A Love Story, a Brain Surgery and a 'Three-year Pregnancy'

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences February 13, 2015
In December, Robert Bieker blanketed his home with hundreds of photos of his family, his wife, Kathleen, baby girl, Agnes and shots of their life together so far. Among the photos are pictures of Kathleen’s shaved head complete with a C-shaped post-surgery scar. Above it all hung Robert’s sign: “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Kathleen would change a few things. She’d change the years of never ending seizures, the fear she couldn’t have a family and most of all that it would all be too much for Robert. For Kathleen her life is made up of befores and afters.

There was life before epilepsy and after. Seizures could be a slight tingle in her hands and tongue or seizures could bring a rolling blackness that would leave her sick and confused for days. They started when she was 18 and eventually went from once a year to three times a week.  Kathleen lived in constant fear, never knowing when a seizure would hit.

This was a before.

Then she met Robert. Growing up, Robert lived just five houses away but they didn’t meet until right after high school. They dated for years. Then one day, Robert forgot his cell phone and returned home to find Kathleen had suffered a seizure. A bad one. She hit her head on the stove and then hit her head on the refrigerator. Blood was everywhere.

He picked her up, put her on the couch and whispered, “This can’t happen anymore. I’ll take care of you.”

That was an after. They married a month later in 2008.  

Then Robert and Kathleen, now 32 years old, decided they wanted to start a family. To do that, Kathleen wanted to be seizure free and off several of the medications she was taking to try and control them.

So she turned to epileptologist Elizabeth Gerard, MD, of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Northwestern Medicine about her desire to start a family and be free of seizures.

Dr. Gerard, who is the director of the Women with Epilepsy Program and an assistant professor of neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said that women with epilepsy face unique health challenges but most are able to deliver healthy babies.

“In Kathleen’s case, the severity of her seizures and the number of medications she was taking to control them made surgery her best option both for planning a safe pregnancy and improving her own quality of life,” Gerard said. “Thanks to our comprehensive epilepsy team, we were able to provide Kathleen with the evaluation and surgery she needed.”

Fortunately, Kathleen’s team included epilepsy surgeon Joshua Rosenow, MD, director of functional neurosurgery at Northwestern Memorial. During surgery, Rosenow removed a portion of Kathleen’s temporal lobe which was the source of her seizures.

 “This is the most common type of focal seizures in adults and can be very disruptive,” said Rosenow, who is also an associate professor of neurosurgery, neurology and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Feinberg School of Medicine “While brain surgery is never easy, epilepsy surgery is one of the most successful neurological surgeries available. For patients like Kathleen, it’s absolutely worth it.”

“Surgery gave Kathleen her life back,” Gerard added. “For years, she had intractable epilepsy meaning her seizures failed to come under control with medications.  After this surgery, she was able to reduce from three medications to one, get pregnant, carry a child and breastfeed. She can now care for her child without fear of accidents and is allowed to drive again. She’s a wonderful mom and an inspirational example for women with epilepsy who want to start a family.”

Kathleen underwent brain surgery in December 2012. By March, she and her husband were jogging and working out. Two months later she was pregnant with Agnes. Today, Agnes is nine months old and sits squarely in the center of her parents’ universe. Kathleen hasn’t had a seizure since her surgery.

“For some people it takes a few months to get pregnant, but for us it took three years and a brain surgery,” said Kathleen who is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Dyer, Indiana.  “It was the best decision I ever made. We wanted a family. I wanted to be pregnant and this was something I just had to do to get there. Agnes is our miracle baby. Every day, I look at her and think she’s amazing.”

Definitely an after.

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