Jacob Erpenbeck, a 31-year-old automotive engineer who lives in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, says he’ll never forget the moment when the epilepsy he didn’t know he had struck its first terrifying blow.
It happened on a steamy-hot summer afternoon in 2011 – during a test drive around a Ford Motor Company track in Flat Rock.
“We were testing the powertrain on a brand-new Ford Mustang,” Jacob recalls, “and, fortunately, another engineer was at the wheel. Everything went fine, at first . . . and then all at once, I began making this weird noise like I was laughing and crying at the same time.”
A moment later, the helpless auto engineer – a graduate of the University of South Florida mechanical engineering program – was alternately roaring with laughter and weeping hysterically, while his body shook like a leaf in a hurricane.
Amazed, the test-driver pulled the bright red Mustang over to the side of the road. But when he asked Erpenbeck what was wrong, he got no answer.
His stricken passenger was unable to move. Frozen and paralyzed, he sat immobile, wordless.
Badly frightened, the driver rushed him back to the Ford test facility . . . where a nurse checked his vital signs, realized that he was slowly recovering, and then sent him home for the day.
Although Erpenbeck didn’t know it yet, he’d just suffered a “complex partial seizure,” a series of brain convulsions triggered by epilepsy – a neurological disorder in which the brain’s electrical signals become scrambled and chaotically unpredictable.
Because it was a hot, humid day on the test track, the engineer attributed the attack to simple heat exhaustion.
But then the seizures began to strike again.
Soon they were happening several times a week, and Erpenbeck’s life began falling apart. Increasingly worried about his safety on the job, his employer sent him to a distant, isolated location and gave him unchallenging assignments that didn’t involve much physical risk. And because he feared having a seizure at the wheel, he was soon forced to stop driving.
Like more than 2.2 million Americans in 2013 (according to the U.S. CDC), the auto engineer was now confronting the daily challenge of living with epilepsy.
Desperate for help, Erpenbeck and his wife Laurie consulted a Detroit-area neurologist who ran numerous tests and provided an endless series of medications designed to eliminate – or at least reduce the severity of – his increasingly frequent seizures.
But nothing worked.
“At one point, I remember counting my drug prescriptions and realizing that I’d been put on 18 different combinations of medications so far,” he recalls. “But they hadn’t helped. If anything, the seizures were getting worse, and it was pretty frustrating.”
But then Jacob finally got a break . . . when the neurologist recommended that he explore the possibility of entering DMC Harper Hospital’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Program (CEP), which in recent years was pioneered as a nationally recognized epilepsy facility. The program features a wide array of state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment procedures aimed at eliminating or reducing seizures caused by the disorder.
As a “Level 4” epilepsy treatment facility (so designated by the authoritative National Association of Epilepsy Centers, or NAEC), the Harper program enjoys “gold-standard” accreditation – an endorsement based on the excellence of its diagnostic methods, high-tech treatment procedures and quality care of patients.
According to the program’s latest medical data, more than 70 percent of patients who are surgically treated there for epilepsy-related seizures are no longer affected by them after the treatment ends . . . and more than 90 percent of patients who are treated with medications alone will experience a significant reduction in the intensity of their seizures.
In June of 2012, Jacob and Laurie Erpenbeck arrived at DMC Harper Hospital for a consultation with Aashit K. Shah, M.D., a veteran neurologist in the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program. Dr. Shah, who has treated thousands of epilepsy patients during a 22-year career at Harper, immediately begun conducting a series of high-tech brain-function tests designed to locate the source of the seizures.
“Jacob’s particular brain physiology was very challenging,” Dr. Shah would remember later, “and it took us several months to conduct the highly complex monitoring tests that finally allowed us to pinpoint the area of the brain where the seizures were originating.”
Once that key location in the right temporal lobe of the brain had been identified, Dr. Shah turned the patient over to Sandeep Mittal, M.D., a skilled neurosurgeon who specializes in conducting surgical procedures aimed at removing the offending brain tissue in which the electrical disorder originates.
After many hours of consultation with Dr. Shah and other members of the Harper CEP team, Dr. Mittal recommended a surgical “resection” (or removal) of the seizure-triggering tissue. The operation was performed in early January of 2013, and Erpenbeck sailed through it without any problems. He was discharged home after a few days in the hospital. Within three months, he was feeling like himself again – except for one major change.
The seizures were gone. Completely.
And he hasn’t had one since.
“My mental functioning is as good as ever,” he said the other day from his home in Sterling Heights. “I’m driving again, and I’m back at work at Ford Motor. All of this could have gone a very different way – but Laurie and I had faith in Dr. Shah and Dr. Mittal. They’re terrific doctors, of course, but they also became our friends. They laughed with us, and they kept us calm throughout the entire process – just a fantastic bedside manner.”
Added Laurie Erpenbeck, who works as a technician at an ophthalmologist’s office in the Detroit area and who was at her husband’s side throughout the ordeal: “Jacob’s epileptic seizures were really challenging – it sucked! But his recovery has been remarkable. We feel like his life has been restored and I have only one word for that: Awesome!”
And the two Harper physicians?
While Dr. Shah sang the praises of the “entire medical team” at Harper CEP and pointed out that it remains “unsurpassed in Michigan” for its quality of care and its wide array of diagnostic and treatment procedures for epilepsy patients, his friend Dr. Mittal waxed a bit more emotional.
“It’s pretty gratifying when you see a patient who’s virtually disabled emerge from treatment without any more seizures or with seizures that are greatly reduced,” he said. “For a physician, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”