By SHARI RUDAVSKY
The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ On the second day of her hospital stay at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, Brandy Gibson still hadn’t had a seizure while under the watchful eye of her doctors, nurses and the neuro-monitoring equipment connected to her scalp.
The doctors had tried their best to prompt one, shining bright lights in her eyes, making sounds, changing the temperature.
Nothing worked until Gibson grabbed her phone and Googled pictures of open fridges.
As she had predicted, within a minute or two, she had a seizure, captured on the state-of-the-art neuro-telemetry equipment a few rooms away.
“Refrigerators were what caused my seizures,” Gibson said. “I showed them I could put myself into seizures.”
It’s not uncommon for people who experience epileptic seizures to have certain triggers. For some people, it can be flashing lights, sounds like church bells or certain types of music, or hot water.
But Gibson’s was a rare case. For Gibson, who lives near Angola, Indiana, looking at an open refrigerator, even a picture of one, could bring on a seizure.
Her local doctors could not help her, so they referred her to IU Health’s Neuroscience Center. In January, she underwent surgery that has cured the problem for now.
“If you take the refrigerator out of it … this is what we do routinely in epilepsy surgery,” said Dr. Nicholas Barbaro, a neurosurgeon with Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine and chair of the department of neurological surgery at IU School of Medicine.
About 40 percent of the 3 million people who have epilepsy continue having seizures even once they take medicine, said Dr. Vicenta Salanova, medical director of IU Health’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Program. Experts estimate that only about 1 percent of those who would benefit from surgery to correct their epilepsy end up in a program like IU Health’s that can help.
Gibson’s seizures began four years ago, when she became pregnant with her first child, Calie. At the time, she didn’t realize they were seizures. When she looked into a freezer, an odd feeling of joy would wash over her and she would laugh happily.
After she gave birth to Calie, those moments disappeared _ until her next pregnancy about a year and a half later with her second child, a son named Bryson. This time, open refrigerators provoked the seizures.
Nor were they as innocuous. She felt like she had blacked out for the duration of the seizure. Others in the room would see her stare into space without seeing. When she came to, she would have no idea how long the seizure had lasted or what had occurred during it.
“My mind slowed,” she said, trying to explain the sensation.
Over time, she had seizures not prompted by a refrigerator. Some days she had as many as six. As stressful as her life already was, Bryson died at age 4 and a half months.
Cooking at home was a challenge, because most meals required her to open the refrigerator. So Gibson often fed her family fast food for dinner.
“I stayed away from the fridge,” she said.
The seizures continued as she grieved _ and through her third pregnancy. She didn’t like living with the feeling that they could happen at any time and she worried her condition might grow worse.
A few months after her son, Villis Whitaker III, now 18 months old, was born, Gibson went to the epilepsy specialists at IU Health’s Neuroscience Center, the state’s only Level Four epilepsy center in the state that handles the most complicated cases.
Last summer, she met with Salanova, who recognized her seizures as those triggered by visual patterns, such as stripes, gratings or even the patterns that escalator stairs create. For Gibson, that pattern is the open maw of a refrigerator.
Tests performed revealed that Gibson’s seizures originated in the left side of her brain. Doctors would have to do another round of tests, placing the electrodes directly on her brain to pinpoint the exact location of the problem.
Barbaro was concerned. The best outcome would be for Gibson’s temporal lobe to be responsible for the seizures, because that area would be easier to reach than other areas deeper in the brain.
But the temporal lobe normally plays a role in recognizing places, rather than objects, like, well, refrigerators. Luckily, tests proved her temporal lobe was to blame.
“The brain has ways to recognize these neuronal patterns and translate that into conscious thought,” Barbaro said. “It may have been that it (the refrigerator) was a location for her as much as an object.”
During a four-hour surgery, Barbaro removed the problem area of the brain. Since then, Gibson has been able to return to work and has been basically seizure-free, though she continues to take medicine.
And she can look not just at pictures of refrigerators but full on into one _ veggie crisper, butter dish, and all _ without triggering a seizure.