Fifteen years ago, then 16-year-old Jennifer Szesterniak was in the back of a van taking her and her teammates to the Wisconsin State High School Girls Tennis Tournament scheduled the next day. “Then suddenly, my tongue went numb, I couldn’t see, and I started shaking,” said Szesterniak in a telephone interview. “The last thing that went was my hearing. I heard people saying I was just kidding them. When I heard that and knew I wasn’t, that was when I got scared.”
The driver pulled into a nearby restaurant, asked for help, and out stepped a physician. She recovered and everyone thought she had choked on candy. But she hadn’t. Amazingly, she played tennis the next night and she and her partner ended up placing third in doubles.
A month later, after playing tennis three hours, it happened again. But this time, she knew it wasn’t from choking. “After an MRI, a doctor said I had abnormal brain wave activity, had epilepsy, and needed medication,” she said. “My parents were initially relieved because they thought I had a brain tumor.” Szesterniak temporarily lost her driver’s license due to the seizures.
A National Institutes of Health website explains epilepsy occurs “when permanent changes in brain tissue cause the brain to be too excitable or jumpy. The brain sends out abnormal signals. This results in repeated, unpredictable seizures.” No two people experience epilepsy the same.
Medication was keeping her seizures in check until this year, when she decided to go off it because of plans to get married and have children. She thought she had outgrown epilepsy, but hadn’t, and experienced a number of mini-seizures.
She said, “In many ways, the anxiety over potentially having a seizure is worse than having one. I was a class officer in high school and had to give a graduation speech. I was panicky beforehand. I actually had a mini-seizure during the speech and my tongue froze up for a second. I couldn’t wait to get off the stage.”
Today, Szesterniak is a speech language pathologist at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, active with the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, and author of a children’s book, “Wishes.” She gets mini-seizures now only after being physically exhausted or forgetting to take medication. She advised people recently diagnosed: “Absolutely respect your medication and take it. You have the medication for a reason.”