A few weeks ago I saw a TV report: a Brooklyn driver ran a red light and killed two children, ages four years and one year old and injuring others, including a pregnant woman — “It was something you see in a horror movie,” a witness said. The car dragged one kid’s stroller more than 350 feet at Ninth St. and Fifth Ave. in Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y.
According to reports, this auto accident was caused by a driver afflicted with multiple sclerosis, seizures and a heart condition. After the accident she said she didn’t recall the red light or hitting anything. On-sight witnesses reported that she seemed oblivious to what had just happened. That strongly suggests that this person’s epilepsy caused a seizure.
Neurologists evaluate and treat people who experience altered and loss of consciousness. In contrast to the epilepsy type that causes falling to the ground with convulsive shaking, I had to include the non-convulsive type epilepsy as a possible cause of a person’s altered behavior. This form of epilepsy can be difficult to recognize. The non-convulsive forms include complex partial seizures and petit mal seizures. People suffering these common forms of blank-outs may walk about, converse in a confused manner, turn on water faucets and eat at a table with other people all the while they are in a mental fog—out of contact with their environment and without memory of their actions.
Children may suffer these seizures but teachers, families and even medical workers may miss the correct diagnosis. These people may be considered to be “slow learners,” or have hearing problems, attention-deficit disorders (ADD) or autism. The prime diagnostic tool, the electroencephalogram (EEG), commonly is normal because the epileptiform abnormalities may not occur in the brain during the hour or so that the person is connected to the brain-wave-detecting equipment. Brain scans routinely are normal, too. The diagnosis can be made by speaking with observers who note these patients’ “foggy” mind-states. My novel, DINGS, is a medical mystery story of just such a bright third-grader who is failing school because of his unrecognized complex partial seizure-blank outs. He’s just not “keeping up.”
Upon seeing this report on TV two weeks ago I recognized Brooklyn’s Park Slope as a neighborhood in which my cousins live. I sent them my opinion that the driver must have had a seizure causing the accident of which she had no memory. “It was murder,” they told me.
Why was this woman with epilepsy driving?
I related that my state, California, is only one of six states where state law requires physicians to report people with altered consciousness. New York is not one of those six states. The other 44 states hope that people with epilepsy will report themselves to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). That’s a problem. Some of my California epilepsy patients would become understandably belligerent when I would caution them of their driving responsibilities and to stop driving until sanctioned by the DMV; they were endangering their families, passengers, the public and themselves. “No, Doc. Don’t send that report in. Are you going to pay my mortgage?” Personal insight, personal economics and ethics all swarm in their minds as they make decisions of giving up their driving privilege, i.e., their DMV license.
Upon learning my information my Brooklyn cousin asked if he could share it with a New York State legislator’s office. That same week Brooklyn State legislators unveiled a bill to create a mandatory reporting system and to authorize the DMV to evaluate pe I shall be following New York’s action.
Lance Fogan, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “DINGS” is his first novel. It is a mother’s dramatic story that teaches epilepsy, now available in eBook, audiobook and soft cover editions.