Left exhausted and afraid after decades of persistent seizures, Norma Davis never thought she’d live a full life. But with the right specialist, she’s found new freedom.

Women's Health, Men's Health | 5 years ago

Finally Free: Curing Norma's Epilepsy After 55 Years

Left exhausted and afraid after decades of persistent seizures, Norma Davis never thought she’d live a full life. But with the right specialist, she’s found new freedom.

Norma Davis is sitting behind an electronic piano, paging through a book of hymns. Her 16-year-old grandson is perched next to her, playing melodies with deceptive ease. Every now and then, Norma raises her head from her book and places her hands on the piano keys, gently correcting a missed note or suggesting a different scale.

It’s a beautifully simple moment, shared between a grandmother and grandson. And it wouldn’t have been possible just two short years ago.

Living in fear

After being diagnosed with epilepsy at age four, Norma suffered from frequent seizures for 55 years. As her condition worsened with age, she could hardly remember her six grandchildren’s names, much less teach them to play an instrument she once loved so much.

When a person is epileptic, abnormal activity in their brain triggers recurrent seizures, which can cause fainting, uncontrollable jerking movements and confusion, among other symptoms. While some seizures are only minorly disruptive, others can be dangerous – and they’re often unpredictable.

Norma lived in fear of her next seizure. Her biggest worry was where she’d be when a seizure struck, since they usually caused her to lose control of her body and collapse to the ground. Once, she recalls, she suffered a seizure while running herself a bath. She fell into the tub, her bare skin exposed to the scorching hot faucet – and the bathroom door was locked. By the time her family was able to get inside to help her, she’d suffered second-degree burns. Decades later, she still bears the scars.

At her worst, Norma had up to five seizures per week, and spent much of her time in bed. She was taking four seizure medications that caused debilitating exhaustion and did little to help. Her condition took a toll on her loved ones. “It was a trying time, because you don’t want to see your mom like that, and you can’t do anything,” says Norma’s son Zelford. “Her grandkids are growing up, and she’s sleeping.”

Finding a cure

In March 2016, just a few months after moving to Charlotte, Norma was referred to Yuan Fan, MD, PhD at Atrium Health’s Level 4 epilepsy center – which provides the highest level of care from a full team of trained epilepsy specialists. As an epileptologist at Neurosciences Institute, Dr. Fan is an expert in the treatment of seizures.  

During their first meeting, Dr. Fan determined that Norma had refractory epilepsy, or seizures that can’t be controlled by medication, and that she might be a good candidate for surgery. While not all epileptic patients qualify for surgery, it’s considered a cure for those who do.

Norma was nervous because of her age – she was then 59 years old –  but Dr. Fan assured her that she had nothing to worry about. So despite her initial apprehension, Norma agreed to undergo testing to find out if surgery could really help her. Over one week, Dr. Fan monitored the seizure activity in Norma’s brain to determine the exact location it was coming from.

“After a careful evaluation, we were able to precisely localize Ms. Davis’ seizure focus,” says Dr. Fan. His initial theory was confirmed: Norma had a very high chance of curing her epilepsy with surgery.

In late 2016, Norma went in for surgery at Atrium Health. Neurosurgeon Mark Van Poppel, MD, performed a left anterior temporal lobectomy, a complex surgery to remove her left anterior lobe – the precise area of her brain where her seizures were happening. After a successful procedure with no complications, Norma returned home to recover.

When Norma went to see Dr. Fan for a routine follow up appointment several months later, she was unlike he’d ever seen her before. “Her cognitive function was better. Her mood was a lot better,” says Dr. Fan. “For the first time, I was able to see her smile in front of me.”

Focusing on family

Today, Norma has a life that once seemed impossible. She hasn’t had a single seizure since her surgery, now over two years ago. Under Dr. Fan’s care, she’s gotten off every single one of her seizure medications.

Norma’s treatment has given her a new sense of independence. Simple things she couldn’t do before, like folding her clothes, taking a shower or getting out of bed, are never taken for granted. “She’s able to function now,” says Zelford. “She’s able to begin to do what she couldn’t do.”

Now, Norma is making up for lost time with her family. Since recovering, she’s been teaching her grandson to play piano the “old school” way, and helping her granddaughter learn to sew. She relishes the opportunity to bond with her grandkids over hobbies she’d once been too sick to enjoy.

“It really means a lot,” she says.


Find out more about our full range of epilepsy diagnosis and treatment options.