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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Seizure on a Plane

November 2023

One of my greatest apprehensions is to have a seizure on a plane. Before boarding a flight in Kodiak in 2008, I told the two flight attendants that I might pass out on the flight, thus, to be prepared. I said I would fall, did not need oxygen, and would recover shortly. One replied the way I wanted her to.

“Oh, I’ll just kick you under the seat so you’re not in the way.

“Yes, fine,” I replied.

The other was more officious. “No, we have to use the oxygen, and…” do such and such.

Whatever they did, I knew they were forewarned and would take care of me appropriately and with kindness. I lay down on a bench and waited to board. Although I’d had a seizure the night before, I awoke still dizzy, sensing myself out of my body, with vertigo, and all the other things that forewarn me of an upcoming problem, I was fine on the flight to Anchorage and further on to Seattle.

All that happened more than eleven years before my diagnosis. Before then, I just thought I had some weird behaviors, more behaviors and weirder than everyone else did. After all, didn’t everyone hallucinate, have vertigo, feel out of body when walking down the street or while at work? No? Correct, no.

This morning I’m on an early flight from Tampa, Florida to Seattle, then on my way to Juneau, Alaska. Shortly after takeoff came the announcement for an EMT or an MD. Obviously some sort of medical emergency. However, we did not need to land. I figured someone had an a-fib situation, nausea, or some other problem the flight attendants and any one of the two responders, who had dinged their call buttons, could handle.

After we in first class had had our tea or coffee, and breakfast, my seatmate asked a flight attendant what had happened. A seizure? How she guessed that, I don’t know.

“Yes,” said Keith, the flight attendant in charge of the cabin. Surprised he admitted that, I felt wonderful, so reassured that if I had a seizure on a flight, people could handle it.

“He is fine and now sleeping soundly,” he continued.

Oh how I know that feeling. It is the most wonderful thing for me to feel so reassured that I do not need to feel embarrassed at having one of my greatest fears occur: to have a seizure in a public place. I always have thought that I would feel horribly embarrassed. Afraid I would inconvenience everyone around me. Afraid everyone would know who I was.

This fear always starts if I begin to have too many senses of vertigo, illusions, out of body, natural highs, hallucinations, etc., in public. What will happen if I have a seizure? Will I get to the ground before I pass out? Will I pass out before I get to the ground and hit my head on the way down? Will someone present freak out and respond inappropriately? This fear almost destroys the ecstasy that occurs during the aura and my accompanying vertigo, out of body, and natural high, floating beside myself or within me. Ah, but that ecstasy—the warmth, the glory, the supreme, ultimate, unmatched, incomparable joy that then immediately crashes to the ground in the fear and terror whether I’ll survive this one-more episode of leaving consciousness and maybe this planet. Will I die? Will I come back? Will I return from this horror this complete loss of control? I almost weep thinking about the fear.

Yet as I write this, the young man, seizure finished, sleeps soundly in the back of the plane.

Oh, that deep sleep! The sleep that fills me back up again. I sit here thankful it is a six-hour flight and hoping he feels well rested when he awakes. I hope he is not embarrassed. I hope no one in coach is upset about their delayed beverages and meals. For me, it is just one more reminder to take water on the plane. To get enough sleep. To keep my stress level low. To let the flight attendant know if I’m feeling off a beam. To eat only those foods I should eat. To wear my medical alert bracelet that has my name and epilepsy engraved on its underside. It protects me by keeping others around me informed.

What did I do for the 73 years between my start of epilepsy and my diagnosis by that saint of a physician, that epileptologist?

I became a silent voyager with constant mild anxiety. Anxiety that drove me to control myself, never to let on to anyone else that I probably had something neurologically wrong with me. Anxiety that drove me to succeed beyond just being the youngest trying to catch up to my siblings. Half a life ago, each sibling told me to stop working so hard for I had already surpassed each one. Still I pushed myself. Now when I really need to slow down, to avoid having a seizure, to rest, even to retire, I have a lifetime habit of working, pushing, achieving.

This person named Abigail must remember to sleep eight to nine hours a night. But I spent the last 60 years sleeping five to six. Not good. Not healthy. Now I live on daily medication and like it. Now I sleep more and that’s okay. Now I have fewer hours every day to work and I don’t like that reality one bit.

I worry with our early morning flight that the young man somewhere behind me did not get enough sleep last night, as I did not get enough sleep. I remain grateful that I did not have the seizure. I am indebted to him and very grateful to this unknown person for telling me that I will be okay if I have a seizure in public. On a plane. In a restaurant. In a hotel lobby. On some random street.

I make it a point of telling people I have epilepsy. Most of my reason is to make people unafraid of the odd behaviors or the random motions, to make them not fear the uneven jerky motions of a seizure, to make them unafraid of those of us who pass out in public.

To my fellow traveler on this flight in space, I offer you my deep gratitude and thanks for sharing your experience with me. Thank you for letting me see how normal you are as you pass by my seat. Thank you for teaching me not to be afraid of having a seizure in a public place.

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