Emergency aid for seizures has evolved since I was a kid. Be sure to read the postscript * at the end of this piece to learn how to help a person experiencing a seizure today.
I sat across from Darrell and I thought he was acting funny. We sat in wooden chairs behind wooden desks. Except for plastered walls and ceilings everything was wood; smooth varnished wooden floors, buttery old desktops, complete with empty inkwells and grooves for pencils, that had been sanded so many times the corners were smooth, built in wooden cupboards and shelves, the teacher’s desk, the chalkboards with wooden frames and wooden trays that held erasers and chalk running their length. The doors, the window frames, and the trim were shiny dark wood varnished over and over for years and years. Only under us did the material change. A tiny gray forest two feet high of twenty four hard steel structures held up our desks which were in four rows, one behind the other, aisles leading up to the blackboard. We were on the second floor of a school building built in the first part of the 1900’s. From our windows we saw cornfields beginning to yellow. It was sunny and warm. We were in eighth grade.
Darrell was so quiet. I looked at him and he seemed to be staring at nothing on his desk. Usually he fidgeted, looked around, reacted to everything that was said. Not today. I watched him on my left. Was his head dipping lower? Was he going to sleep?
Mr. Matson was teaching history. He had a map pulled down over the chalkboard. It was a blank map of the United States with states in different colors. We were reviewing America’s states and capitals. Mr. Matson pointed at states and called on people in the room to tell him the name of the state and its capital city. I don’t know if he saw Darrell but I was afraid he would be called on and get in trouble. I was about to reach across the aisle and touch Darrell’s shoulder to wake him up when his head jerked back, his mouth gaped, and his eyes opened wide only to roll back, showing their whites. He stiffened and fell from his seat into the aisle. Something was terribly wrong with Darrell.
“Everybody stay in your seats,” Mr. Matson barked. “Jolene, go get Miss Sawyer.”
Instead of being rigid as he first appeared Darrell began to thrash. His forearm hit the main steel post under my desk so hard my desk moved. Right away I could see an angry mark on his skin. Mr. Matson was beside him trying to hold his arms down. It seemed like Miss Sawyer was there right away. She brushed Mr. Matson aside, pulled Darrell to the center of the aisle, pulled her dress up and straddled him. Her black orthopedic shoes, toes down, were back by Darrell’s shins. She sat on his thighs and pressed down on his shoulders, pinning him to the floor. Without looking at Mr. Matson she put one hand in the air and simply said
“Give me your billfold.”
Mr. Matson looked white. He dropped his wallet before putting it in Miss Sawyer’s hand. After calmly prying open Darrell’s teeth she stuffed the leather billfold in his mouth. Darrell began breathing furiously through his nose, blowing snot on his face and Mr. Matson’s wallet. Then he began to jerk.
Despite Miss Sawyer’s efforts to keep Darrell still his head rocked violently up and down hitting the wooden floor. His back arched up and crashed back down in rhythm with his head. Miss Sawyer began to rise and fall as his legs pushed her up then let her down. Darrell was not a big kid. That he possessed the strength to lift Miss Sawyer was incredible.
“Hold his head,” Miss Sawyer barked to Mr. Matson who hopped around her and knelt on the floor. He seemed reluctant to touch Darrell.
“HOLD HIS HEAD,” Miss Sawyer said. She had a booming low voice. Mr. Matson managed to get Darrell’s head between his hands and was finally successful in preventing the loud thuds that had filled the room.
Mr. Matson was just out of college. He coached every sport and taught PE and history. He was short, cocky, and always wore his whistle. Miss Sawyer was the math teacher. We stayed in our rooms and the teachers came to us for different subjects. She was tall and when she walked down the hall she took long strides that ate distance. If Miss Matson liked me or approved of me in any way at all, in any fashion, I could not tell. She had dark eyes behind thick black frame glasses. When she looked at me I thought she saw right through me. I was scared of Miss Sawyer. I think we all were.
But on that day I was scared of what was happening to my friend Darrell. I know now why people long ago without the benefit of science and education believed in demonic possession. As I watched Darrell go that day from torpor, to rigidity, to convulsion it was as if something had entered my friend’s body and taken over. It wasn’t Darrell but someone else. I thought it impossible that what was coming out in Darrell had been within him all along. Something outside of him was surely causing this. I could only imagine how Darrell felt. I hoped he didn’t know what was happening.
Darrell finally stopped convulsing and slumped into a kind of sleep. Mr. Matson let Darrell’s head go and placed it softly on the floor. Miss Sawyer took the wallet from his mouth and handed it to Mr. Matson, who accepted it gingerly. It was wet and there were bite marks in the leather. Miss Sawyer swung her big leg over Darrell, knelt beside him, and picked him up in her arms. With those long strides she walked towards the door. Darrell looked so small. Mr. Matson ran ahead of her and got the door. She walked through the door frame and disappeared without a word. Mr. Matson shut the door, walked to his desk, sat down, and put his head in his hands. The class was silent.
After many moments he looked up. He had a look of surprise on his face, like he was surprised we were all looking at him. Finally he began to talk.
“Darrell had what you call a seizure. He’s going to be all right. A lot of things can cause seizures and I don’t know what caused Darrell’s but I can tell you this. He may have had one before, may have one again, but chances are he’ll be fine. He’ll see a doctor and I imagine he’ll be back in school again pretty soon. When he comes back try not to ask him a lot about what just happened. He may not remember, and it’s probably pretty embarrassing. So let’s just get back to our states and capitals. What do you say?”
I was amazed that we continued with states and capitals after the kid next to me almost died but that’s what we did. Mr. Matson pointed to a state near Iowa and called on me.
“Nebraska,” I said. “Lincoln.” My heart wasn’t in it.
We kids talked about it in the cloak room and on the bus but we found none of us knew much about seizures. As soon as I got home I told my Mom and Dad what happened. My Dad had some knowledge to relate.
“That’s an epileptic fit David. They can’t help it. I’m sorry you had to see that because it’s frightening. I was little and my uncle had a fit one Thanksgiving. Stiffened up and slid right under the dinner table in the middle of the prayer. My Dad had had to haul him out from under there. They wrapped him in a blanket. I thought he’d gone nuts. They didn’t tell kids much back then about stuff like that. I’m not sure they knew. I didn’t really know till I got to Chicago and the nurse at the office described what we should do if someone had a fit like that at work. Training sort of.”
“Why did they stick a wallet in his mouth?”
“So he wouldn’t swallow his tongue,” my Mom said.
“I’m not sure you really can swallow your tongue Catherine but it does keep you from biting your tongue or the inside of your mouth.”
“That’s what they always told me, it was for swallowing your tongue.”
“Yeah well they’ve told us a lot of stuff haven’t they?” my Dad said.
“What makes it happen?”
“I’m not sure they really know but I’m pretty sure it’s something in your brain. You’d have to talk to a doctor to really find out. But I know this. Darrell is still Darrell. This doesn’t change him. He may have another fit or he may not, but he’s the same kid, just with some kind of illness. Don’t treat him any differently. Let his parents and the doctor figure out how to help him and you go on being his friend.”
That’s pretty much what happened. Darrell came back to school after a day being out and I don’t think he or we said anything about it. Except for an angry purple bruise on his forearm it was like it didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen again that I know of, not at school at least.
School is a learning place and we certainly learned a lot that day. We learned the hard way about epilepsy, but another thing we learned is that if you were ever in real trouble the person you wanted helping you was Miss Sawyer. No matter how scary she was, we learned she was a take charge person. I never forgot it.
*The way my teachers responded to Darrell’s seizure in the mid 60’s may have been recommended at that time, but guidelines for aid and comfort to seizure victims has changed. Here’s a summary of what the Epilepsy Foundation recommends today. For a complete first aid discussion and more information on epilepsy go to :
- Loosen clothing around the person's neck.
- Do not try to hold the person down or restrain them. This can result in injury.
- Place something soft under their head to prevent them from striking the floor
- Do not insert any objects in the person's mouth. This can also cause injury.
- Reassure concerned bystanders who may be upset and ask them to give the person room.
- Remove sharp objects (glasses, furniture, and other objects) from around the person to prevent injury.
- After the seizure, it is helpful to lay the person on their side to maintain an open airway and prevent the person from inhaling any secretions.
- After a seizure, the person may be confused and should not be left alone.
- In many cases, especially if the person is known to have epilepsy, it is not necessary to call 911.
- Do call 911 however if the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, or if another seizure begins soon after the first, or if the person cannot be awakened after the movements have stopped.