McHENRY – Phil Abraham had a healthy, normal childhood – until at age 11 he began having recurring seizures that sent him into a spiral of depression and memory loss.
Thanks to a simple procedure, Abraham, now 51, is living a drastically better life.
Abraham, of Island Lake, is one of 50 million people worldwide affected by epilepsy. According to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, epilepsy is the third most common neurological disorder, with nearly 200,000 new cases diagnosed annually.
“I can’t remember my first seizure at all,” Abraham said. “I was just kicking along like a normal kid and playing on the hood of my dad’s car. I was acting like Tarzan and hit my head on a tree branch.
“I can’t recall much after that.”
In the years since, Abraham has been prescribed anti-convulsion medications, which have had only a small effect.
He now takes five different medications for his seizures.
“Even with his seizure control medication, he was still experiencing two to four seizures a week, taking nearly an hour to recover from each,” said Abraham’s wife of 18 years, Mary, 55.
Because of the seizures, Phil Abraham is unemployed and is no longer able to drive.
He also has memory loss due to the number of seizures he has experienced, said Abraham’s McHenry-based neurologist, Dr. Robert Kohn. That is because many seizures arrive in the hippocampus, the part of the human brain that controls short-term memory.
Loss of overall memory is an indication that epilepsy is advancing and a clue that a patient could be helped by vagus nerve stimulation therapy, Kohn said.
Vagus nerve stimulation therapy is a neurostimulation treatment option that aims to minimize the frequency of seizures. A pacemakerlike device – the size of a small watch and weighing less than an ounce – is implanted in the left side of the chest, and then a small threadlike wire connected to the device is run under the skin up the neck to the vagus nerve.
“The device in the chest sends an electrical signal to the nerve. The vagus nerve sends signals to the brain and other organs,” Kohn said. “With vagus nerve stimulation therapy, electrical signals are sent almost constantly in order to decrease excitability in brain regions that are associated with epilepsy.”
The surgery is outpatient and usually takes about six weeks to six months to take effect, Kohn said.
Phil Abraham, however, was hesitant to have the surgery.
“It took Phil’s sister, a registered nurse, and Dr. Kohn, Phil’s neurologist, to convince Phil that vagus nerve stimulation therapy would be a good option for him,” Mary Abraham said.
Phil Abraham said the surgery on Nov. 21, 2011, was not as bad as he expected.
“The surgery was your average surgery; they just sliced open my chest and put the sucker in there,” he said. “The whole thing took about three hours including prep time.”
Because of the device, Phil Abraham has cut his seizures down to as few as one a month.
The implanted device contains a small battery, which needs to be replaced about every six years via a small surgical procedure. The battery sends the electrical charge to the vagus nerve consistently, Kohn said.
“Before a seizure comes on, it will generally cause a stomach pain or nausea,” Kohn said. “When a patient who has received the procedure feels this, they can swipe a magnet over the battery which will increase the signal. This can often prevent the seizure from occurring.”
Abraham uses his magnet often.
“Now if I feel it coming, I can make the seizure go away,” said Abraham, smiling.
The effects the therapy had on Abraham’s character were apparent.
“He was very disabled before vagus nerve stimulation therapy, and Mary was uncomfortable leaving him at home when she had to work,” Kohn said. “When I first met Phil, he was much more irritable and argumentative. I would even say he was unhappy.
“Now, he has a very funny sense of humor, he’s clever, and he’s able to relate to people and hold a conversation.”
Phil Abraham’s experience mirrors that of other patients who have seen fewer seizures with the device. It also can be used to treat patients with depression, Kohn said.
“At six months, there is a 35 percent reduction in seizures, and at 10 years after surgery there is a 75 percent reduction in seizures,” Kohn said. “It is considered as effective as anti-convulsive medication.”
Abraham now takes a lot of walks, enjoys music and going to rock concerts, riding his bicycle, swimming, playing the drums and being able to do more around the house.
Those closest to Abraham also can see the difference.
“I know he’s a lot happier now,” Mary Abraham said. “Whether it’s just riding his bike up to the store or having fun playing with our new kittens, Phil’s life has greatly improved thanks to this treatment.”