Written by: Mutshidzi Kwinda
When I was growing up, I witnessed my brother suffer from epileptic seizures. The sight of it was unbearable and I felt useless because I could not get myself to help him. Nor did I understand what was wrong with him. One of the challenges that came with my brother’s illness is that he is mute (with no sign language background) and illiterate. So it was (and still is) not easy to communicate. A detriment result of such complications is heartbreaking. Especially when he is in pain and unable to express himself.
Another devastating thing, I realized, is having a chronic illness and being poor in a developing country. For this, I can also attest through the experience I amassed with my cancer journey. The main purpose of this article is to share knowledge, awareness, and tips on how to help someone who is suffering from epilepsy. Especially in developing and rural areas where information is not readily available.
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a chronic noncommunicable (cannot be transmitted from one person to another) disease of the brain which is characterized by recurrent seizures. Seizures (also known as Fits or Convulsions) on the other hand, form part of signs and symptoms of epilepsy. They are defined as brief episodes of involuntary movement that may involve a part of the body or the entire body and are sometimes accompanied by loss of consciousness and control of bowel or bladder function.
It is difficult to come to terms with a chronic illness without knowing an apparent cause for it. It further brings confusion to both the bearer of the illness as well as the caretakers and the community. The results of such confusion bring forth discrimination, social stigma, fear, and misunderstanding. Factors that correspond to reasons why many people develop or have a high risk of developing other psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety when suffering from epilepsy.
People with epilepsy, as I have witnessed through my brother for over twenty years, have more other intertwined physical problems such as injuries and bruising from seizures. Therefore, it is important to know, if you are a caretaker, how to best help in cases of seizures/convulsions.
What are the causes of epilepsy?
At the age of six, my brother started experiencing seizures which would occur now and then. However, it was unclear what caused it and with poor medical facilities in our area, it was not easy to get a diagnosis for him. By the time he found medical assistance, a year had lapsed. And he had endured multiple injuries that would later compromise his cognitive brain function.
Causes of epilepsy may vary with people and in some cases (approximately 50% of cases worldwide) the cause of the disease is still unknown; as noted by the world health organization. Common causes include genetics, severe head injury resulting in brain damage, stroke that restricts oxygen flow to the brain, brain infection, or a brain tumor.
What can you do to help someone with seizures?
Epilepsy cannot be cured but the signs and symptoms such as seizures can be managed with medications. One of the reasons I studied pharmacy was merely to help my brother with his medications and to best care for him in any way possible. Here are some of the things I learned in my undergraduate academics’ years and during my first aid course.
Seizures usually last for a few minutes. While the person is having seizures, make sure there is nothing around him that can potentially harm him. If he or she is wearing tight clothes (especially around the neck) that could cause breathing difficulties, remove them. If they have something in their mouth like chewing gum, sweet, or anything at all, remove it to avoid choking. When they are done, put them on their side (recovering position). And put something under the head to ease breathing. If wearing eyeglasses, remove them as well.
What NOT to do
- Do not offer food or water or anything by mouth until the person is fully alert. This is to avoid damaging the teeth and to protect them from choking.
- Do not try to stop the seizures or try to hold them down. Stay back, calm, and wait for them to finish.
- Do not try to do CPR or mouth to mouth unless they stop breathing.
When to call for help?
Call for medical emergency if,
- Seizures last for more than five minutes or if they occur continuously.
- If the person is struggling to breathe or is choking.
- If the seizures are happening in the water.
- And if the person sustained injuries during seizures.