Midstate boy first on East Coast to get new epilepsy treatment

Epilepsy affects over three million Americans, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. About one million do not respond to medicine, according to Dr. Joel Winer, a neurosurgeon at WellSpan York Hospital.

There is a new device bringing hope to those people, including a Midstate boy.

Like many 9-year-olds, Christian Wilhelm loves to play with toys.

“He loves turtles. Obviously, that’s a first love for him, is turtles,” said Sarah Wilheml, Christian’s mother.

Unlike many 9-year-olds, Christian has epilepsy. He can experience 5-20 seizures a day.

“A lot of injury based on the seizures,” Wilhelm said. “You just never know when you have a child that has something like this how scary it can be.”

They tried at least 10 medications, but nothing helped. Then, on June 5, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new device, the vagus nerve implant.

“So, this device is able to detect the moment the seizure starts to occur by a change in heart rate,” Winer said, “not a change in heart rate you would experience with exercise, but one that’s almost unique to seizures and unique to his seizure activity.”

The device can prevent or suppress a seizure by sending electronic signals to the vagus nerve. Winer said it is kind of like taking Tylenol to prevent a headache.

“So, the less seizures, the less medicine the child needs to take, the less behavioral and educational impact,” Winer said. “They’re able to lead a more natural and normal life.”

The device looks like a pacemaker and is implanted under the skin on the chest. Christian is the first person on the East Coast to have one.

“As his seizures increased and his injury has increased, we felt like we needed to try this,” Wilhelm said.

Christian’s mom said the device is working. They have noticed a decrease in his seizures by at least 60 percent.

“We have hope already through this device over the past month that this could really improve his life,” Wilhelm said. “It was exciting to think, wow, that we could kind of be the experiment in a way and share with other people, hopefully to help other people.”

Christian’s surgery was at WellSpan York Hospital, the second hospital in the country to perform the procedure.

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