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Life takes deserved turn for better.

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - Ordinarily, when someone gets a driver's license, it doesn't make the newspaper.

But Becky Willis' story is anything but ordinary.

Until she passed her driving test Friday, Willis, 45, had never been licensed to drive. That's because since age 5, she's had epilepsy. Three to five times a month, her body would convulse in seizure.

Epilepsy is a disease that can make everyday activities - taking a shower or crossing the street - a peril, and make driving a car downright impossible.

"I could kill somebody," she said.

But now Willis considers herself cured of the disease, thanks to a second opinion and an old surgical procedure that's gaining new favor as a way to treat people with a certain kind of epilepsy. Epilepsy is a general term that describes a variety of conditions that cause seizures. Seizures occur when nerve cells in the brain rapidly fire electrical impulses, causing sort of an electrical storm in the brain.

Until four years ago, Willis had more or less resigned herself to living with epilepsy and to taking medications that helped her, a little bit anyway, manage the disease. Her regular seizures, brought on by stress, "built character," she said.

"It has never slowed her down," said her husband, Richard.

One day in 2000, when she was working as an educational assistant at Thurston High School, she had a seizure in a classroom. School officials asked her to get a second opinion on her disease, and she went to see Eugene neurologist Alexandre Lockfeld, who she had seen three years prior.

Lockfeld told her he had good news: Images of her brain showed she had scar tissue on her temporal lobe, just above the ear, and if she had it removed, it might lessen the number and severity of her seizures. He referred her to the Seizure Disorder Center at UCLA Medical Center.

Surgery is not a new treatment for epilepsy - it's been used for at least 100 years - in recent years doctors and researchers have concluded it can cure a certain type of the disease 80 percent of the time, said Sandra Dewar, clinical nurse specialist at the UCLA seizure center.

"Certain types of the disease do not respond well to medications but do respond well to surgery," she said.

The type of epilepsy that surgery can fix is called mesial temporal lobe epilepsy. It affects the deep structures within the temporal lobe, the brain region above the ear that is mostly responsible for memory. Of the 1.5 million people living with epilepsy, about 150,000 have mesial temporal lobe epilepsy, including Willis, and are candidates for surgery.

"The surgery we know works for these patients," Dewar said. "The big research questions is how soon should it be offered."

Most patients treated at UCLA have been living with the disease for many years, she said. So researchers at UCLA are conducting a large clinical trial called ERSET (for Early Randomized Surgical Epilepsy Trial), which compares one group of epilepsy patients, treated early on with surgery, to another group treated aggressively with drugs.

Researchers are hoping to show that by treating epilepsy patients early in life with surgery, they can avoid a lifetime of disability, she said.

Willis and her husband went to UCLA Medical Center in July 2000. On the morning of her surgery, as she was getting out of the shower, she had what turned out to be her last seizure. Later that day, Dr. Itzhak Fried removed a piece of scar tissue, about 1-inch-by-1-inch, from the temporal lobe of her brain.

Willis stopped having seizures after that, but she stayed on her medications for another two years. In 2002, she quit her medications, and hasn't looked back since.

"I can hold my grandson for the first time without fear of hurting a baby," she said. "I can ride my bike and swim without fear of drowning or having a bike accident."

Driving a car took a little more time. She passed her written driving exam and got a learner's permit in 2002, and finally this year, after much practice with her husband, she decided she was ready to try for her driver's license.

On Friday morning, she showed up at the Springfield office of the Department of Motor Vehicles, accompanied by her husband, her youngest daughter, Sarah, and her two sisters, Rene Zwart of Tangent and Kathy Brower of Roseburg.

They chatted with reporters and took pictures and video. Shortly after 10 a.m., office manager and examiner John McBeath walked out to the parking lot and climbed into the passenger's seat next to Willis.

She pulled out of the parking lot (knocking over a safety cone as she backed out) and drove around Springfield with McBeath at her side. Fifteen minutes later, she was back with a big smile on her face. She'd passed, scoring 90 out of 100.

"It feels great to know the state of Oregon has confidence in me," she said. "It's like I'm getting my wings here on Earth."

WHOM TO CONTACT

For more information on mesial temporal lobe epilepsy and the ERSET clinical trial, contact: Becky Willis of Springfield at 746-1998 or at barnab6280@aol.com or the Seizure Disorder Center at UCLA Medical Center at (310) 267-2880 or www.erset.net

CAPTION(S):

Becky Willis (right) is congratulated Friday by sister Rene Zwart after getting her driver's license at the DMV in Springfield. Willis underwent corrective surgery for mesial temporal lobe epilepsy in July 2000, after which she stopped having seizures and two years later ceased taking medication. Willis listens to instructions from DMV driving examiner John McBeath.
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Title Annotation:Health; Surgically cured of epilepsy, Becky Willis fearlessly earns her driver's license - at 45
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 9, 2004
Words:941
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