Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 00:27 UK

'Epilepsy didn't stop my travels'

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Irene and Kian Chuah
Irene and Kian horse riding in South America

Just hours before boarding a plane, for a much anticipated round-the-world trip, Irene Chuah collapsed unconscious in the shower.

Her husband, Kian, forced the bathroom door open and found her shaking on the floor.

Kian took Irene to hospital, where she had two further seizures.

"The A&E doctors were preparing me for the worst," Kian remembers.

Trip delayed

"Because she'd had three seizures so close together, they tested Irene for brain tumours, aneurisms, cancers. I was so relieved when the results came back negative."

Doctors at the Royal London Hospital told the couple that Irene, aged 31, who had never had a seizure before, had epilepsy.

Kian and I both enjoy the outdoors and my epilepsy has hardly impacted on that
Irene Chuah

"The timing couldn't have been any worse," said Irene.

"I was confused to learn I'd developed epilepsy.

"I'd never had any previous symptoms and I didn't really know a lot about it.

Irene was kept in hospital for 11 days, during which time her condition was closely monitored and she was prescribed anti-epileptic medication.

The couple were convinced their trip of a lifetime - covering 18 countries in a year - would have to be cancelled, but a month later she was on the road.

Irene and Kian at the Arctic Circle
The couple loved photographing polar bears

"All the hospital staff were really encouraging of our travel plans, so once I had recovered and had my medication, we left and saw the world," Irene said.

Travel plans

The couple travelled, hiked, climbed and rode horses all over the world, including Botswana, India, Kenya, Namibia, New Zealand and Peru for 10 months last year.

"Photographing the polar bears at the Arctic Circle was one of our favourite experiences," said Irene, from London.

Epilepsy is a tendency to have recurrent unprovoked seizures
There are many different types of epilepsy and over 40 different types of seizures
Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions after headache
There are over 450,000 people in the UK with a diagnosis of epilepsy

"Kian and I both enjoy the outdoors and my epilepsy has hardly impacted on that.

"Having epilepsy has not stopped me from doing the things I love.

"I've just got my black belt in taekwondo and I haven't had a seizure for over eight months.

"When I developed epilepsy the timing was absolutely terrible, but in hindsight I'm really glad it happened here in London because we got the best medical care available."

A common condition

Jenny Nightingale, an epilepsy specialist nurse who treated Irene at the Royal London Hospital, said one in 20 people experience a seizure at some point in their life, but do not necessarily have epilepsy.

But she said their specially-dedicated unit ensures patients get speedy access to specialists and so can start any treatment needed as soon as possible.

"Epilepsy is the most common serious neurological condition in the UK and can develop in both men and women at any age," she said.

Warning signs
Loss of awareness - looking blank
Repetitive behaviours with loss of awareness, such as fiddling with clothes
Jerking movements
Collapse with stiff muscles, followed by jerking movements of limbs

"The patients see a specialist nurse immediately and see a consultant within two to four weeks - they usually have a brain scan.

"When epilepsy first develops, it can be unpredictable and erratic, which is why it's important to explain to friends and families the types of things to look for and what to do if they happen.

"Unfortunately it is not like diagnosing a broken leg. It is a bit like a jigsaw.

"We go predominantly on the history and the witness account.

"We don't usually treat patients after the first seizure with medication because they are so common. For epilepsy you have to have two unprovoked seizures within two years," she said.

But, as Irene's cases shows, when diagnoses are made, it does not necessarily mean an end to travelling plans.

A spokesman for Epilepsy Action said: "Travelling abroad can cause concerns for some people with epilepsy. However, with the correct advice, and preparation beforehand there is no reason why you should not be able to travel."

He suggested those heading abroad take certain precautions, such as avoiding disruption to sleep and medication patterns and carrying an ID booklet with first aid instructions.


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