'Epilepsy will always be a part of me and who I am,' - Graham Stegall

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences May 05, 2015
Joshua Rosenow, MD, director of functional neurosurgery, Graham Stegall, Stephan Schuele, MD, MPH, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

Graham Stegall only carries credit cards. No cash.

It’s a habit he picked up after suffering years of unpredictable epileptic seizures.  Because he never knew when one would hit, he want someone to steal his money when he was mid-seizure. Credit cards could be replaced. Cash couldn’t.

“Three times at the restaurant I worked at, on the CTA red line, taking out the garbage, once on the street,” said Graham ticking off the places he suffered a seizure around Chicago. Five separate times he woke up in the emergency room with no idea how he got there.   

Epilepsy is a disease of the brain that causes recurrent, unprovoked seizures. The seizures are caused by disturbances in the electrical functions of the brain. These disruptions in electrical activity may cause abnormal sensations such as numbness, strange taste or smell, a loss of consciousness or uncontrolled bodily movements and can even lead to life threatening situations. It is estimated that 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point in their life.  
Since he was a month old, Graham experienced seizures, sometimes one every couple of days. For some reason, the seizures stopped when he was 14 years old, but at 21 years old, they returned when he woke in an emergency room in his home of Memphis, Tenn. He has a seizure and wrecked his car. Now, driving was out of the question. To get to work as a restaurant server, it took Graham three hours round trip, including a one hour walk to the bus stop.

He needed a change. So Graham saved every penny and moved to Chicago, a city where you don’t need a car.  He secured some high profile restaurant gigs, but his seizures followed him and the medications weren’t working like they used to.

His doctors had always talked about surgery as possible treatment. After months of monitoring, including spending a week in the hospital off his medication so doctors could monitor his seizure activity, Graham booked his brain surgery for October 11, 2010.

During Graham’s surgery, epilepsy neurosurgeon Joshua Rosenow, MD, director of functional neurosurgery at Northwestern Memorial, removed a portion of his left temporal lobe and left hippocampus which were the source of his 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. It also means a new life for patients like Graham. He hasn’t had a seizure since his surgery. He’s 100 percent a success story.”

Today, Graham is the assistant manager of seafood at Streetervile’s Whole Foods – it’s located just a couple blocks from where he had his surgery.  His co-workers donated more than 140 hours of their vacation time to Graham so he could spend seven weeks to recover.   

Being seizure free has allowed him to do other things too, like drive a car or ride a bicycle (which he does to work). He can have a social life. Because lack of sleep and stress can cause seizures, he never really went out before. 

If Graham had a do-over, to grow up never having a single seizure, would he?

No.

“Epilepsy will always be a part of me and who I am,” he said. “It shaped my life. It’s the reason I moved to Chicago. It’s the reason I started working at Whole Foods. If I never had epilepsy, I wouldn’t have this life and I like this life.”

Every year since his surgery Graham has participated in the Greater Chicago Epilepsy 5K Walks. This year’s event will take place at Chicago’s Montrose Harbor on Saturday May 9. Register for the walk* or learn more about supporting the Northwestern Medicine team.* 

The Northwestern Comprehensive Epilepsy Center is a designated Level 4 regional and national referral center by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers. The program is comprised of a multidisciplinary team of physicians, surgeons, nurses, social workers, technicians and educators to provide comprehensive care to those diagnosed with epilepsy. Learn more about the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.
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