By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Epileptologist Dr. Katy Lalor knew she wanted to be a doctor early in life.
She gave a presentation for career day while in junior high about her desire to become a neurologist with a focus on the treatment of epilepsy.
“I actually met with my neurologist and got my own records to show everybody,” Lalor said.
She knows firsthand what it is like to live with epilepsy, having been diagnosed with absence seizures in elementary school.
“I found what I had gone through fascinating and just wanted to be able to help other people,” she said.
Two years ago, Lalor was given the opportunity to return to her hometown of Birmingham and join the staff at Children’s of Alabama in the Division of Neurology as an epileptologist.
“It’s so common that all of us, no matter your specialty, treat seizures,” Lalor said. While she maintains a general neurology practice as well, her specialized training allows her to better serve some of the more challenging cases of epilepsy.
“Honestly, it’s the best job offer I have ever had because of the people and also the opportunity to come back to Birmingham and really invest in my own home community,” Lalor said.
Shortly after making the move, she participated in the Epilepsy Foundation of Alabama’s Walk to End Epilepsy and became acquainted with the foundation’s executive director, Sara Franklin.
“I didn’t really have these opportunities back in Tennessee because they don’t really have as strong of a chapter as we do,” she said.
She quickly signed on to help the foundation in any way she could, feeling a strong desire to treat patients in the hospital and to advocate for them.
“It’s such a silent disability,” Lalor said.
Like Lalor, kids who are prone to absence seizures generally experience brief lapses in awareness with little to no warning signs or aftereffects. It was easy for Lalor’s parents to think that she was simply a daydreamer.
“Typically when you have that kind of epilepsy, you have hundreds of seizures a day, so of course they would happen in class when I got called on,” Lalor said.
It was one of Lalor’s teachers at Crestline Elementary School who took notice of her lapses and notified her parents.
She said the diagnosis came as a shock to her parents, in large part because they weren’t aware of this particular form of epilepsy.
While her peers didn’t really notice her mild seizures, she still had to grapple with the stigma that surrounds epilepsy.
“I still had to tell my teachers that I’m at risk of having a convulsive seizure,” Lalor said. “I remember many adults, both at school and at camp, who I had to let know and how they were not really understanding my kind of epilepsy.”
In addition, she had to try out various medications and deal with the side effects before landing on one that worked for her.
She also had to deal with changes during adolescence, which she said is difficult because the brain is changing so much already.
Challenges for Women
While epilepsy affects men and women at similar rates, it can have particular challenges for women.
“For women, especially, it can be a rollercoaster,” Lalor said. Epilepsy in women is a bit more unpredictable, she added, and the medical world doesn’t know enough to say why.
Many of the medicines used to treat epilepsy can cause issues as women reach childbearing years. Many medications can put fetuses at risk, yet it is dangerous to have a seizure while pregnant.
“It’s a fine balance,” Lalor said. “Many medications for seizures interact with other medications, as well, including oral contraceptives, so there are other things to think about as a woman with epilepsy.”
Younger children with epilepsy tend not to experience too many changes in their cases, Lalor said. But she has a special place in her heart for adolescents and young adult patients.
“I run a transition clinic for young adult patients who are transitioning to the adult health care system, because I think that’s an especially hard time,” she said. “As a kid, you’ve had the same doctor for your entire life.”
Through her involvement with the Epilepsy Foundation, Lalor is also finding ways to provide support for her younger patients outside of hospital walls. She was involved in advocating for the newly adopted Seizure Safe Schools Act, which will go into effect next year.
“I think the way I was diagnosed as a student made me more passionate about advocating for that bill, which will allow for many people working in schools to be trained in both treating and providing seizure first aid,” she said.
“Parents of my patients express to me all the time that they are worried about sending their child to school,” she said.
Kids spend a majority of their day at school, so Lalor said it’s important that there are a number of staff beyond the school nurse who can provide support for kids with epilepsy.
November is National Epilepsy Awareness month, and Lalor hopes the community takes time to rally around those affected by epilepsy.
“Epilepsy is extremely common,” she said. “Having awareness is important because you probably do have people around you who have epilepsy and you don’t realize it.”
Epilepsy Foundation Alabama to Host
2021 Walk to End Epilepsy
The Epilepsy Foundation Alabama will hold its annual Walk to End Epilepsy Nov. 6 at Railroad Park.
Each year during November, which is National Epilepsy Awareness Month, the event brings members of the community together to support the foundation’s mission to effect change through care, advocacy, research and education.
The family-friendly walk will help educate people about epilepsy as well as raising funds to support people living with epilepsy.
“The pandemic has changed many things, but one thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to our epilepsy community,” said Sara Franklin, executive director of community engagement and partnerships for the foundation. “With each step and fundraising dollar, we’re closer to helping people with epilepsy be free from epilepsy and free from fear of the next seizure.”
Epilepsy can affect anyone. Over a lifetime, one in 10 people will have a seizure, and one in 26 will be diagnosed with epilepsy. Despite its prevalence, epilepsy receives 10 times less funding than other brain disorders.
The 2021 Walk to End Epilepsy in Birmingham has a goal of raising $100,000.
Funds raised from the walk will support Epilepsy Foundation Alabama efforts, which include seizure first aid training and certifications, a 24/7 helpline, school training, support groups, programming for kids and young adults, the Sudep Institute, state legislation efforts and research, among other efforts.
“So many wonderful people from across our state have been involved with the Epilepsy Foundation since the organization was launched in our state in 1971, exactly 50 years ago,” said Amy Padgett, community engagement board chair for the foundation. “The walk this fall will be a wonderful way to reflect on the difference the Epilepsy Foundation has made on people’s lives and (will create) an opportunity to bring attention to the prevalence of the epilepsies.”
To sign up or for more information about the walk visit www.WalktoEndEpilepsy.org/Birmingham.