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Hermantown staff learn to be ‘Seizure Smart’

The Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota wants teachers to recognize the sometimes-subtle signs of a seizure and what to do about them.

People in auditorium setting
Lisa Peterson, regional outreach manager at the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, gives a presentation to teachers and staff members Wednesday at Hermantown High School.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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HERMANTOWN — Lisa Peterson wasn’t diagnosed with epilepsy until she crashed her car into a Mesaba Avenue median on Dec. 17, 1996.

That was her junior year at Superior Senior High School, but there had been signs since she was in preschool: short bouts of feeling unsettled; chills; sometimes feeling like she wanted to crawl out of her own skin or like she was trapped in her body.

It was tough, especially in her youth, to describe all of that, and Peterson said the only thing she knew definitively was that she was often uncomfortable and cold. Wearing a jacket or piling blankets on her body helped ease those feelings.

Peterson remembers turning left onto the road and the moment when everything got blurry. She woke up, so to speak, as a man opened her door to ask if she was OK. She got tested later that day.

“I finally understood that I had epilepsy,” Peterson told an auditorium full of Hermantown Community Schools teachers on Wednesday. “I had been tested one other time in ‘96 and once in ‘94, but without the data, I didn’t get the diagnosis because you can’t always see a seizure.”

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Peterson is a regional outreach manager at the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota. She headed to Hermantown to tell an assembly of teachers there about seizures, particularly their telltale signs and what school staff should do if a student is having one. District staff underwent a similar training three years ago.

Most seizures, Peterson told the News Tribune, are more subtle than the “Hollywood” version in which someone shakes and collapses, and, like her, not every child with epilepsy is already diagnosed.

Relatively mild seizures like the type Peterson had for years — sometimes called “auras” — might fly under the radar until they turn into a larger one that’s almost impossible to mistake or ignore. She compared it to asthma or severe allergies, which don’t necessarily show symptoms outside of an attack.

Peterson suspects that many teachers have students with undiagnosed epilepsy, and a record of suspected seizures can prompt a future test for the disorder..

People in auditorium setting
Teachers and staff members listen to Lisa Peterson, regional outreach manager at the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, during a presentation about epilepsy Wednesday at Hermantown High School.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“Trust your gut,” she told Hermantown teachers. “You might think, ‘Lisa, we have so much we’re asked to do. Now you want us to be a doctor or a nurse.’ No, I just want you to know that your observations are really key.”

It’s important, she said, for educators to look for patterns. A student who frequently wonders about a burning smell or a ringing in their ears, or, perhaps, often feels uncomfortable might be experiencing seizures.

“Once that information is shared with parents, that is often the reason why they’re going to see the doctor,” Peterson said. “Which then leads to the testing, which leads to the diagnosis.”

There’s a litany of safety worries for someone with undiagnosed epilepsy, Peterson said, and the broader aim of the foundation’s training is to keep students safe. The goal is to get appropriate help and care for a child in a timely manner, according to Sheina Showen, the Hermantown district’s nurse.

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“We’re hoping to prevent potential learning loss, or worse,” Showen said.

The training itself is the result of “seizure smart schools” legislation the Epilepsy Foundation and similar organizations advocated for last spring in St. Paul.

Newly minted Minnesota law calls for school districts and charter schools to have a written plan for each student with a diagnosed seizure disorder. It also calls for schools to provide study materials on seizure disorders to district nurses and other school staff who work with students. Peterson’s seminar on Wednesday wasn’t required by that law, though.

“The reassurance that this means for our students and families is a massive step forward in raising the public health issue that seizures are in our communities,” Glen Lloyd, the foundation’s CEO and executive director, said earlier this week of the new law. “Because of its uncertainty around when a seizure will happen, oftentimes, for many years, our community lived in isolation. ... They didn't go and be a part of the broader community’s events and social fabric.

"The foundation has been committed to building communities where people know that their schools know how to support them.”

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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