Jefferson Epilepsy Specialists Change a Life

 3 min read

Smith Family Shows Gratitude with Support

When weighing the decision of whether to undergo brain surgery, Andy Smith thought about the three things he wanted most out of life: to be able to drive a car, to be able to work out in the gym, and, most importantly, to be able to hold his babies when the time came. While these are things that most people take for granted, Andy could not—his worsening epileptic seizures put them out of reach.

Diagnosed with epilepsy at 7 years old, by the age of 25, Andy had tried every drug cocktail available, and was out of options. Andy, along with his parents, Bob and Terri, consulted with several prominent specialists.

“We were told he’d never be a candidate for surgery,” says Terri. “We were told he’d just have to live with it, and he really felt his life was going downhill.” Then, she says, a miracle happened. “We were referred to Jefferson.”

Andy’s father was serving on the board of the National Epilepsy Foundation at the time, and mentioned Andy’s struggles to a fellow member, who referred him to Jefferson and Michael Sperling, MD, the Baldwin Keyes Professor of Neurology, vice chair of Neurology Research, division chief for Epilepsy, director of the Jefferson Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, and director of the Clinical Neurophysiology Laboratory.

Sperling, along with colleague and surgeon Ashwini Sharan, MD, vice chair of Clinical Operations for Neurosurgery and professor of Neurological Surgery and Neurology, conducted numerous tests using groundbreaking technology and determined that Andy would be a candidate for surgery.

The operation was performed in October 2016, and he has been seizure free ever since.

“The surgery absolutely changed his life,” Terri says, noting that her son is now engaged to be married, working in the fast-paced world of finance as a venture capitalist in San Francisco, and participates in a variety of activities such as biking, hiking, and skydiving.

In the past, epilepsy diagnosis and surgery were complicated and time consuming. Today, thanks to technology, including the use of MRI and EEG, and robotic units in the operating room, diagnosing is easier and surgery is more precise and takes less time.

However, the technology is very expensive, Sharan says. For example, the robotic surgical units come with a $500,000 price tag, and that doesn’t include the cost of ongoing maintenance and recalibration. In addition, training specialists in the field takes resources, and finding funding for research is difficult.

Understanding those struggles, Bob and Terri sought ways to show their gratitude for giving Andy’s life back to him. They decided to “pay it forward”—first by funding a fellowship in epilepsy, and then by making a generous gift to support the Epilepsy Electrophysiology Research Laboratory.

“We decided to support the fellowship because we need more people out there doing the work,” Bob says, explaining that there “just aren’t enough specialists in the field” often due to the financial burden the extra years of study puts on the doctors.

Jefferson previously trained four fellows; the Smiths’ gift has so far funded four additional fellows.

In addition, Sperling says the Smiths’ gift to the research lab will help as they seek to develop new methods of diagnosis and treatment, such as the possibility of transplanting genes into abnormal tissue or introducing new cells to inhibit the abnormal firing of cells in the brain.

The goal, he says, is to not only advance the technology, techniques, and training, but to make new treatments accessible to all.

“Thanks to the talented hands of his doctors and all the advanced technology at Jefferson, Andy lives a completely normal life—a miracle life right now,” says Terri. “Everyone deserves that chance.”

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Support the Epilepsy Electrophysiology Research Program

The Smiths have offered a matching fund challenge to support the Epilepsy Electrophysiology Research Laboratory. Between now and the end of December, they will match all gifts up to $500,000.