‘Grand Mal’ features a story of late onset epilepsy

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Unbeknownst to me, the mosquito bite I failed to avoid gave me a case of encephalitis, a viral infection that causes inflammation of the brain. Although I recovered fairly quickly from a presentation of flu-like symptoms of the disease, the disease left residual damage to my brain. This damage was the cause of my epilepsy which emerged this turbulent summer and continues to lurk inside me, still waiting to take control.

Jane returned from California and we prepared for a camping holiday in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. We were both teachers and loved to travel, a good combination since we had work schedules that allowed us to take long trips abroad, which we had done frequently. Our appetites were whetted for an attempt at international life, but my enlistment in the National Guard had kept us from seriously considering it until my release, so we went to see the world – Europe, Tahiti, South Africa the East, the Amazon and more.

Our flight to the Atlas Mountains included a stopover in London where we went to the theater and sat on the balcony. During the intermission, I was walking holding the railing that led down to the big circle and my hearing blurred and then disappeared. I had a strange, slightly disoriented feeling, but I kept my tingling hand on the railing and tried to push my way through the crowd and find an exit away from the edge of the balcony. I recovered so I didn’t tell my wife about it. I now know it was an aura, a warning of a possible crisis, and something that would become very familiar.

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We flew to Morocco and the camping started. After traveling to Casablanca and Marrakech, we pitched our tents at a campsite outside Fez and spent several days exploring the fascinating medieval medina, a treat for me as a history teacher. Its narrow streets, often only one meter wide, prohibited motorized traffic and formed a maze of souks filled with spices, dates, carpets and various traditional objects. Crossing them was perhaps as close as possible to going back in time. The most memorable sight was the Leather Souk, the oldest leather tannery in the world. The smell was foul but the colors and process spectacular – a honeycomb of stone vessels in sections with many basins of richly colored dye, barefoot workers walking the narrow edges of the vats and using poles to produce fabulous leather products.

While we were seeing the sights of Fes, it was extremely hot, over 90°, and when we returned to our international travelers campsite, Jane changed into a two-piece bathing suit while I went barefoot and put on my bathing suit and a T-shirt. We were preparing to dismantle our tent to move on. Jane was outside and I entered the tent to pack my things. Jane then heard a loud scream that she thought was non-human. Her immediate thought was that I might have been shot, but when she entered the tent, she saw me lying on the ground, convulsing violently. She grabbed one of my leather belts and tried to force it into my mouth. It wasn’t possible with my jaw clenched and she screamed for help. Soon others were in the tent, among them our tour guide, and the camp director was contacted.

I stopped convulsing but was incoherent and totally unconscious when a flatbed truck arrived and the assembled campers placed me on a stretcher to load me onto my back. Jane took some clothes since we were in a Muslim country and, with our guide, rode in the truck cab to a public hospital. It was a fortified installation with security at its entrance. Once we were allowed in, what was found guarded from the public was a very wide circular driveway surrounding a large rectangular structure. At the entrance to the hospital, Jane and others got me off the truck and put me on a stretcher. She and our guide took me down a hallway in search of a doctor. The hallway we walked down was dirty and crowded with people strapped to IVs, sitting on the floor. The open squat toilets were visible and filthy as cockroaches scurried about in the unsanitary conditions.

I was in and out of consciousness at the time and remember I was soon lying on one of 20 single metal frame beds with thin mattresses in a sparsely furnished room with a concrete floor. This is where the doctors, who all spoke French, saw several patients at a time. Jane’s French was basic, while our novice guide’s French was only slightly more advanced, so communication was a challenge. Jane tried to mimic a seizure to convey what had happened and she didn’t want me to watch because she was afraid it would trigger another episode. She also didn’t want me to know what had happened. I had partially dislocated my shoulder during my seizures and the doctor made no mention of the seizure, but said she was going to send me for someone to pull on my arm to reposition my shoulder.

At this point, Jane did what was to become her habit; she loaded up. She is this rather small, neat and delicate person and has always looked considerably younger than she is, but when my health has been an issue and the care was questionable or slow, be careful. She becomes extremely assertive and time and time again has taken me through difficulties that I could not handle or in many cases were unaware of.

She had lost all faith in this public facility and rather than push the stretcher to the shoulder realignment area, she and the guide walked to the point where we had entered the building and exited. They managed to get me off the stretcher and at that point I could lean against a pillar and stand, but no more. There were at least a hundred yards from the entrance to the compound where cars were let in and the sidewalk was unusually hot. Jane tried to chase the few admitted cars to stop them, but had no luck. After a while she and the guide decided they were going to have to lead me out of the compound to the main streets where it might be possible to hail a taxi. The guide gave me her flip flops so as not to burn my feet, because she sacrificed hers. With one arm on Jane and the other on the guide, I was dragged across the hot surface and we made our start. Outside the hospital grounds we got a ride to our campsite.

When I arrived at the campground, I was installed in the shade of a tree, because it was still extremely hot. Without a doctor or medical attention, Jane had no idea what to do next, and I was of no use. It is indicative of her state of mind that one idea she had was to buy a plane to fly to London where we would be safe. She still hadn’t told me anything other than that I had passed out and hurt my shoulder.

After a while, the camp director came to tell us that he had found a doctor who could help us. We arranged for a driver and went to see him. The doctor was an older French expat with a private clinic who had a standing x-ray machine which Jane said looked like “something out of an old movie”. She could see my bones as I stood behind. The doctor noted my shoulder injury but did nothing drastic to realign it. He understood that I had suffered a convulsion and suspected that it was caused by the heat. In his opinion, it was a febrile seizure rather than epilepsy, so probably a one-time event. This doctor was not a neurologist and he could have called it a “provoked” seizure, because it is believed that febrile seizures only occur in children. He prescribed phenobarbital and we returned to the campsite to complete our camping trip.

Six of us traveled in a van and put all our travel gear in a metal box, which was stored on top when we moved from place to place. I was the strongest and lifted the box intermittently. Following my seizure and as an effect of being on phenobarbital, I was groggy and uncertain so I often napped in the van and did not exercise. The only other man in our group refused to help with the box and complained about how I had inconvenienced him. The women cooperated and managed to load the box for the rest of the trip. During this time, Jane told me that I had had a seizure, but not how extreme it had been. We weren’t too worried, as the doctor had thought it was unlikely to happen again.


Robert Dodge was a history teacher for 37 years and an expatriate for 35 years. He is the author of eight non-fiction books. Dodge earned a BA in history and a master’s in education from North Dakota State University and an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.


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