Renee Thomas proudly talks about how her 9½-month-old foster son, Steven, took his very first step a few days ago.
It was a shaky attempt, but it was a big accomplishment for the youngster. He is dealing with infantile seizures that come with epilepsy -- the result of being born with herpes encephalitis, a viral infection in his brain that was passed to him through his biological mother.
Thomas took Steven in when he was 2 months old, despite warnings from social workers in Tulare County about the child's medical history.
"I said 'Yes, I"ll take him.' It didn't matter to me," says Thomas during an appointment with Dr. Andrew Mower at Children's Hospital Central California in February.
There was really no need to caution Thomas, who herself was a foster child and has dealt with dyslexia all her life. When she thought about taking in a foster child, her five biological children -- the youngest is 14 years old -- had confidence their mom would be up to the challenges that came from Steven's epilepsy.
"I prayed and said 'Lord, whatever child you need in my house, that I can help and is dear to my heart, I'll do it,' " Thomas says. "When I was young, they told my grandmother that I would never learn. Not only did I graduate from high school, but I graduated from (College of the Sequoias). In every accomplishment, I wish I could tell the doctor he was wrong."
That's why Thomas has faith that Steven has a strong chance for a normal life with the help of Mower, whose specialty is the identification and treatment of epilepsy.
If you look at the human brain as a computer, then epilepsy is a wiring problem. It's a little easier for Mower to think in more mechanical terms because the Houston native started out studying engineering.
"I got my degree in engineering from Vanderbilt, but I hated it because it just wasn't personal enough for me," Mower says. "I just felt like I needed to do something directly with people."
While working on his engineering degree, Mower had been taking some pre-med courses with the thought of going into medicine. Once he realized he had made the wrong career path choice, he switched to medicine. His initial thoughts were to work in general pediatrics. He didn't decide to specialize in the study of epilepsy until he began to deal with patients with neurological problems.
Mower has always had a fascination with how the brain works and how various disorders come about. He found with epilepsy that would deal with patients and their families.
It helps when he's dealing with a parent like Thomas, who doesn't look at Steven's epilepsy as a roadblock. She sees it as a hurdle that she will be able to help him get over with patience and love.
Mower says the youngster's early attempt to walk is not just a sign he's improving: He's doing "phenomenally well."
Epilepsy was once considered a social taboo, but great strides have been made in dealing with the disorder -- from education to treatment that could include surgery.
Mower wants the public to understand that people with epilepsy aren't mentally challenged. It wasn't that many years ago that many people thought it could be contracted like a common cold.
A chronic neurological disorder that usually includes seizures, epilepsy has to do with the way the brain synapses fire. In most people, the firing is rather regular and controlled. For those dealing with epilepsy, the firings are uncontrolled.
The most obvious symptom of epilepsy is an involuntary spasm -- as subtle as a twitch of an eye or strong enough to shake a child's entire body. Seizures manifest depending on which part of the brain is activated or inactivated. Most often with the convulsive seizures, a person will stiffen and begin to jerk. Many will turn blue and foam at the mouth or their eyes will roll back in their head. Non-convulsive seizures can look like the person is just staring into space for a few moments.
Brief seizures don't damage the brain for most people. But more severe seizures -- when not under control -- create a risk for rewiring the brain that makes the next seizure easier to happen.
Seizures can last for a few seconds or as long as an hour. Those with extended seizures should be taken for medical attention because the possibility of extended neurological damage increases. While those seizures can be frightening to watch, Mower says it's extremely rare to die from a seizure.
Epilepsy is triggered by a head trauma -- injury, menigitis, metabolical disorders and some genetic disorders -- that cause certain parts of the brain to start sending signals that trigger seizures.
Genetics is one of the leading contributors. But Mower says its not as simple as it being passed from generation to generation. Even if a parent has epilepsy, there's no way to test to see if their child has it until some type of spasm begins.
Officials estimate 1-2% of the population has epilepsy, which translates to about three million people in the United States. It's most prevalent in youngsters and the elderly, because of strokes and dementing diseases.
Managing the disorder
Basic surgery to deal with epilepsy can be done at Children's Hospital, but it's Mower's work that will help expand such treatment. Mower's goal is to establish a dedicated epilepsy center to serve the Valley.
In general, doctors control epilepsy through medication until a young patient outgrows the disorder.
Mower has been treating Steven with medication, which has greatly reduced the spasms.
Steven's spasms weren't too severe -- looking almost like a case of the hiccups -- but they were strong enough to make Thomas seek medical help.
One of the first things Mower did was to chart Steven's brain wave activity through an EEG. At the same time the brain waves are being monitored, a video camera captures every move the child makes so that Mower can see what happens physically when the child's brain waves create the spasms. Normal brain wave activity shows slight up and down movement on the chart. But when Steven has a spasm, it looks like the charting of a 6.5 earthquake.
Steven's condition continues to improve and he will slowly be taken off the medication.
The fact that epilepsy often isn't a lifetime battle is part of the misinformation Mower is trying to correct.
"Because 70% are well controlled, most people with epilepsy live a normal life," Mower says."There's still the perception that when a child gets seizures, they are going to have them for life or be on medication for life. That's just false. About half of the children will eventually grow out of it. The kids who come to me who are developing normally, doing very well at school, those kids have a higher chance of outgrowing it."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.