing, I’ll still take the risk just to play some pick-up football or lift weights.

And even though I need to be cautious, I’ve learned the best approach to having epilepsy at Cornell is this: pretend it doesn’t exist.

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