ATHENS — MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — With her senior year about to unfold, Courtney Trantham, 17, should be looking forward to the excitement of finishing high school, catching up with friends and planning for the years ahead.
While her future is bright — she plans to go to college and become a forensic anthropologist — she's spent her summer thus far recuperating from brain surgery, the second in her short life to control the epilepsy that has been a part of her since she was a child.
Until now, she has been reluctant to talk about her seizures, the storms in her brain that have kept her out of the gymnastics she loved and other physical activity. But her family hopes that by sharing her story, people will come to understand that no one should be embarrassed for having a disability, or live in fear that he or she will be made fun of.
Courtney just wants to live the life of a normal teenager.
For years, Courtney tried to keep the epilepsy diagnosis to herself. She only told a couple of close friends. She didn't want anyone else to know.
"They might think something's different, then they'll just stop associating with me," she said.
Her mother, Stacy Trantham, felt the same way for many years. She would talk about Courtney's condition with immediate family, but few others.
"I just couldn't," Stacy said. "Every time I would start to talk about it, I would just cry. I blamed myself for a very long time, because of what Courtney was going through."
Courtney's first seizure came at age 5, while she was at a relative's house. Stacy was at work; Courtney had shown no outward symptoms of illness that day. Paramedics took her to the emergency room, but a spinal tap at the hospital revealed nothing.
The second seizure happened at the home of Robert Henderson, now Courtney's stepdad. She was playing a video game; the strobe effect of the game set off another seizure.
Robert said it took probably a couple of years to get the epilepsy diagnosis. They asked for a referral to Children's of Alabama in Birmingham, which has a team of epileptologists, neurosurgeons, technicians and nurses dedicated to the field.
Stacy and Robert were told that when Courtney's brain was forming, it didn't develop as it was supposed to. There are several conditions and events that can lead to epilepsy — the tendency to have recurrent seizures — including brain infections and injuries. But in nearly two-thirds of the cases, there is no specific underlying cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Physicians typically use a battery of tests, including an EEG (electroencephalogram), CT scan and MRI, to confirm the epilepsy diagnosis. Anti-epileptic drugs become a mainstay of treatment, though close monitoring is required to assess effectiveness and possible side effects. Such drugs are successful for about two-thirds of people with epilepsy, the CDC says.
But for some patients, surgery becomes necessary. When doctors can determine that a patient's seizures consistently arise from a single area of the brain, known as the "seizure focus," surgery to remove that focus can help stop future seizures, or make them easier to control with medication.
Courtney had her first surgery in fifth grade. It went perfectly, Robert said.
"There were no complications. We got back home, and within a couple of weeks she was back to living her normal life," he said.
Robert and Stacy were protective of her and limited her activities, but Courtney recovered, and pushed herself to get caught back up to speed at Flowers Elementary School. Everything was going well.
Then, in eighth grade, during some horseplay in one of her classes, Courtney was hit in the back of the head with a bottle, which caused a concussion. The seizures started coming back on a regular basis after that, Robert said.
But no one was certain where the seizures were coming from. Robert said they thought that a small area that wasn't removed during the first surgery had perhaps started to form back.
"But we didn't actually know that the seizures were coming from the back spot until a few years down the road," Robert said.
The team at Children's continued to test Courtney for a couple of years, but to test her accurately, she has to be off her medications and have seizures while she's being watched in the hospital. It took time, and several tries, for that to happen.
Either Robert or Stacy would stay with Courtney for these tests at Children's. While both tried to make Courtney comfortable, Stacy, with a mother's instinct, tended to be more of a protector.
But Robert sees it differently — Stacy was protecting herself as much as she was Courtney, because watching her suffer the seizures was agonizing. Stacy doesn't disagree.
"I'm more comfortable when she's having them," Robert said. "You can't stop a seizure, you can't make it go away. You just have to ride it out until it's done with."
After all the testing was finished, the results pointed to the seizure focus in the area where she had the concussion in eighth grade.
"The whole time, we were thinking it came from the first incision," Robert said.
Everyone agreed that a second surgery was necessary to control the seizures. So on April 30 of this year, she went back to Children's for brain surgery. Her epileptologist, Dr. Pongkiat Kankirawatana, and her neurosurgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Blount, were godsends, Robert and Stacy said.
"Before even asking us, (Blount) would go to (Courtney)," Robert said. "'What does she want to be back doing?' She wanted to be able to drive, she wanted to go back to school, she wants a normal life again."
Courtney came home on May 16. She was in pain and wanted to stay in bed, but she needed to be up and moving around. Still, her recovery has to be on her body's terms.
"Even her doctor said, we have to take every corner when she takes that corner. It's when her body allows her to take it," Stacy said.
Her vision has been a problem since the surgery, but is beginning to stabilize, Courtney said. There is no point in sending her to an eye specialist now, Robert said, because until her brain is completely healed from the surgery, her eyesight will likely fluctuate.
Now, Courtney She said her only problem now is reading up close. She covers one eye to read; in fact, that's how she took her state graduation exam.
"We were at this table for a while," Stacy laughs, as they're gathered around the kitchen table. "But Courtney pushed right on through it."
She will finish her senior year still homeschooled through Lee, and will continue to recover. She still takes medications, and likely will have to the rest of her life. Now, besides growing her hair back, the primary goal is for her to be seizure-free for at least six months. Then, she can apply for a permit to learn how to drive.
In the meantime, Stacy will continue to stay home to care for her while Robert works. But the family said they don't want pity.
"That's something that I've always told Courtney. We don't need no one to feel sorry for us," Stacy said. "That's not what God gave you this for."
"This is our challenge in life," Robert said.