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Epilepsy affects many returning war veterans as result of traumatic brain injury

Thousands of returning veterans may not realize that a battlefield injury could result in epilepsy down the road.
November 11, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Thousands of returning veterans may not realize that a battlefield injury could result in another medical problem down the road. Epilepsy is a significant problem that will affect one in 26 people in their lifetime. It's a bigger concern for many of our nation's veterans.

Severe epileptic seizures plagued Army veteran Ricky Perez of Chino Hills for 17 years. His first attack knocked him right out of his bed.

"When it happened I didn't know what was taking place, I didn't understand it for the first couple years," said Perez.

Perez wasn't sure what was happening and how to get help. He's not alone: Thousand of U.S. veterans suffer from epileptic seizures, many of them as a result of combat.

"We think that it's approximately up to 20 percent of veterans are coming back with a traumatic brain injury," said Dr. Christine Baca, VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. "Traumatic brain injury is a risk factor for developing epilepsy and seizures."

With more and more veterans coming home with traumatic brain injuries, Congress voted in 2008 to create "Epilepsy Centers of Excellence" at various VA locations, including the one here in West Los Angeles.

"Sometimes patients may be put on medications that are not optimal for their epilepsy," said Baca.

Like Perez, 30 percent of epilepsy patients suffer from seizures that cannot be controlled by medications. Epilepsy experts at the VA determined he was a good candidate for surgery.

Dr. Baca says patients with brain injuries often develop a scar or abnormality that interrupts the electrical flow in the cells of the brain.

"In certain circumstances we can actually take that area of the brain out and cure people of their seizures," said Baca.

A month after surgery, Perez says he feels like a happier, different person. He wants others with epilepsy to know there is hope.

"I feel so alive and I haven't had a seizure since," said Perez.

This Saturday Perez will be walking with other veterans to raise awareness and money to end epilepsy at the Veterans Fight to End Epilepsy. He hopes others will join him to support veterans and their families.