Implant helps Olean woman with epileptic seizures
Kate Day Sager/Olean Times Herald
Megan Blafkin, 55, of Olean has been able to manage epileptic seizures,
which had been a regular part of her life, through the use of a Vagus Nerve
Stimulation implant in her chest.
Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2014 11:40 pm | Updated: 11:43 pm, Sun Jun 22, 2014.
Implant helps Olean woman with epileptic seizures By Kate Day Sager/Olean Times Herald Olean Times Herald
OLEAN — During a class at the former Allegany High School in the early 1970s, Megan Blafkin found out she couldn’t hide her epilepsy from her peers, teachers or community anymore.
Then 15 years old, she fell off a classroom chair, began convulsing with a grand mal seizure and had to be taken to the former St. Francis Hospital for treatment. While it was the worst seizure for her at the time, the uncertainty of when she would have another epileptic episode would follow her for the next 25 years.
Ms. Blafkin’s life was turned around in 1997 when a Cyberonics Vagas Nerve Stimulation (VNS) device was implanted in her chest and helped stop or shorten her seizures. Ms. Blafkin, who has spoken to neurologists at medical conventions about her improved health from use of the VNS, said she also wanted to share her story with her hometown community.
“I grew up in Allegany and when I was 20 months old I had a convulsion from running a high fever,” she recounted. “Mom and dad (the late Margaret and Tom Geary) took me up to St. Francis Hospital and I convulsed for six and a half hours. They went to my parents and said, ‘She’s not going to make it.’”
The child proved them wrong and later returned home with her parents with no diagnoses on what may have induced the convulsions. As a result, her undiagnosed epilepsy and the accompanying partial complex, or petit mal, seizures were something she kept secret from her family and everyone else for several of years.
“I didn’t know how to go to my mom and say, ‘I’m deathly afraid of something and I don’t know what it is,’” she recalled. “I kept them hidden. I’d get what’s called an aura or a sensation” prior to a partial complex seizure. Each time she’d feel the sensation, she would leave the dining room table at home or the classroom in school and go to the bathroom. Once there, she’d sit on the toilet seat and endure the seizure until it subsided.
“I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear and if I talked I didn’t know what I said,” she said. At the age of 15, the concealed illness ended with her grand mal seizure in class. After a 10-day stay in the hospital, however, she returned home and received some advice from her mother.
“She told me, ‘Don’t tell anybody you’ve got this because they won’t understand,’” Ms. Blafkin said. “It was just in the early ’70s and (epilepsy) was unacceptable.”
With that advice in hand, she kept her condition to herself and didn’t explain to school staff or others why she had convulsed.
“I got back to school and got kidded and harassed so bad,” she recalled. And while some medications helped her control the grand mal seizures, the doctors couldn’t find anything that would help the partial complex seizures.
“In 1980 when I moved to California, my mom told me I couldn’t put (the epilepsy information) on my application or no one would hire me,” she said. With that in mind, she applied for an insurance company job where she adjusted claim forms. She did so well at the job that she was promoted three times in one year. When her annual evaluation came up, she shared her medical history with the company’s owner, who looked at her job record and agreed to provide medical insurance for her condition.
“Every job I had after that I had to show them I could do the job, and then I’d let them know” about the epilepsy, she said. Until that happened, however, she would have to go to the restroom at the workplace when she felt the onset of a seizure and wait it out on the toilet.
Over the next 15 years, she married, had a child and moved to Nevada with her family.
All the while, she continued taking her medications for the grand mal seizures, but still saw no hope for controlling the partial complex seizures. During a visit to a neurologist’s office in Nevada in 1997, that all changed when she learned of the VNS implants.
An encounter with a representative with Cyberonics would lead to an implant operation which, in turn, changed her life.
“I was having over 100 petit mal seizures a month and that went down to 10 or 15 a month,” she said. “It was a major, major difference.”
Since that time, she has had two implant replacements to replace devices that had worn out from age. She also had brain surgery four years ago that helped repair some of the damage suffered from the seizures. She retired early because doctors determined stress also could create the onset of seizures.
Ms. Blafkin said when she has the tell-tale symptoms of a seizure, she can avoid or lessen the episode by a simple procedure done with her implant and a magnet device she carries at all times.
A Cyberonics representative explained that patients and their caregivers use the external magnet by briefly holding it over the implant site to produce an extra dose of stimulation.
“This extra dose can potentially shorten or stop a seizure or decrease its intensity or the recovery period,” the representative said.
He further noted VNS Therapy is a neurostimulation treatment option that sometimes is described as a pacemaker for the brain.
“VNS Therapy may be added to medications to help improve seizure control,” the representative added. “A thin thread-like wire, or lead, connected to the generator, runs under the skin and is attached to the left vagus nerve in the neck. The device delivers mild, intermittently pulsed signals to the vagus nerve, which then activates various areas of the brain.”
The official said more than 70,000 patients with epilepsy have been treated worldwide with VNS Therapy since it was approved for use in the United States in 1997.
Ms. Blafkin’s success story was so compelling to officials with Cyberonics that she was asked to speak at a neurological convention in Nevada a number of years ago. While sharing her story with the specialists, she discovered many hadn’t heard of the therapy.
“None of the neurologists knew about the thing or how to run it,” she said.
On a current note, Ms. Blafkin said she moved back to the Olean area three years ago to be closer to family members, including her sisters Grace Nolan and Maureen Luther. She has to travel to Rochester for appointments with neurologists who can monitor her implant, prescribe medication and provide treatment.
She felt compelled to spread the word on her implant because it has helped her take control of her life.
“I want people (and professionals) to know about this,” she said. “So many people don’t realize what the implant, alone, can do.”
(Contact reporter Kate Day Sager at firstname.lastname@example.org)