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17-year-old ‘seizes the day’ after life-changing brain surgery

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​​​​Image of Kristy-Lynn
With the support of her mom, Kristy-Lynn Ashley earned her high school diploma one month after receiving brain surgery to treat her epilepsy. (Photo: UHN)

Kristy-Lynn Ashley was devastated when she had to drop out of high school in grade 11 because her seizures were so bad.

She was diagnosed with epilepsy after experiencing her first grand mal seizure four years ago. Instead of participating in the typical teenage rites of passage including prom and high school graduation, there were endless hospital visits and dozens of medications to try and keep the seizures at bay.

"It was very hard to leave school, lose my driver's license and see so many of my friends move on," says Kristy-Lynn.

"The seizures and side effects from the medication definitely made it difficult to be hopeful about the future, but with the help of my family, especially my mom, I just kept telling myself I could get through this."

Kristy-Lynn is sharing her story in honour of Purple Day, which raises awareness about epilepsy around the world every year on March 26. Epilepsy is a condition that is caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. In Kristy-Lynn's case, there was a mass of cells located in her temporal lobe which caused her epilepsy.

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Meet 'Fred'

When she first learned about the mass in her brain, it was frightening.

"In the hospital, my mom and I began referring to the mass as 'Fred'," says Kristy-Lynn.

"Giving it a name made it less scary and helped me cope with so many unknowns around what I was dealing with."

Following her diagnosis, Kristy-Lynn continued to struggle with seizures – at one point she was taking 180 pills per week. But she persisted with her education and put all of her energy into completing her high school diploma online.

In 2013, Kristy-Lynn and her mom Donna Howarth made the two hour drive from their hometown in Gravenhurst, Ontario to meet with neurologist and epilepsy specialist, Dr. Peter Tai at Toronto Western Hospital's Krembil Neuroscience Centre (KNC).  After being treated locally for a number of years, Kristy-Lynn was referred to the KNC with the hope that specialists there would have a better idea of how to treat her epilepsy.

The Krembil Neuroscience Centre specializes in diagnosing, treating and partnering with community supports to help patients with epilepsy. Kristy-Lynn underwent testing in the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit to help doctors identify where in her brain the seizures were coming from and if surgery could help stop them. After two separate stays in the unit, Kristy-Lynn finally had an answer – surgery was an option.

"I think most people would freak out over the thought of having brain surgery, but my mom and I were crying with happiness," says Kristy-Lynn.

"I wanted to have my life back."

And she got it.

Farewell Fred

Following her surgery in May, 2014, Kristy-Lynn has been busy getting her life back on track – and it didn't take her long. One month following her surgery she graduated from high school.

"It is extremely gratifying to see patients like Kristy-Lynn capitalize on the benefits of epilepsy surgery," says Dr. Taufik Valiante, neurosurgeon and Director of the Surgical Epilepsy Program.

 

"Her story not only helps raise awareness about epilepsy, but also about how epilepsy surgery should be considered sooner than later for an individual whose seizures cannot be controlled with medication, and not as a last resort."

Although Kristy-Lynn has said goodbye to Fred, she honours the struggles she faced and her gratitude for a new lease on life with a tattoo on her right arm.

Kristy-Lynn proudly displays her tattoo
Kristy-Lynn proudly displays her tattoo, which represents both her struggle and triumph living with epilepsy. (Photo: Kristy-Lynn Ashley)​

"The numbers at the bottom are the dates that the mass in my brain was found and removed (03-15-2011 & 05-26-2014) and the quote, 'Seize the Day' is to live each day to its fullest," says Kristy-Lynn.

"The ribbon and feathered side form a heart, but the ribbon is the biggest part because it supports epilepsy awareness and the years of my life I lost to this disorder."

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