When her epilepsy ended, her family could start.
The seizures started when Katie was 18. At first they occurred about once per year, but they eventually became as frequent as three times a week. They escalated from slight tingles in her hand or tongue to a rolling blackness that could put her in danger. She would find herself dazed and unaware, disoriented by the help she was receiving. Once, she came to on the kitchen floor, discovering she had placed all of her table settings in the fridge and the stove was still on.
Around the same time her epilepsy began, Katie met Robert Bieker. They dated for years; as her seizures grew worse, Robert’s dedication to her grew stronger. A few years after their marriage in 2008, Katie decided it was time to face her seizures once and for all. She had long feared that she wouldn’t be able to have a family because of her epilepsy, in part due to the severity of her episodes, but also due to the high levels of medication she needed to control them.
A Pregnancy Free From Fear
Women with epilepsy can and do experience healthy pregnancies. Physicians work with women to develop a care plan and closely monitor medication. But for Katie, a cure would provide peace of mind that her pregnancy could be safe from the severe, sometimes violent, seizures.
With renewed passion to end her epilepsy and start a family, Katie was referred to Elizabeth Gerard, MD. Dr. Gerard, the director of the Women With Epilepsy Program and an assistant professor of neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, presented the option of brain surgery.
Epilepsy surgery is severely underutilized, according to Joshua Rosenow, MD, the Northwestern Medicine neurosurgeon on Katie’s case. Much of the general public and some doctors are unaware of its effectiveness, particularly for intractable epilepsy like Katie’s. Most patients who are seizure-free for two years after surgery never experience a seizure again. At Northwestern Medicine, the epilepsy team performs these life-changing surgeries on about 20 people a year.
“This is the most common type of focal seizures in adults and can be very disruptive,” said Dr. Rosenow, who is also a director of Functional Neurosurgery. “While brain surgery is never easy, epilepsy surgery is one of the most successful neurological surgeries available. For patients like Katie, it’s absolutely worth it.”
Stopping Seizures, Starting a Family
First, the Northwestern Medicine epilepsy team needed to determine if Katie was a candidate. She had endured years of failed treatment with two or more different medications, which made her eligible, but the team needed to establish whether the procedure would be effective for Katie. After monitoring her brain during a seizure, her care team was able to confirm that the triggered area could be safely removed.
Katie spent eight hours in surgery and two weeks in hospital care during December 2012, but her new year looked to be seizure-free and family-filled. By April, Katie and Robert got the go-ahead to start their family. A year later, Agnes was born.
Epilepsy put Katie’s life in danger, led to the loss of her driver’s license and forced her to leave her job. But a breakthrough surgery did more than give Katie her life back. It gave her the confidence to start a family.
”I’m glad we waited," Katie told Northwestern Medicine in February 2015. "We keep saying, 'Everything was meant to be.' If we didn't wait, she wouldn't be here. That's just ... I can't imagine her not being here.”
Katie Bieker hasn’t had a seizure in more than two years.