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Aspiring Teacher Pushes Through Epilepsy Barriers

Tuesday, May 22, 2018 8:41 AM

Ever since she was a little girl, Marissa Brown dreamed of a career that would take her around the world. “I’ve always wanted to travel and teach,” said the 24-year-old from Vernon Hills, who is certified to teach English as a foreign language abroad. But thus far, epilepsy has stood in the way of her professional passion.

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Brown was diagnosed with the disorder at age 12, resulting from abnormal electrical signals between nerve cells in the brain causing seizures. Despite taking the strongest medications to control her condition, she still struggled with multiple seizures every day.

“For years, I was fearful and felt like a victim of my illness,” recalled Brown, who didn’t feel confident travelling anywhere far from home.

Expertise Where You Live

“We diagnosed Marissa with generalized convulsive, or ‘grand mal,’ seizures,” explained Neurologist Jaishree Narayanan, MD, Director of NorthShore Neurological Institute’s Epilepsy Program. “We thought she’d be a strong candidate to receive vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), as multiple anti-seizure medications weren’t effective.” VNS is an implanted device similar to a heart pacemaker that gives periodic stimulation to the brain, helping prevent or interrupt seizures.

As a Level 3 epilepsy center—the highest level of accreditation—NorthShore provides the highest level of evaluation and treatment for patients. This includes a specialized inpatient Epilepsy Monitoring Unit, which identifies a patient’s individual epileptic patterns and helps develop a personalized treatment plan.

In November 2016, Brown underwent the outpatient VNS procedure with Dr. Narayanan’s colleague—Neurosurgeon Shakeel Chowdhry, MD. Both physicians hold academic appointments at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

Best-in-Class Care
“Dr. Chowdhry made a small incision in Marissa’s upper left chest to implant a tiny generator,” Dr. Narayanan explained. “A second small incision in the neck enables the surgeon to connect thin wires under the skin that lead from the device to the left vagus nerve and stimulate it with electrical impulses.”

The device effectively delivers small impulses to Brown’s brain from the vagus nerve every few minutes to reduce seizure risk. She also can activate the device herself with a small magnet if she senses the start of a seizure.

Since undergoing the procedure, Brown has experienced a dramatic drop in seizures and is looking forward to eventually tapering off her medication and fully reclaiming her life. “I have hope for the future and becoming fully independent,” said Brown, who, with continued care at NorthShore, hopes to fulfill her dream of a teaching career abroad. “My NorthShore doctors are fantastic!”