Epilepsy: A Tale of Two Women

Jennifer Davis, of Guilderland, was heart-broken that her young son didn’t want to be alone with her. Davis, 44, started experiencing violent epileptic seizures eight years ago and suffered numerous severe injuries, including an orbital fracture and a fractured lumbar spine. One seizure caused her to fall into a cabinet, lose four teeth and lacerate her tongue. It got to the point where she was afraid to go out in public. Her family feared for her safety.

After seeing numerous specialists, she reached her breaking point in 2019 when her son, Chandler, now 8, shared that he was afraid to be home alone with her. “I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know what to do anymore,” recalled the single mother.

As a physician’s assistant in family practice at a local hospital, Davis consulted with her colleagues and researched her options. And then she scheduled an appointment at Albany Med with epileptologist Marianna Spanaki, MD, PhD, MBA. “The first time I met her I knew I had made the right decision. She was just as invested in my health as I was,” said Davis.

Dr. Spanaki admitted her to the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit (EMU) for several days of observation. Doctors determined her seizure activity originated from several parts of the brain and recommended implanting a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). Last July, neurosurgeon Matthew Adamo, MD, implanted the device, which prevents seizures by sending regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve.

“Epilepsy can be very well-controlled and people can become seizure-free,” said Dr. Spanaki. Through a host of medical and surgical treatments available to patients, “seizure freedom is our goal.”

Combined with medication, Davis has been seizure-free for the past four months – her longest stretch in eight years. “I’m a whole new person,” said Davis, who plans to celebrate her six-month anniversary this May by taking her son boating on the Great Sacandaga Lake. Albany Med’s Epilepsy Program “has changed my life – and my son’s life.”

Epilepsy, characterized by unpredictable seizures, is the fourth most common neurological disorder and affects people of all ages. At least 1 million people in the U.S. have uncontrolled epilepsy, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.

Albany Med’s Epilepsy Program is accredited by the prestigious National Association of Epilepsy Centers (NAEC) as the region’s only Level 4 program. It is staffed by five fellowship-trained epileptologists.

Dr. Spanaki has a special interest in women’s health issues as they pertain to epilepsy, helping women like Samantha White, of Schenectady, who was terrified throughout her pregnancy that she’d be stricken with a seizure.

White, 27, said she started having seizures in 2008 following a concussion during a middle school soccer game. Throughout adolescence and into early adulthood, she had varying degrees of success controlling her seizures, briefly going off medication while attending college in Florida. While living in New Hampshire after college, however, White said controlling her seizures “went downhill again.”

Soon after returning to the area four years ago and starting as an emergency medicine nurse at Albany Med, a seizure while at work landed her in the program’s EMU. Based on her results, doctors adjusted her medication levels.

In March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning, life suddenly got complicated when she unexpectedly got pregnant. The thought of experiencing a seizure while pregnant left White feeling “terrified.” Her doctors at Albany Med’s Neurology Department agreed that she needed an epileptologist to carefully monitor her medication levels during her pregnancy.

In June 2020, White started under the care of Dr. Spanaki. “I cannot say enough about her because no words can do her justice,” said White, describing her as the “best practitioner I’ve ever had in my life.”

Soon after she started seeing Dr. Spanaki, however, White experienced a seizure 13 weeks into her pregnancy. Fortunately, an ultrasound revealed no harm to mother and baby. Due to Dr. Spanaki’s careful monitoring of her medication doses, the rest of her pregnancy was uneventful. Through regular phone calls and virtual visits, Dr. Spanaki titrated her doses to control any additional seizures and prevent any birth defects in her baby. White delivered a healthy baby girl, Elliana, just a few days before Christmas last year. With her husband at home with their newborn providing constant text updates, White recently returned to work in the Outpatient Allergy Clinic.

She remains indebted to the care she’s received at the Epilepsy Program: “The practitioners and nurses that I’ve come in contact with try to make your experience the best it can possibly be.”