If you have a worsening epilepsy condition or suspect you have epilepsy, do not wait to get care. Even in the age of COVID-19, it is crucial for individuals with poorly controlled seizures to see an epilepsy specialist right away for medical evaluation. That’s the message that Elena Stoddard hopes other people take away from her story.

Elena and Kristiina Stoddard

Elena was a typical 18-year-old, looking forward to graduating from high school and full of hopes for the future. That all changed when, out of the blue one winter day in 2020, she began to feel strange. “I experienced a deep sense of overwhelm – that’s the only way I can explain it,” Elena said. Then, she blacked out. Elena had never had health problems before, but just two weeks later she experienced a similar episode. Her mom, Kristiina, was concerned a more chronic issue was emerging and did not want to ignore a potentially serious problem.

Although Elena and her family were worried about her symptoms, they were also wary of seeking care during the COVID-19 pandemic. After an ER visit and a follow-up consultation with a cardiologist, Kristiina scheduled an appointment for Elena with Mohankumar Kurukumbi, MD, an epileptologist, neurologist and the Medical Director of Inova’s Epilepsy Center, which is part of Inova Neuroscience and Spine Institute.

Dr. Kurukumbi thought that Elena’s symptoms may be caused by epilepsy, a neurological condition characterized by electrical surges in the brain that cause seizures. He recommended that Elena be monitored in the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit (EMU) at Inova Fairfax Hospital to track her brain activity and determine whether or not she was having seizures. 

At the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit

In order to properly evaluate Elena’s condition, she had to stay overnight in the hospital for several days. This was something she had never done before. To help keep Elena calm and assist with identifying episodes, Kristiina was permitted to stay in Elena’s hospital room at a time when hospital visitation was restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kristiina was touched by the Inova team’s consideration and compassion in allowing her to stay with her daughter despite COVID-19-related restrictions.

“Elena was at a vulnerable time in life. She was on the cusp of a lot of exciting change, now interrupted, likely with a yet-to-be-defined medical situation,” Kristiina said.

At the EMU, Elena’s brain waves and symptoms were monitored constantly by continuous video EEG. Dr. Kurukumbi and his team use EEG results, in addition to MRI scans, to pinpoint the precise area of the brain where seizures originate and determine how they affect the brain and the body. This is an important step in providing an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.

Elena shared, “I felt safe because all of the doctors, nurses, technologists and cleaning crew wore masks and gloves and followed all necessary COVID-19 precautions. Food was served from a distance. I read books and watched some movies for nearly a week while my brain was being monitored. I never went anywhere, as I was isolated. You could say that I was social distancing from my hospital room.”

The Right Treatment for Elena

Inova’s Epilepsy Center is one of the region’s most comprehensive epilepsy programs. It is designated as a level four epilepsy center, the highest certification available by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers (NAEC). The center offers in-depth evaluation, including a variety of testing modalities, EEG monitoring in the EMU and patient-centered treatment. The center’s cutting-edge therapies include epilepsy surgery, laser ablative surgery, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), responsive nerve stimulation (RNS) and newer anti-seizure drugs that can help to better manage patients with controlled and uncontrolled epilepsy.

With the information they gained during Elena’s admission to the EMU, Dr. Kurukumbi and his care team were able to diagnose the source of Elena’s seizures and formulate an appropriate treatment plan.

“It’s important for the onset of newly suspected epilepsy, as well as existing cases that become more severe, to seek medical attention. Then, if indicated, patients should come to an accredited hospital epilepsy program with an epilepsy monitoring unit and not delay,” Dr. Kurukumbi said.

Epilepsy is a complex medical condition that can take many forms. With proper diagnosis and treatment, a person, along with his or her medical team, can strive to minimize seizure frequency and triggers. In some cases, the person can even become seizure free.

Following her evaluation and stay, Elena was prescribed medication for her epilepsy, is living at home and thriving. Like many young adults in 2020, she will miss the usual rites of passage, including a live high school graduation ceremony, prom and other fun events that high school graduates look forward to. In this new normal, she is practicing social distancing while managing her newly diagnosed epilepsy. Nevertheless, her head is clear, and she is living without fear as she plans the next phase of her life.

Despite being concerned about COVID-19, Elena and her family put Elena’s life into Inova’s hands – and they are glad they did. If their worries about COVID-19 infection were put above the need for prompt diagnosis and medical treatment, Elena’s condition could have been much worse. The right treatment at the right time saved Elena months of needless suffering. She returned home from Inova Fairfax Hospital with an effective epilepsy treatment plan.

“It was very comforting and reassuring to see how my daughter’s diagnosis and care were managed. We are grateful the staff went out of their way to help us feel safe and comfortable with sensitivity, warmth and medical attention,” said Kristiina. “I am confident in her diagnosis as well as the care to prevent COVID-19. We cannot think of anything more that could have been done.”

Get Help for Epilepsy

Learn about services and treatments available at Inova’s Epilepsy Center or call 703-845-1500 to schedule an appointment.

To learn about Inova’s hospitals, including information about coronavirus care and safety measures, click here.

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