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SunLit Excerpt: “Grand Mal” introduces one man’s story of late onset epilepsy

A mosquito bite led to encephalitis and flu-like symptoms, but author Robert V. Dodge had only begun to feel the impact of damage to his brain

Unbeknownst to me, the mosquito bite I failed to avoid had given me a case of encephalitis, a viral infection that causes inflammation of the brain. Though I recovered quite soon from a presentation of flu-like symptoms of the condition, the disease left residual damage to my brain. That damage was the cause of my epilepsy that emerged that eventful summer and continues to lurk inside me, always waiting to take control.

Jane returned from California and we prepared for a camping vacation in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. We were both teachers and enjoyed travel, a good combination since we had the work schedules that allowed us to take extended overseas trips, which we had done frequently. Our appetites were whetted for an attempt at international living, but my National Guard commitment had prevented us from considering it seriously until I was discharged, so we went to visit the world – Europe, Tahiti, East Africa, the Amazon and more.

Our flight to the Atlas Mountains included a stopover on the way in London where we went to the theater and sat in the balcony. During intermission, I was walking along holding the railing that dropped to the grand circle and my hearing became jumbled then vanished. I had a strange, slightly disoriented feeling but kept my tingling hand on the railing and tried to make my way through the crowd and find an exit away from the balcony’s brink. I recovered so I didn’t mention it to my wife. I now know it was an aura, a warning preceding a possible seizure, and something that would become very familiar. 

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

We flew on to Morocco and camping began. After traveling to Casablanca and Marrakesh we set up our tents at a campground outside of Fez and spent several days exploring the fascinating medieval medina, a treat for me as a history teacher. Its narrow streets, often only a meter wide, prevented motorized traffic and were a maze of souks stocked with spices, dates, carpets and various traditional items. Traversing them was perhaps as close as one could come to walking back in time. The most memorable sight was the Leather Souk, the world’s oldest leather tannery. The odor was foul but the colors and process spectacular- a honeycomb of stone vessels in sections with many rich colored dying pools, barefoot workers walking on the narrow rims of the vats and using poles to produce fabulous leather products.

While we were seeing the sights of Fez it was extremely hot, upper 90ºs, and when we returned to our campground of international travelers, Jane changed into a two-piece bathing suit while I went barefoot and put on my swimming suit and a T-shirt. We were preparing to take down our tent to move on. Jane was outside and I entered the tent to pack my things. Jane next heard a loud shout she thought sounded nonhuman. Her immediate thought was that perhaps I’d been shot, but when she entered the tent she saw me lying on the ground convulsing violently. She grabbed a leather belt of mine and tried to force it in my mouth. That wasn’t possible with my jaw clenched, and she screamed for help. Soon others were in the tent, among them our tour guide, and the camp director was contacted.

I stopped convulsing but was incoherent and totally unaware when a flatbed truck arrived and the gathered campers placed me on a stretcher to load me on the back. Jane grabbed clothes since we were in a Muslim country, and with our guide, rode in the cab of the truck to a public hospital. It was a walled facility with security at its entrance. Once we were allowed in, what was found guarded from the public was a very wide circular driveway surrounding a large rectangular structure. At the hospital entrance Jane and others got me off the truck and onto a gurney. She and our guide wheeled me down a hall in search of a doctor. The corridor we followed was dirty and crowded with people attached to IVs, sitting on the floor. The open squat toilets were visible and filthy, as roaches scurried about in the unsanitary conditions.

I was in and out of consciousness by this time and recall soon lying on one of perhaps 20 simple metal frame cots with thin mattresses in a sparsely furnished ward with a concrete floor. This was where the doctors, who all spoke French, saw several patients at once. Jane’s French was elementary, while our novice guide’s French was only slightly more advanced, so communication was a challenge. Jane tried mimicking a seizure to convey what had occurred and she didn’t want me to watch because she was afraid it would trigger another episode. She also didn’t want me to know what had happened. I had partially dislocated my shoulder during my convulsions and the doctor made no mention of the seizure, but said she was going to send me down to have someone yank my arm to reposition my shoulder.

At that point, Jane did what would become her habit; she took charge. She is this rather small, trim, dainty person and has always appeared considerably younger than she is, but when my health has been an issue and care was questionable or slow, watch out. She becomes extremely assertive and time after time got me through difficulties I couldn’t possibly handle or in many cases, was not aware that they existed.

She had lost all confidence in this public facility and rather than push the gurney down to the area for shoulder realignment, she and the guide headed to the point where we had entered the building and exited. They managed to get me off the gurney and by this time I could lean against a pillar and remain upright, but no more. It was at least a hundred yards to the entrance of the compound where cars were being let in and the pavement was exceptionally hot. Jane tried chasing the few cars that were admitted to get them to stop, but had no luck. After a time, she and the guide decided they were going to have to get me outside the compound to the main streets where it might be possible to hail a taxi. The guide gave me her flip-flops so I wouldn’t burn my feet, as she sacrificed her own. With one arm over Jane and the other over the guide, I was dragged across the hot surface and we made our departure. Outside the hospital compound we secured a ride to our campground.

Upon reaching the campground I was set in the shade of a tree, as it was still extremely hot. With no doctor or medical care, Jane had no idea of what to do next, and I was of no use. It is indicative of her state of mind that one idea she came up with was to buy an airplane to fly to London where we would be safe. She still hadn’t told me anything other than I had passed out and hurt my shoulder.

After a while the director of the camp came to say he had found a doctor who could help us. We made arrangements for a driver and went to see him. The doctor was an older French expatriate with a private clinic who had a standup X-ray machine that Jane thought looked like “something out of an old movie.” She could see my bones as I stood behind it. The doctor noted my shoulder injury but did not do anything dramatic to realign it. He understood that I had suffered a convulsion and suspected that it was caused by the heat. In his view, it was a febrile seizure rather than epilepsy, so likely a one-off occurrence. This doctor was not a neurologist and he might have meant a “provoked” seizure, as febrile seizures are thought to occur only in children. He prescribed phenobarbital and we returned to the campground to complete our camping trip.

There were six of us who traveled in one van and put all our travel gear in a metal box, which was stored on top when we moved from one location to another. I was the strongest and lifted the box on and off. Following my seizure and as an effect of being on phenobarbital I was groggy and uncertain, so napped in the van frequently and didn’t exert myself. The one other man in our group refused to assist with the box and complained about how I had inconvenienced him. The women cooperated and managed to load the box for the remainder of the trip. During that time, Jane told me I’d had a seizure but not how extreme it had been. We weren’t too worried, as the doctor had thought it wasn’t likely to recur. 


Robert Dodge was a history teacher for 37 years and an expat for 35. He is the author of eight non-fiction books. Dodge earned a BA in history and an MS in education from North Dakota State University and an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.


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