Houston man free of epileptic seizures months after surgery

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Imagine going about your life one minute and then losing all control in the next minute.

It's the reality for the more than three million Americans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are living with epilepsy. It's also a reality Houstonian James Burke knows all too well.

When we first met James Burke in 2012, he was a 21-year-old geology student at the University of Texas in Austin. His young life had been sidetracked by violent seizures.

"I fell on my head and got eight staples, 10 staples or something like that," Burke said, recalling just one of many accidents caused by a seizure.

Burke's epileptic seizures first began when he was about 18 years old.

As time went on, the seizures became more frequent and violent. Burke traveled to see specialists around the country, changed medications and even had holes drilled into his skull to allow for electrodes that doctors thought might prevent the seizures.

Still, the seizures continued and the resulting accidents were more dangerous, like the time he blacked out and fell into a lake while playing golf.

"He was in the lake face down and my cousin and I got him out and gave him CPR," James' father Jimmy Burke recalled. "I thought he had drowned, sure did."

To give his parents some peace of mind, James told his teachers and classmates at the University of Texas about his epilepsy. His friends rallied around him, keeping watch over James around the clock.

Friends step in to help young man with epilepsy
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James Burke is getting by with a little help from his friends.

Then a year after ABC13 met James, there was a terrible accident that would change him forever. A seizure had knocked out Burke, his t-shirt catching fire on his gas stove.

"I blinked, I woke up, I was in the ICU in the burn unit and my doctor told me I had burned over 45 percent of my body, the second, third and fourth degree," said Burke.

It was a turning point. The words from his doctor, an unsettling reality.

"He said if you keep having seizures like this, you will die," Burke remembered.

Burke moved back home to Houston but his seizures didn't stop while he was in recovery. Unwilling to give up on himself, Burke followed the suggestion of someone he met during an event for Memorial Hermann Hospital, landing in the capable hands of Dr. Nitin Tandon, director of the Epilepsy Surgery Program at the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

"This is a small abnormality in the base of the skull where the temporal lobe lives and it's called a temporal meningoencephalocele," Dr. Tandon said, pinpointing the abnormality in Burke's brain tissue.

It was a rare, subtle finding Tandon says other doctors likely missed or overlooked.

Burke was in luck. Tandon says Memorial Hermann's epilepsy surgery program had done more surgeries for Burke's condition than any other hospital in the world, inspiring Burke's confidence in the proposed surgical fix.

"James is a very articulate, intelligent young man so in order for us to minimize the impact of surgery on his temporal lobe, we did a minimally invasive approach to remove this tissue," Tandon explained the surgery.

"One month went by, no seizures. And then two months went by, no seizures. And then three months went by and my doctor told me I could drive and I was like, wait, what? I get to drive?" Burke said of his amazing progress. "I pulled out my truck keys that I had in high school when I was 16 and me and my dad went for a drive and I took my girlfriend to lunch and I had great day," he said.

Now, eight months after his surgery, Burke has reduced his medications and is still seizure free.

He's also back to cooking without fearing his gas stove and driving by himself. He's even netted his dream job in geology with a company in downtown Houston. His sights are now on crossing the finish line in the January 2018 Houston Half Marathon, seizure free, a little more sure of every step he takes. He is raising funds to help others suffering from the same condition he overcame.

As he trains for the half marathon, you can help James raise money for the Epilepsy Foundation Texas-Houston/Dallas-Fort Worth/West Texas.

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