of epilepsy patients, hopeful of a permanent cure are flocking to
the neurological unit of the National Hospital, following successful
surgeries for the first time in Sri Lanka, reports Naomi Gunasekara
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Will I be able
to get married, bear children and lead a normal life? Will I be
able to seek employment? Will I be able to attend school? Will I
be able to play with friends and mingle in society? Will I be independent
and free? The queries were endless.
both young and old, ridiculed, degraded and branded as fragile beings
who are burdens to society, sat in hope in the detergent-smelling
waiting room. Launched an year and half ago under the guidance of
Dr. Ranjani Gamage, Consultant Neurosurgeon and Chairperson of the
Epilepsy Task Force, a programme to identify surgically correctable
epilepsy patients and operate them, bore fruit in May. This followed
five successful surgeries performed on epilepsy patients for the
first time in the annals of medical history in Sri Lanka.
the news of the successful surgery came out patients have flocked
to the Neurological Unit of the Colombo National Hospital in anticipation
of a permanent cure. "We tried to identify persons who would
benefit by surgery and studied their histories thoroughly to find
out how it will help them," said Dr. Gamage, who has worked
by M. A. Pushpa Kumara
reach her dream of performing surgery on epilepsy patients.
With the aim
of providing relief to those who are marginalised and suppressed
by society due to epileptic attacks, the Task Force comprising 10
consultants and 20 medics and paramedics have identified 45 potential
candidates including 27-year-old Ajith (name changed) from Nikaveratiya
Ajith has suffered
three to four fits a day prior to receiving treatment and been exposed
to the danger of suffering sudden attacks in the paddy fields and
at river banks. "We can't be behind him all the time. He suffers
20-30 fits a month and doesn't do anything productive," said
Ajith's brother. A promising student, Ajith has stopped attending
school after sitting for the Ordinary Level examination. "I
was called valippuwa at school and I felt embarrassed," said
Ajith who is determined to undergo surgery.
the first batch of epilepsy patients for surgery, the team has interviewed
over 500 who attend clinic on Thursdays and carefully examined the
disabilities they suffer as a result of their fits. According to
Dr. Gamage, the period for which the patient has been suffering
due to epilepsy, the number of fits suffered on a monthly and daily
basis were considered as against to the positive changes surgery
may bring about.
is not an illness like pneumonia where you can seek medication and
get completely cured. You have to be under treatment for three to
five years in order to 'permanently control' the illness."
is performed on patients who do not show improvement under medication
despite taking two or more prescribed drugs for a period of over
two years and have suffered from attacks during the same period,
the epilepsy team has also considered others who are severely restricted
socially as a result of epileptic attacks. A case in point is surgery
performed on a 32-year-old who had suffered only two attacks in
her entire life. "She was terrified that the attacks may recur
if she gets married and was psychologically affected. So we relaxed
the general rule, considering the impact of the two attacks on her
issues springing from case studies are what are most disheartening
about epilepsy patients, according to Dr. Gamage. Out of the 3,000-odd
patients registered at the National Hospital clinic, 50 percent
have not gone beyond year five and 25 per cent have not gone beyond
O/Ls. Most patients are unmarried, unemployed and some are even
divorced. "A mother wanted surgery performed on her daughter
because a number of people refused to marry her on being told of
her condition. Merely because a patient is epileptic that does not
mean that the quality of his/her life should get affected,"
said Dr. Gamage.
patients, must avoid professions that involve firearms, driving
heavy vehicles, dealing with chemicals, operating high-tech machines
and working at heights, they can seek normal employment, attend
school, get married and even have children. "
cases of epilepsy can be permanently controlled through continuous
and consistent medication. In fact, attacks in 75 percent of patients
can be permanently controlled within three to five years of treatment.
Then they find themselves unemployed because there is no possible
vocational training for school drop-outs in this country,"
said Dr. Gamage who feels that while it is important to protect
young epilepsy patients, they should not be deprived of education
merely because they are epileptic.
epilepsy patients, the most difficult task is to penetrate social
stigma. The poorest and uneducated segments of society believe epilepsy
to be a contagious mental illness running in families. Treatment
delays and gaps too pose a severe threat to controlling of the disease,
according to Dr. Gamage, because patients are taken for ayurvedic
treatment while subjecting them to religious and non-religious rituals
like bali thovil.
the programme with the assistance of the Sri Chithra Institute of
Science and Technology in Trivandrum, the Task Force finds it difficult
to cope with the demand for surgery without a proper place to operate
from. The team faces a number of difficulties like scarcity of beds
and lack of space for treatment. The doctors' room has also been
taken for epilepsy patients and the camera used to video patients
has been placed on a cardboard box till recently. Nevertheless,
the Epilepsy Task Force is planning to launch an island-wide programme
to identify patients and make them socially mobile by controlling
their epilepsy through continuous medication.