June 12, 2010

Good News from Smart People

Just to set the context on what we learned at the Cleveland Clinic (see previous blog entry on the whole experience, which was impressive), epilepsy is a very complex brain disorder in which the seizure itself is usually an outward manifestation of a serious underlying root problem. It’s very important to find the underlying cause of the seizures because in many cases, doctors can customize medication to attack a specific area of the brain that is over-excited. However at the same time, modern medicine unfortunately has much to learn about epilepsy; we have been told the same stat by several different doctors: doctors (even the best) only identify an underlying cause about 50% of the time.

With this backdrop, the top 3 causes of seizures (some of which are not technically “epileptic”) are:

1. Brain injury (think head trauma or a baby’s brain being deprived of oxygen at birth);

2. Genetic/metabolic disorders (a mistake in the DNA that instructs the body to process/create energy incorrectly); and,

3. Illness/substance abuse (high fever, mom’s drug addiction impacting the baby, etc.).

The process by which physicians troubleshoot epilepsy is by putting all three of these things, as well as their associated symptoms on the table, and then start to pull options off the table that do not offer a good match for a variety of reasons.

The first thing Dr. Elaine Wyllie did with us was listen to Steph and I tell our story for about an hour; then she inspected Pinny’s medical records from her previous hospital stays. Immediately, Dr. Wyllie eliminated #1 as an option based on the MRI taken several weeks ago; #3 also does not apply, although I can only empathize that drug temptations likely abound on account of the fact that Steph lives with me…

That leaves the genetic/metabolic category of epilepsy. Now if you remember, we had previously been given a diagnosis of a rare genetic/metabolic disorder (called glycine encephalopathy) that was proven false. However, there are hundreds of identified metabolic disorders; and I am told there are likely thousands that have yet to be discovered.

This is where Dr. Parikh and his team came in. He is a metabolic specialist that often gets called in as a “field expert” to drill down further on this particular angle. They look at blood, spinal fluid, urine tests, the physical appearance of the baby, looking for elevations/deficiencies of certain amino acids, neurotransmitters, and/or other things to find if the body is generating energy incorrectly.

Here is how he set the context for us: Our DNA is like a volume of complex books, consisting of 30,000 chapters and as many as 3 TRILLION letters. If there is a typo of ONE of those letters, it can instruct the body to any number of dysfunctions. Modern medicine over the past decade has made significant progress in comprehending these volumes, but there is still a TON of work to do; even the computing power required to analyze our DNA remains a constraint. This is one key reason why we often only get answers on epilepsy 50% of the time.

In the opinion of Dr. Wyllie, Dr. Parikh, and many other members of the team that we didn’t meet but were consulted, among the things left on the table, the condition that they believe is most likely is what is called Benign Neonatal Convulsions. Two things that do not totally fit with this diagnosis (1) this condition is typically genetically inherited, so there is often a family history that exists, and (2) Lucca's EEG was a little more abnormal than is typically the case with BNCs. However, since we don’t know anything about my dad’s line, since her EEG is still within the bounds of BNC, and since she is largely normal aside from the seizures, they thought this was the best-fitting, most-likely diagnosis at this point.

Now, if your newborn is unfortunately having seizures, without question this is the condition you want her to have. With BNCs, while any seizures are scary, the word benign is instructive. The medical community does not totally understand why, but the seizures naturally subside within 6 months. And while there is a substantially higher probability of the child developing another epileptic disorder later in life (i.e. ~20% chance versus ~2% without), there is no significant difference in the occurrence of developmental problems than versus non-seizing newborns.

To be clear, this is not a definite diagnosis. And when I say “most likely” I do not mean a 50% chance; rather, if there are 10 things left on the table, this one maybe has a 25% probability, and the others maybe have an equal probability divided up among the remaining 75%... what is left on the table that is less likely? A series of rare metabolic disorders that would be progressive in nature. Obviously this would be a lot more concerning than the benign ones, as it would imply Pinny would not progress or worsen from today.

But still, this is HUGE! We had previously been told the benign seizure types were not likely at all. Now we have elite pediatric neurologists not only telling us BNC is possible, but that it is also the most likely diagnosis. Hope is such a delicate thing in a situation like this where you see disturbing seizures almost every day; but this is unquestionably a reason to strengthen our hope for a good outcome.

Where do we go from here?

Well, there are still a cadre of tests still pending. Some of these are general genetic tests that I am told effectively look for “missing paragraphs” in the 4 “chapters” relevant to epilepsy; there are also 4 tests that will be done that look to confirm/deny the existence of specific genetic defects (two of which relate to BNC). Some of these tests go to Europe and can take 8 weeks.

So we pause and hope for the best.

Also, Dr. Wyllie believes a drug called Topomax will be more effective in the types of seizures Pinny is having. It will take a few weeks for this drug to ramp in her system, although we believe we are seeing some positive impact already. We will also add a few specific vitamins where there could be some metabolic deficiency, and maybe down the road start to wean off of phenolbarb.

As I said earlier, thanks so much for your support. How can you pray from here? A few things. Obviously continue to pray that God heals Pinny in a way that is unambiguously the work of His hand. Second, the drugs would stop all seizures; in the “bad” conditions, seizures are often not controllable. Third, that future tests would disconfirm the bad epileptic conditions and confirm her condition is benign. Fourth, please pray for normal development to continue.

Take care, Jeremy


  1. Great update, Jer. So good to hear the news! We'll continue to pray, now for BNC to be an accurate diagnosis and for those seizures to go ahead and subside.

    Love y'all.


  2. Praise God for the good report! Jeremy, thanks SO much for taking the time to detail your experience there at the clinic and help us to understand Pinny's condition and prognosis. And praise God for the excellent doctors and staff there!

    We will continue to pray for clear answers and will definitely be praying that Pinny's condition is indeed benign.

  3. Jer, thanks so much for the super clear, detailed report. So thankful for the most likely diagnosis & for the hope. Continuing to pray for total healing!!!

    I love you guys,

  4. Know we are praying for Pinny! I think of you guys often and pray for you daily. God is faithful to hear our prayers!

  5. Hi Jeremy and Steph,

    Please know that Scott and I are praying for you three, thanks for keeping us all up to date with these posts, we pray that these seizures WOULD be benign and that with time they would dissipate. We continue praying for answers, healing, that Pinny would grow up healthy and strong in God's hands.