‘I’m Living a Normal Life for the First Time’: Madison’s Epilepsy Cure

Madison Wells is a bright and energetic young woman. At eighteen, she just graduated from high school, has her first job and is currently attending Southeastern University. She spent last summer hiking, playing tennis, and taking long walks on the beach, and switched to snow boarding and skiing last winter. But Madison is no ordinary girl and she takes none of these things for granted. Until last year she was racked by near daily epileptic seizures and her life wasn’t quite so promising.

Madison’s problem began long before she was born. While in the womb, she developed a condition known as Dysplasia. “Cells had formed in the core of my brain, but never migrated to the outer layers of my brain, where they belonged,” she explains. “These displaced cells would misfire, causing seizures.”

Her first seizure hit when she was just six years old. “I would look like I was day dreaming. I may shake a little in my hands, then slowly fall out of my chair in class,” she says. The seizures would leave her temporarily weak and unable to speak.

Madison was diagnosed with epilepsy and started on medication, and, for about a year, the seizures were kept under control. Over time, though, they grew worse and more frequent.

“When my seizures got really bad, they would hospitalize me and change or add meds,” she says. “When my medications were changed, there would be a honeymoon period until my brain figured out how to work around the new medicine, and the seizures would start again.” Eventually she couldn’t make it through a school day without having a seizure and she had to have instruction at home.

Her neurologists, Darryl C. De Vivo, MD, and Dr. Cigdem I. Akman, MD, from Columbia University Medical Center, worked tirelessly to get her seizures under control.

“My mother tried everything under the sun to make the seizures stop and help the medications work,” she says. “We lived in a healing house in Boston for several weeks. I had holistic remedies of vitamins and minerals, an organic low glycemic diet, an organic vegetable and protein diet, chiropractic care, acupuncture, personalized Chinese tea, yoga, organic juicing, and healing prayer–I am sure I am leaving a few out.”

When Madison turned eighteen her doctors referred her to Columbia’s Department of Neurosurgery to see Dr. Neil Feldstein from the Pediatric Neurosurgery Center and Dr. Guy McKhann from the Epilepsy Center. Together, they had a new treatment that could cure her epilepsy.

“For twelve years, this surgery was not available to me because of the location of the origination of the seizures. The doctors noted it was too close to my speech and motor skills. When the research advanced to a more accurate assessment for mapping neurologic functions, like motor or language function, I became a candidate.”

Madison and her family met with Drs. McKhann and Feldstein. “It was a great meeting,” says Madison. “They showed several pictures of my brain and explained where the exact location of the irritable brain tissue was. They explained the procedure in such a simple way, and had such knowledge of what they could do, it put everyone’s mind at ease.  When we ended the meeting, I told them I wanted the surgery and I requested the first available appointment, which was two weeks later.”

On March 21, 2012 Madison arrived at Columbia University Medical Center for the first of two eight hour surgical procedures. The first, performed by Dr. Feldstein involved the placement of electrodes in the general area of her brain where her seizures originated. These electrodes were left in place so they could pinpoint the exact location of origination the next time she had a seizure. Madison’s medications were tapered and she had several seizures the next morning, giving the surgeons the information they needed.

Six days later, Dr. Feldstein and Dr. McKhann took Madison back into the O.R.. Dr. McKhann, who specializes in mapping the vital functions of the brain, safely removed the area of irritable cells that were causing her seizures.

After the surgery, she says, “Everyone stopped by to examine me. They made me move my arms, legs, tongue, touch my nose. All four of my doctors went out of their way to make sure I was progressing well. I felt like they were my friends.”

Four days after her second surgery, Madison was sent home. She went through a few weeks of physical and occupational therapy and was then on her own. “I would take short walks in the beginning and after a week, walked about a mile a day on the beach. I didn’t use my phone for the first few days, then began texting friends nonstop after that. Life became normal very fast.”

After four weeks she returned to school and says she did homework nonstop to catch up. She attended her prom, took her finals, and graduated. Since her surgery, Madison has been seizure free.

“Now I am living a normal life for the first time,” she says “I have so many plans. I want to drive most of all; that was never a possibility. I want to travel and see the world. I want to share with people what Dr. DeVivo, Dr. Akman, Dr. Feldstein, and Dr. McKhann have done for me. I have turned the corner and a new chapter awaits without limitations. I can never thank them enough.”

Madison’s 2020 Update

Madison is indeed living a normal life and traveling the world. Within the past two years, Madison has traveled to Greece and Rome, studying the life of the apostle Paul. Also, she is in school for missions and has traveled to Costa Rica. Madison says, “Columbia Presbyterian will always have such a special place in my heart. What Dr. McKhann and the rest of the neurological team did for me will always play a significant part in how I was able to overcome everything I went through. Almost 8 years later and I still always reflect on the surgery and all the memories of life before my surgery and the healing work God did through the Doctors at Columbia Presbyterian."