Story by: Joe Hall on November 15, 2018
Dread going to work on a Monday morning? Don’t tell that to Heather Ritchey. The hairstylist of 15 years shows up to her job at Fritz’s Salon in Louisville, Kentucky, with a huge smile on her face every day. After an eight-year battle with epilepsy, Heather feels fortunate to pick up a pair of scissors.
“A year ago, I couldn’t work,” said the 35-year-old Jeffersontown, Kentucky, native. “You realize how much you miss going to a job when you can’t have one.”
In 2010, Heather had a seizure. It came out of nowhere, and she didn’t have another one for two years. Unfortunately, when the next one hit, she was behind the wheel of her car. It’s the last time she’s driven.
“I crashed the car,” she said. “I don’t remember any of it. So lucky that no one was seriously hurt.”
The seizures, meanwhile, started to intensify. Before long, Heather was seizing several times a week. It was impacting her life, especially at work.
“I could feel them coming on,” she said. “If I was at work, I would step away from my client, go into a room, have my seizure and then go back to the client. It was scary and embarrassing.”
In 2013, Heather became a patient of Norton Neuroscience Institute. Doctors diagnosed her with epilepsy and multiple sclerosis (MS). While medications were handling the MS, they weren’t as effective in treating the seizures.
“The medications would work OK for a while, but then the seizures would resume,” said Rebekah J. Woods, D.O., neurologist with Norton Neuroscience Institute. “Heather was even having seizures she couldn’t feel — sometimes hourly.”
To make matters worse, Heather’s seizures were in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory. Heather’s memory would likely deteriorate if the seizures continued to worsen. The location also made it impossible to surgically remove the lesion.
“My life was turning upside down,” Heather said. “I had to stop working, didn’t want to go out, couldn’t drive — it was depressing.”
Dr. Woods and David A. Sun, M.D., Ph.D., neurosurgeon with Norton Neuroscience Institute, presented Heather with another option. An innovative technology, known as the NeuroPace Responsive Neurostimulation System, had recently hit the market. NeuroPace is similar to a heart pacemaker, but for the brain. The device is attached to the skull with electrodes implanted in and around the lesion. The system, which is hidden under the skin, constantly monitors for seizures and interrupts them without the patient feeling a thing.
Patients treated with the system can experience significant seizure reduction that continues to improve over time, achieving 60 percent fewer seizures at three years and 66 percent fewer seizures at six years.
Heather was an ideal candidate for Norton Healthcare’s first NeuroPace implant, but she had concerns.
“I initially said no,” she said. “The thought of brain surgery terrified me.”
But she slowly came around to the idea.
“Dr. Sun and Dr. Woods talked to me about all my options and answered every question,” she said. “I came to realize this was my best option to fight the seizures and keep my memory intact.”
In January 2018, Dr. Sun implanted Heather’s NeuroPace device at Norton Brownsboro Hospital. She was home the next day.
“It didn’t feel like I’d had brain surgery,” she said. “Just waiting for the hair on that spot to grow out.”
Several weeks after the procedure, Dr. Woods turned on Heather’s device. The results were almost immediate.
“I’ve seen a dramatic reduction in my seizures,” Heather said. “It’s like I’m a different person.”
NeuroPace also serves as a monitoring device. Every night, Heather scans her head using a wand connected to a special laptop. That computer sends information back to Dr. Woods, which allows her to adjust the device.
“We’re still fine-tuning Heather’s device,” Dr. Woods said. “We also can use the data to see if we need to make medication changes.”
The National Association of Epilepsy Centers has recognized Norton Neuroscience Institute as a Level 4 Epilepsy Center. The designation means you’ll receive the highest level of medical and surgical evaluation and treatment for complex epilepsy.
Heather prepared herself to go back to work in the fall, but she was nervous.
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to be as good as I had been,” she said.
But Dr. Woods wasn’t concerned. In fact, she gave Heather the ultimate vote of confidence. She scheduled her two sons to be among Heather’s first hair appointments.
“I trust her fully and knew she would do a great job,” Dr. Woods said.
“That was such a big compliment,” Heather said. “If I could cut her kids’ hair, I had the ability to take care of anyone.”
Heather is feeling better about life. She’s going out with friends and finding her confidence again. She even hopes to start driving at some point.
“It’s been five years since I’ve been to the store by myself,” she said. “It would just be an adventure to walk around Target on my own.”
Despite the rollercoaster of the past eight years, Heather is grateful for the care she’s received and her decision to go with NeuroPace.
“Dr. Woods and Dr. Sun have been great to me,” she said. “They have my best interest at heart and want me to live my best life possible. I fully intend to do just that.”
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