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Accurate Treatment of Epilepsy

On 'Nash Bridges,' a character has a seizure, then surprisingly gets thoughtful consideration from his boss.

March 30, 2001|CHRISTINA CHAPLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a Friday night and I was flipping channels when I landed on CBS' action drama, "Nash Bridges." As usual they were chasing the bad guys through the streets of San Francisco. But this time something was different. Right in the middle of the shootout, one of the detectives, Antwon Babcock, played by Cress Williams, had an epileptic seizure.

A cop show--shoot 'em up, car chases, running after criminals in the streets--dealing with a person with epilepsy. Who would have thought a police drama would have an ongoing plot line dealing with a person with epilepsy and that it would be a positive and accurate portrayal? I have epilepsy and I was intrigued.

Grand mals are probably the most visual of all the various types of epilepsy, which is why it's not surprising that Hollywood uses them on occasion. The muscles in the body jerk, the person often loses consciousness and sometimes blood comes out of their mouth, usually from a bitten lip or tongue.

Epilepsy takes many forms and "Nash Bridges" showed that reality. Babcock didn't have a full grand mal, but a partial seizure. He jerked a couple of times. Then in the next shot, he is sitting up in the back of the ambulance--not barely conscious on a gurney as is usually shown--and with a towel nursing his bit lip. Once again, reality. I couldn't believe it.

People think if you have a seizure you are going to be unavailable for the rest of the day. Not true. Some epileptics can get on with their lives as soon as the seizure is over. When I have a seizure, it lasts about 30 seconds, much like Babcock's. Then it's over and I go on doing whatever I was doing before.

In the next scene, Babcock is packing up his desk when the other detectives in the squad surround him. Now they understand, he's not the troublemaker they thought.

By the time the show ended I knew I wanted to know more about this character. It turns out that he was introduced at the beginning of the season. The rest of the department assumed he was a troublemaker, since he was always being transferred. In fact he'd been in more departments in his short career as a detective than I've had CT scans. That's quite a few.

What unfolds next is just as unexpected. Nash Bridges and Babcock start talking. We find out about Babcock's experience, and that in the past a transfer has always followed a seizure. He knows the drill. Then Bridges surprises Babcock--and me--by telling Babcock that he's not giving up on him yet.

Frustration comes from all sorts of things; mine and Babcock's comes from having epilepsy. So many people are afraid. When I was little, some of the parents in my neighborhood wouldn't let their kids play with me. They were afraid their children would catch it.

The reality is you can't catch epilepsy. It's a condition, not a disease. Some people are born with it. Some develop it from a trauma to the brain, or as a child because of a disease like measles. And some never learn why they develop it.

My epilepsy didn't surface until I was 2 1/2. The doctors think it was an accident, something that probably happened before I was born. But they're really just guessing.

Watching the episode of "Nash Bridges," I understood immediately why Babcock chose to remain silent. Once people find out you have epilepsy that's usually all they see. They don't see the person, they see the condition. Many also have a preconceived notion that if you have epilepsy you are damaged, not normal.

I spent my childhood proving myself. When I was in high school the doctors told my parents I probably wouldn't graduate. College, they suggested, was not in my future. But I graduated from high school, then community college and finally Washington State University, where I earned a bachelor of arts degree.

When I first got to WSU I received a note from a family friend, urging me to enjoy the time I was there, though I probably wouldn't graduate. Now I know the person was not trying to hurt me, but that's the sort of perception those of us with epilepsy deal with.

Some people with epilepsy still are afraid to tell their employers. Some employers won't hire anyone with epilepsy. Luckily for me, not every employer feels that way. I've worked at The Times for 11 years. Most of the time, epilepsy doesn't affect me. Once, I began having seizures every 45 minutes and the doctors couldn't find what was causing it. But it started on a Wednesday and ended on Sunday. For three of those days I was at work. I would go about my job and keep an eye on the clock. Every 45 minutes I stepped into an office--usually someone was in it but they didn't care--had a seizure, and then got up and continued what I was doing. That's what you do, you deal with epilepsy, and you go on with life.

Watching the ending of "Nash Bridges" that night, when Nash told Babcock he "wasn't through with him yet," made me curious. Were they going to continue developing the character? Or was this just a one- or two-episode thing? I called CBS and it seems they have plans to make Babcock part of the team. Wow! A positive role model for epilepsy on television. Epilepsy. Not diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease or AIDS. This is great. I am thrilled.

*

Christina Chaplin is on the board of the Epilepsy Foundation, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. Its Web site is: http://www.epilepsy-socalif.org.

"Nash Bridges" airs Friday nights at 10 on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for violence).

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