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Epilepsy won't change her: Jamestown girl works to educate others

Braelon Geerdes, a 10-year-old fourth-grade student at St. John’s Academy, talks about her work to inform classmates and community about epilepsy on Thursday, Nov. 9, with her grandmother, Sharyln Geerdes, left, and mother, Tara Geerdes. (Tom LaVenture / Forum News Service)

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — A Jamestown girl is bringing awareness to National Epilepsy Awareness Month after she was diagnosed with the neurological disorder.

Braelon Geerdes, a 10-year-old fourth-grade student at St. John's Academy, was in a music class a year ago when the teacher noticed her face twitching and eyes rolling back. Braelon was aware, but couldn't communicate.

"She didn't drop down or lose consciousness," said Braelon's mother, Tara Geerdes.

Braelon had a brief and sometimes undetectable absence seizure, a less severe form of 40 types of seizures, or brief disruptions of electrical activity in the brain, according to the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota.

A few weeks later Braelon had a full seizure with convulsions while visiting her grandmother, Sharyln Geerdes, a nurse, while she was working at the Heritage Centre. They later learned she had suffered a tonic clonic seizure, one of the most common epileptic seizures.

"I fell to the floor and I hit my head," Braelon said.

Braelon was referred to a pediatric neurologist at Sanford Children's Hospital in Fargo where she had a seizure while undergoing an electroencephalograph. This helped the doctors localize the activity in the right side of her brain.

"We got a diagnosis that afternoon which is pretty amazing because normally you're going through months or years of testing before they can tell you what's going on," Tara Geerdes said.

That Braelon had her seizures while being supervised at school or with medical staff was a real blessing, Sharyln Geerdes said.

"We have seen God in this whole thing, that is for sure," she said.

Epilepsy can range in severity from infrequent seizures to over 200 a day, she said. Some people with epilepsy do well on medication while others receive nerve implants or surgeries, she said.

"It's just something that happens with apparently no cause," Tara Geerdes said.

Braelon has fewer twitches or seizures with medication and continues to live a normal life with precautions, she said. Although she no longer participates in contact sports, she can take gym class and play softball by wearing a rugby helmet, she said.

Braelon is musically and artistically talented, she said. She dances, plays guitar and piano and sings at public events, Tara Geerdes said.

The Chelsea Hutchison Foundation provided a sleep mat that signals the parent when a seizure occurs. Pillows with a breathable surface help prevent suffocation during a seizure and a smartwatch will automatically text parents and neurologists when a seizure occurs.

"Those are some of the precautions we have taken and the foundations are very helpful," Sharyln Geerdes said.

Janice Tweet, regional coordinator of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota office in Fargo, visited St. John's Academy to educate staff and students about epilepsy. SJA is now a Seizure Smart School, Tweet said.

"I have had the pleasure to get to know Braelon over the past few months and have found her to be an inspiring young girl," Tweet said. "She is talented and ambitious, and I know she will not let epilepsy keep her from doing what she wants."

Braelon had an absence seizure a few weeks ago in school, but her friends, now educated on epilepsy, saw that she was staring and not communicating and walked her safely back into the building, Sharyln Geerdes said.

Purple is the color of epilepsy awareness and Team Brealon, made up of Brealon's family and friends, will have a purple float in the Holiday Dazzle on Main Parade on Nov. 24. Team Braelon will also hold a bake sale Nov. 25 at the Buffalo Mall to support the Epilepsy Foundation.

Organizing fundraising and teaching others about epilepsy have helped Brealon to deal with her situation, Tara Geerdes said.

"She was kind of down about it and doing all this stuff has kind of made her happy because she realized she can help other people just like her or people who have it worse than she does," she said.