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Ridgewater College student inspires Minn. legislation on epilepsy

Ruth Schmitz, an advocate for epilepsy sufferers such as herself, talks about her efforts to encourage development of seizure-smart schools across the state. What started as a college English class assignment at Ridgewater College in Willmar has grown into proposed legislation.

WILLMAR, Minn. -- When Ruth Schmitz was a little girl, it fell to her to tell her teachers and classmates in Paynesville about her epilepsy.

On the first hour of the first day of seventh grade, she had a seizure. When she knocked the books off her desk, the teacher thought she was misbehaving. Kids who knew her told the teacher what was happening, but he was unprepared.

Throughout her school days, Schmitz had to explain epilepsy. She now acts as an advocate for others with epilepsy and volunteers at a summer camp for children with epilepsy.

Now a 38-year-old Ridgewater College student in Willmar, Schmitz wants to spare other Minnesota kids the burden of teaching their teachers.

What started as a college English class assignment has grown into proposed legislation to encourage development of seizure smart schools across the state.

The paper was a proposal for educating people in schools, colleges and universities about how to recognize and respond to seizures. An hour-long training could help reduce bullying and help put to rest the many myths about epilepsy, Schmitz wrote.

Seizure Smart Schools is a program of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, inspired by former University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill.

After she completed her assignment, Schmitz sent her proposal to 16 lawmakers and others around the state. Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, contacted her about the proposal, and so did state Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia. She also heard from legislators representing other areas of the state.

Baker has worked with the foundation to author HF 1422, introduced Thursday, Feb. 21, which would require schools to provide study materials on seizure disorders and symptoms for school personnel. The bill does not require training but encourages it, Baker said.

The law also would require schools to designate an employee trained in seizure medications and in recognizing and responding to seizures.

Schmitz’s story inspired him, Baker said, and he hopes she can tell it to legislative committees.

“Ruth does have a compelling story, and we hear that so often from adults looking back on their childhood,” said Heather Besonen, human resources and advocacy director for the Epilepsy Foundation. “She’s been instrumental in helping us move forward.”

Baker hopes the training can help kids with epilepsy by helping their classmates understand it. “I want to be so protective of anybody who’s made fun of and bullied,” he said.

Wednesday, Feb 27, is Epilepsy Foundation Advocacy Day at the Capitol. Besonen said 100 people representing the foundation, including Schmitz, will be at the Capitol with appointments to meet with their legislators.

Schmitz is happy to see her proposal moving in the Legislature because of the good it could do. “There is a stigma that goes with epilepsy,” she said. “I hope this will help ease the stigma.” More people with the training should help communities, too, she said.

Annual fundraising walks by the foundation would help pay for the cost of the training, so there would be no cost to the schools, Schmitz said.

Schmitz offered some basic directions for helping someone having a seizure:

  • Stay calm.
  • Time it, that’s key, anything over 5 minutes, you have to call 911, because then it’s considered status epileptic.
  • Find out if there’s a rescue medication you need to administer.
  • Keep them safe.
  • Let them know when they wake up out of the seizure that they’re OK and you’re there, that everything’s going to be OK, and they’re not alone.
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