Seven Years Following Epilepsy Surgery, Chicago Man Remains Seizure Free
After surgical success, patient gives back through raising awareness and money for epilepsy
When reflecting back on the most significant day in their life, most people think of their wedding anniversary, or a birthday. For Howard Zwirn, however, January 16, 2004 is a much more important milestone – it’s the day the seizures he had experienced for seven years stopped.
“That day changed my life and my family’s life,” said Zwirn. “Since having brain surgery, I’ve been able to go about my days without constantly worrying when the next seizure might happen. I have my independence back and feel like myself again; for that I am forever grateful.”
Zwirn experienced his first seizure at the age of 28 while he was sleeping. His wife Jeannine recognized what was occurring and the couple sought help, which ultimately led them to the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Zwirn was diagnosed with mesial temporal sclerosis, a condition that was causing a type of focal epilepsy and resulting in seizures.
Zwirn’s seizures continued, taking a toll on his life. Unable to predict when a seizure might occur, he was no longer able to drive at the risk that he could have one while behind the wheel. The medications he took in hopes of controlling his seizures profoundly impacted his personality and behavior.
“The seizures and medications really pound you physically and emotionally,” said Zwirn. “I tried so many different ones in different doses. They had a huge affect on my life, how I acted, even how I spoke. When the doctors cut the medications, my family immediately saw a difference. They said I was a new Howard.”
For several years, Zwirn continued to try to control his seizures with medications and lifestyle changes. However, he found little relief.
“When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, it’s considered epilepsy,” explained Joshua Rosenow, MD, director of functional neurosurgery at Northwestern Memorial and associate professor of neurosurgery at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “The seizures Howard experienced could be pinpointed to starting in one area of the brain called the temporal lobe. They are the most common type of focal seizures in adults and can be very disruptive to a patient’s life. Uncontrolled seizures can lead to loss of independence, employment and a steady decline in memory and thinking abilities”
Nearly seven years after his initial diagnosis, Zwirn, with the support of Jeannine, decided to go through a battery of tests to determine if he was a candidate for surgery that would potentially stop his seizures.
“For patients like Howard, we remove the portion of the brain where the seizures initiate,” explained Rosenow. “This procedure, called temporal lobectomy, has the potential to cure epilepsy. Many patients find that their seizures either stop, or are significantly reduced.”
After undergoing many tests, Zwirn and his family met Rosenow. Results indicated that he was a perfect candidate for surgery. After much discussion and many questions, the decision was made to move forward with the procedure. Just one week before the operation, Jeannine learned that she was pregnant.
“Deciding to have surgery was extremely stressful, but I had a good level of comfort with my doctors, so when they told me surgery was a good option; I felt I should do it,” said Zwirn. “Jeannine’s pregnancy added an extra layer of concern for both of us. We made the decision to share the news early with family and friends to encourage a positive feeling before the surgery.”
During surgery, Rosenow removed a portion of Zwirn’s left temporal lobe containing the damaged hippocampus, the source of Howard’s seizures. After six days in the hospital, he returned home to start his recovery and rehabilitation. He went through several months of physical and occupational therapy focused on helping with his reading, writing, memory and speech. After several months, he was able to return to work as an attorney and eight months to the day of his surgery, the Zwirns welcomed their daughter Rachel to the world.
Today, nearly eight years since the surgery, Zwirn remains seizure free and lives a full and active life. He and Jeannine have since welcomed a second daughter, Meredith, to their family, which also includes Lucy, a Labrador retriever. Zwirn has a successful career as an environmental consultant and has dedicated himself to raising awareness and funds for epilepsy-related causes and organizations.
“Howard is a stellar example of how well epilepsy surgery works; not only is he seizure free, but he’s using his good fortune to benefit others going through the same thing,” said Rosenow. “Epilepsy surgery is one of the most successful neurological surgeries available, but it’s underutilized. Howard is proof that these patients can go on to do great things and lead extremely fulfilling lives without the burden of continuing seizures.”
On November 11, Zwirn was recognized for his contributions to the epilepsy community with the Hero Award for Remarkable Personal Achievement by the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago. His contributions include meeting with the Governor and state legislators to advocate for the inclusion of epilepsy funding in the state budget. Zwirn and his family have tirelessly supported the Epilepsy Foundation and Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) in various fundraising efforts. He has also taken time to meet and share his personal experience with others considering epilepsy surgery. Rosenow surprised his patient by presenting him with the award; the two remain close friends.
“I was extremely lucky to have a strong support system of family and friends, as well as the resources and doctors I needed to get through this, but not everyone is that lucky,” said Zwirn, who attributes much of his good fortune to his surgeon and friend. “Besides my wife, Josh is the second most important person in my life considering what he’s done for me and my family. Aside from the fact that he’s a Yankees fan, I can’t say enough about him. He’s a great person.”
The Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Northwestern Memorial, in collaboration with the Feinberg School, is designated a Level 4 referral center by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers. This designation certifies that the Comprehensive Epilepsy Monitoring Center provides the highest level of medical and surgical diagnostic and treatment options for epilepsy patients. To learn more about epilepsy care at Northwestern Memorial, visit the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center website.
To find a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, call 312-926-0779.