CINCINNATI—Few jobs are more high-profile than head football
coach at a state university. So when University of Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill
experienced his fourth documented game-day epileptic seizure in 22 games at the
school, a national discussion that spilled beyond the sports pages and websites
For Michael Privitera, MD, professor of neurology and
rehabilitation at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine and
director of the UC Epilepsy Center, it’s a familiar dialogue—and one he welcomes
it as an opportunity for education.
"We try to educate people about what epilepsy is and what it
is not,” says Privitera. "People with epilepsy suffer from stigmatization and
this has been true for centuries where people with seizures were thought to be
"Epilepsy has also had inappropriate stigma about mental
illness and cognitive impairment. People with epilepsy are more likely than the
general population to suffer from depression, but once identified, depression
can be treated just as in the case of someone without epilepsy.”
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy is a medical
condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical
functions. A seizure happens when a brief, strong surge of electrical activity
affects part or all of the brain.
An estimated 2.2 million Americans have epilepsy, the
foundation says. When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, he or she
considered to have epilepsy.
Kill has been a head coach at the college level since 1994,
steadily moving up the ladder to the position he now occupies at Minnesota, a
member of the prestigious Big Ten conference.
Now in his third season with the Gophers, he has been rushed to a
hospital after having a seizure and collapsing on the sidelines and, most
recently, suffering a seizure during a game last month and missing the second
After last month’s seizure, at least one national columnist,
Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com, raised the alarming specter of Kill dying on the
sidelines and wrote: "… What about what’s best for everyone else? Who gets to
make that decision?”
Seizures should not mean exclusion from a high-profile—and
often stressful— job such as Kill’s, Privitera says. However, if job stress is
a seizure trigger, then the person with epilepsy in consultation with his or her
physician should evaluate the risk benefit of stressful activities.
"There is a difference between having seizures exclude you
from a certain job or activity compared to
avoiding certain activities that are seizure triggers,” Privitera says.
"About half of people with epilepsy report that stress can make seizures more
Privitera says people with epilepsy should not participate
in activities where a brief loss of awareness would be dangerous to the person
or others, such as driving, operating heavy machinery or working from heights.
Privitera and his colleagues at the UC Epilepsy Center, one
of 12 centers and programs at the UC Neuroscience Institute, an institute of
the UC College of Medicine and UC Health, have done extensive research on
stress as a seizure trigger. They’ve identified some risk factors but much work
needs to be done, Privitera says, adding that the Cincinnati-based Charles L.
Shor Foundation for Epilepsy Research funds research on understanding and
blocking the effects of stress on seizures.
David Ficker, MD, an associate professor of neurology and
rehabilitation medicine and associate director of the UC Epilepsy Center, says
that by continuing to coach, Kill is setting an important example for others
who face the uncertainty of seizures and the stigma that some people will
"I think he is a great role model for individuals with
epilepsy who want to continue working, and who should try to continue working,”
The Epilepsy Foundation provides guidance for first aid in
the event of a seizure, noting that the goal is to keep the person safe until
the seizure stops naturally. Emergency assistance should be called if a seizure
lasts longer than five minutes, if the individual has more than one seizure
without returning to normal or if an injury occurs as a result of the seizure.
For ongoing care, Privitera points out that the UC Epilepsy
Center has a Level 4 designation from the National Association of Epilepsy
Centers, the most advanced certification an epilepsy center can obtain.
Work-related issues for people with epilepsy will be among
the topics at an Oct. 19 patient symposium, "Strategies for Managing Epilepsy:
Ask the Experts,” a free event for patients and families at UC Health West
Chester Hospital. Ficker is the program director; topics will include
treatments, coping with stress and driving with epilepsy. For more additional
information or for assistance registering, call 513-558-5438.