U of M coach's seizures brings more public attention on epilepsy

MINNEAPOLIS The attention focused on a seizure suffered by University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill 11 days ago has given the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota a chance to educate the public on a medical condition that is much more common...

Coach Kill leaves field with wife after Gophers' win
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, front right, leaves the field with his wife, Rebecca after Minnesota defeated Miami, Ohio, 29-23 for Kill's first win at Minnesota in an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid)


The attention focused on a seizure suffered by University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill 11 days ago has given the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota a chance to educate the public on a medical condition that is much more common than most people realize - but also is shrouded in misinformation.

"Every person has a seizure threshold," said Vicki Kopplin, the foundation's executive director. "A seizure is definitely something that could happen to anyone at any time."

Kopplin also discussed the prevalence of epilepsy, the long-term prognosis for people who suffer from it and the public stigma attached to it.

Q. The university seems to be going out of its way to avoid using the term "epilepsy" for Coach Kill's condition. Is there a stigma attached to that term?


A. We do come across a stigma, unfortunately. "Seizure disorder" [the term used by the university] has become a more acceptable term. A lot of times even physicians will not use the word epilepsy. The physicians we've talked to have said that many people react so strongly to the term epilepsy because of all the misinformation and misconceptions around the word.

Q. If a person has multiple seizures, isn't that, by definition, epilepsy?

A. Correct. Epilepsy is defined simply as two or more unprovoked seizures of a neurological origin.

Q. How prevalent is it?

A. Very prevalent, actually. Somewhere between 1 and 1.5 percent of the population will have epilepsy. In Minnesota, that amounts to about 60,000 people -- or 3 million Americans. In fact, it's the third most common neurological condition behind Alzheimer's and stroke. It just doesn't get the press that some of the other conditions do.

Q. Any idea why?

A. There's been a lot of misinformation about it, including reports that it's connected to mental illness. It's not. It's a neurological situation in which the electrodes misfired for a brief time, nothing more.

Q. If I understand correctly, there's a huge range of seizures, from the violent episode we saw with Coach Kill to ones so mild people don't even realize they are happening.


A. There are actually 20 different types of seizures, everything from what we call an "absence seizure," which would be characterized as blank staring or repetitive movements or lip smacking, to a full "tonic-clonic" seizure, which is what Coach Kill experienced.

Q. The university blamed his seizure on the heat, stress and dehydration. Are there common triggers people can watch out for?

A. There are triggers. Strobe lights are considered a risk for photo-sensitive epilepsy, but that affects a very small group of people. The most common ones are lack of sleep, stress, caffeine for some people and dehydration. Any one of us would be susceptible to a seizure if we were sleep-deprived. Everyone has a seizure threshold. ... Some people's threshold is much lower than others'.

Q. If people with epilepsy become aware of the triggers that affect them and get the seizures under control with medication, what's their long-term prognosis?

A. People can live long, healthy lives with epilepsy.

Q. What should we do if someone has a seizure?

A. The best thing to do is to keep the person safe. So if it's that tonic-clonic convulsion-type seizure, you want to get them to the ground and remove any objects around them. And then you want to time the seizures. Most seizures last a minute to two, even though it seems like a lot longer when you are experiencing it. If a seizure lasts more than five minutes, you should call 911.

As someone comes out of a seizure, be very calm and reassuring. That person will be confused and unaware of their surroundings, so to be greeted by someone who is calm and reassuring is very important.


Q. For people who want more information, can they start with your website: ?

A. Absolutely. Coincidentally, we have an annual workshop coming up Oct. 15, another great resource for people affected by epilepsy. ... Minnesota is known for its tremendous care in epilepsy. We have four major epilepsy centers [listed on the website], so there is no reason that someone in Minnesota should go without the very best care for their seizures.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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