Chennell, a 1974 Struthers graduate said she has had epilepsy for more than 50 years. She said it started when she was a young girl and the banks had the old marble tellers’ windows. She bumped her head on the window and after that began having seizures. At that time, people with epilepsy tried everything to stay out of the limelight.
“I grew up in a generation that was hush, hush,” Chennell said. “My sisters were told that if I had a seizure, to tell others that all I did was faint.”
Those diagnosed with epilepsy can experience several types of seizures. The least noticeable is the absence seizure or petit mal. In this seizure, the person simply goes blank. They may appear to be awake, but after they come out of it, don’t remember a thing. The worst seizure is the grand mal or tonic clonic seizure. That is the one where a person drops to the ground and begins shaking violently. In many cases, a person could experience any type at any time.
For Chennell, what started as simple blacking out, turned into grand mals when she hit adulthood. Then the seizures faded away when she started taking pills that were geared to preventing the seizures. She got married and had a good job, working 40 hours a week. But as with many epilepsy patients, one never knows when the next seizure will come.
“In 2007 I was leaving work and had to stop at the bank to make a deposit,” she said.
She made it to the bank, but afterward, things took a drastic turn. She drove down Meridian Road and turned onto Shields Road. The road was blocked off for construction, but Chennell told the police officer she was feeling ill and had to get home. The police officer finally decided to let her go through the work zone and she did. She drove down Shields and turned onto Ohio 46 then eventually a driveway off Ohio 46 in Austintown. She got out of the car and knocked on the door, said to herself she didn’t live there anymore and proceeded to return down Shields Road. When the officer saw her coming back, he asked her to pull over. He asked her to get out of the car and she did, only to collapse on the road and go into a grand mal seizure. The police officer called an ambulance that took her to the hospital.
“I remember waking up in the hospital,” she said. “I remembered stopping at the bank and that was it.”
She said everything else that happened that day was a blank and she put it together from what people had told her.
In December of 2007, she experienced six more grand mals and by that time she had to stop driving. In 2009, a seizure caused her to turn blue and her husband rushed her to the hospital, where she said the doctors wouldn’t believe she was an epileptic.
Part of the problem with her trip to the hospital was that she felt like she was drunk. It was later discovered that she was suffering from toxic poisoning. She said the medication that was meant to control her epilepsy was becoming toxic to her system. With that prescription running out, she won’t have the medication she needs to control her seizures. Needless to say, she lost her job in advertising and has since not been able to find a job that would accept a person with her condition.
“Right now I am trying to get disability, but it’s very hard,” Chennell said. “In Ohio they don’t think epilepsy is a disability. They don’t recognize it.”
Janet Mau from Mahoning Valley Epilepsy said Chennell’s story is not an unusual one. She said many who suffer from epilepsy have similar tales and that is why Mau’s organization is trying to bring awareness of epilepsy to the public. She said people who have epilepsy can be great employees and can do a job as well as anyone else. It is the seizures that scare employers and the public at large, and there are a lot who suffer from it.
“In Mahoning County, there are around 5,000 who knowingly have epilepsy,” Mau said.
One thing Mau hopes to see is more people with epilepsy wearing the bracelet or pendant that informs people. She said a lot of people will see an epileptic person go down and they try to put something in their mouth to prevent them from swallowing their tongue. She said that is an old myth and no one should do that.
Often, an epileptic person who is having a seizure will come out of it, but they will be very tired. When someone goes into the absence seizures, the best thing to do is guide them away from hazards and remove sharp objects from their grasp. Eventually the person will come out of it.
Epilepsy does not recognize age either and Mau and her organization are planning a new support group to help parents and kids. On Nov. 19, the group will meet from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Austintown Public Library. The group is geared for parents and anyone who is around a child with epilepsy.
For information on the support group, contact Mahoning Valley Epilepsy at 330-270-8037.
Photo by J.T. Whitehouse, Town Crier
Colleen Chennell is ready to tell her story during November’s National Epilepsy Awareness Month along with her friend Janet Mau from Mahoning Valley Epilepsy.