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Making Choices About Pregnancy When You Have Epilepsy

Couples living with epilepsy have an often-heartbreaking decision to make: whether or not to try to have a child. Ten percent of children born to mothers who have epilepsy inherit their epilepsy; similarly, eight percent of those born to fathers with epilepsy also have the condition. And if it’s the mother who has epilepsy, the choice to continue with medication while pregnant can be a frightening one. To varying degrees, meds can cause learning disabilities and birth defects, but seizures also can hurt a fetus. Two wracking conundrums, to say the least.

My husband and I desperately wanted a child, but it came down to how we looked at the statistics. Was the glass half empty or half full?

I grew up looking at the dark side of things. Before I hit about 30, I never would have taken such a risk. Since then, I’ve slowly turned around my fundamental thinking. Just as there would be a 10 percent chance of my having a baby with epilepsy, there was a 90 percent chance I wouldn’t. Some rational people might find it too risky, but I’m one who liked those odds. Furthermore, with the help of meds, I’ve lived a very productive life, and the stigma associated with epilepsy is generally declining. If my child were to have epilepsy, it would be likely he or she wouldn’t struggle with the same shame I felt. My husband agreed.

Then there were the meds and whether or not I should try living without them for nine months. As with all choices about your health, here’s where working with your doctor and good information are key. Different types of epilepsy medications have varying levels and types of potential defects associated with them, spanning from skin tabs to spina bifida, distractibility to serious learning issues. When I was 42, soon after we decided to go for pregnancy after having tried and failed before, I met with a high-risk obstetrician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Soon thereafter, I had a seizure, ended up in the ER, and was attended to by my wonderful epileptologist, Dr. Andrew Cole. He thought he might try changing at least one of my meds. Looking in my chart, he stopped short, seeing that I had seen this specialist. The medication he was suggesting I change to bears a particularly high risk for birth defects. Mine, though also having potentially harmful effects on a fetus, weren’t as bad. He didn’t change anything. Thank God, again and again. I stuck with my meds, completing a seizure-free pregnancy and giving birth to my son Cole, who shows no signs of epilepsy.

With one day until his 17th birthday, I can say that he shows no signs of epilepsy or noticeable birth defects – though admittedly, I don’t know if his ADHD might have something to do with my epilepsy or meds. Nonetheless, with help, he has learned to tame the beast and (excuse a mother’s pride) is a kind, bright, articulate and happy young man. That said, I was 18 when I had my first petit mal, and I know there’s no guarantee that Cole will lead a seizure-free life. Then again, one in 26 will encounter epilepsy at some time in their life. Is there a guarantee for anyone?  I’m grateful for Cole and all his life is, and it does no good to worry when there’s a 90 percent chance he is only a “typical” person.

But that’s us. We chose to move forward with my pregnancy and meds. With doctors’ help, everyone has to make their own decisions with varying degrees of risk in their specific cases. If you have to choose whether or not to have a baby, get the best epileptologist you can to help you understand the risks and ameliorate them as much as possible. And if something about the advice bothers you, get a second opinion. Bring your obstetrician into the discussion and set your sights on coming to peace with the choice you make.

Getty image by Rido Franz.

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