The uncertainty of seizures

Without warning, Hunter Davies suffered a potentially fatal seizure. What caused the attack - and whether it will happen again - no one can tell
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

On 5 June this year, on a beach near Cannes, surrounded by my nearest and dearest, the day after the wedding of my younger daughter Flora, I had a fit. There was no warning, no lights flashing, no headaches, no out- of-body feelings. I just suddenly started having a violent seizure. My limbs thrashed about, my face turned blue and then white. Blood came from my mouth, where I had bitten my lip. Not that I knew any of this at the time, as I'd passed out. I woke up about 20 minutes later in an ambulance, racing through the back streets of Cannes.

Looking back, I was so lucky that it happened in a fairly safe place, on a sandy beach where I couldn't do myself much damage and with lots of people around. It could very easily have happened when I'd swum out to a raft on my own, and presumably would have drowned. Or two days earlier when I was bombing down the A1 at 80mph on the way to Newcastle airport. Each year, there are 1,000 seizure-related deaths - half of them the result of drowning or injury after the seizure itself.

My two granddaughters, alas, were on the beach with me and had to witness what happened. Ruby, aged five, still says to me "Humper," - which is her nickname for me, being a combination of Grandpa and Hunter - "when will you be having another fit?" I told her never again, so I hope. But if I do, I said I'd give her £10. Which of course was a pretty stupid thing to say. She now watches me like a hawk.

What happened to me was simple. What caused it, that's a bit more difficult to explain.

In the local hospital in Cannes, I had a head x-ray and an ECG, both of which appeared to show a few blips and abnormalities which they needed to investigate further. They wanted me to stay and have an MRI - Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which is the most exact and most expensive way of examining the human body, involving a giant magnet and radio waves. I would have had it the next day, but after three days it still hadn't happened so I begged them to let me out. They gave me an anti-convulsion drug in order to fly home safely.

I saw my local GP in Cockermouth (we live half of each year in the Lake District, the other half in London). He said I would not be able to drive for a year. One isolated seizure, regardless of the cause, means you have to hand in your licence. He also referred me to a neurologist at the local hospital, who studied the French scans and x-rays, and didn't think they were too worrying, but put me down for a MRI. West Cumberland Hospital doesn't have its own machine. They use a mobile one, which goes round various hospitals. I'd never heard of such a thing. Like an ice cream van, or travelling library, only a great deal bigger, being inside a 40ft articulated truck, it arrives, parks, then customers queue up and step in.

After I'd been done, which took 20 minutes (with earphones on as it's hellishly noisy), I noticed that the driver was in his cabin at the front. He was sitting in his shorts, his bare feet up, watching TV.

The result of the MRI scan was good news. "We could not see any abnormalities," the neurologist wrote. This means the old brain looks normal. Nothing appears to have gone wrong.

So what caused my dramatic seizure? Ah, if I could explain such a thing exactly, I'd be rich enough to buy my own MRI scanner. Two, in fact, one for London, one for Lakeland.

Two months before the wedding, I had a total knee replacement at the Royal Free in London. It's still agony, but I'm trying not to think about it. In the hospital they gave me a painkiller called Tramadol, which my local chemist tells me is now one of the most popular strong painkillers in the country.

I took quite a few of the Tramadol tablets before my daughter's wedding in France, though no more than were prescribed. I didn't want to be hobbling around, moaning and groaning. And I had quite a bit to drink, as you do at a wedding, though I wasn't drunk. In fact, my wife and I packed up first, went back to the hotel and had a swim. The seizure happened 24 hours later, on the beach when it was all over, and we were all relaxed and happy. I was just about to take my first sip of lunchtime wine when it started.

In discussions with the neurologist, and thinking back over the sequence of events, it appears to have been a combination of the painkiller mixed with alcohol that caused the seizure. Why it took 24 hours, God knows.

So it was my own fault - I shouldn't have drunk anything while on the painkiller. Like most people, I ignore the small print on most medicines. But when it emerged that it could have been something to do with the Tramadol, I got out the leaflet again and studied the small print. It does say that one of the rare side effects includes "convulsions (fits)". No one ever pointed this out when I was first given them at the Royal Free. Or told me not to have any alcohol with them. But, I admit, I should not have done so.

On the other hand, that might not be the cause of my seizure, so since it happened, fearing that I might have another attack, I have tried to be sensible, which is not at all like me. I don't go up ladders, walk on walls, avoid anything that might be dangerous or harm me, should I pass out and fall. I tell my wife exactly where I'm going, and for how long. Very boring. I now know I shouldn't use the word "fit", but I do. It's not considered PC, smacking of insanity or rage. Nor am I supposed to refer to anyone as an "epileptic". The correct usage, according to the charity Epilepsy Action, is a "person with epilepsy".

Technically, I don't have epilepsy. That refers to someone who has had recurrent seizures. All I've had so far is an isolated fit, sorry, isolated seizure. One in 20 of the population will have a single seizure at one time in their lives, which means 3 million people, so I am not alone.

I don't honestly expect to have another attack, but if I do, I'll be joining the 456,000 people in the UK officially confirmed with epilepsy. They permanently have to be sensible, just in case. Medication does help and the vast majority live normal, active lives.

Albert Einstein had epilepsy, as did Thomas Edison and Bud Abbott. Julius Caesar, Socrates and Napoleon are all believed to have been sufferers. Present-day people reported to have the condition include Elton John and Rik Mayall. It can affect anyone, of any age, from any walk of life. Many people who develop epilepsy when young do grow out of it by adulthood. My granddaughter Ruby did have what appeared to be a form of epilepsy aged three, and went on medication for a year, but now seems absolutely fine.

She does quite a good imitation of me, having a fit, I mean seizure, which is in very bad taste and should certainly not be encouraged, but it makes me laugh. Well, you have to...

Need to know

* Around one in 20 people will have a seizure at some point in their lives, many of whom will never have another one.

* A first seizure may be a sign of epilepsy (meaning recurrent seizures) but less than one per cent of the population is affected by the condition, so for many, the cause of their seizure may never be identified.

* Seizures can last from a few seconds to a few minutes and are caused by a burst of abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

* Some people have strange sensations just before a seizure, such as a sense of déjà vu, or strange tastes or smells.

* Seizures can be "partial", when the disruption in one part of the brain causes problems with an isolated area such as muscles or behaviour, or they are "generalised", where the whole brain is affected and people can lose consciousness or suffer convulsions.

* Excessive alcohol intake or drinking combined with prescription or illegal drugs is a major cause of first-ever seizures in adults.

* The chance of another seizure is greatest in the first six months, but after two years, there is less than a 10-per-cent chance of it happening again.

Maxine Frith

Comments