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A life-saving Bear, world-renowned care help Ansonia woman with “scary” diagnosis

Amber St. Jacques with Bear, who helped save her life during an epileptic seizure. A patient at the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, she underwent surgery to remove parts of her brain where seizures were starting.

Bear rarely barks. But one February night in 2012, the dog was growling and barking relentlessly at his owner, Jason St. Jacques, who had fallen asleep on the couch. When Jason didn’t get up, Bear pulled him off the couch.

“He ran right for the bedroom door and when I went in, Amber was blue,” Jason recalled.

It turns out, Amber, his wife, had vomited and suffered a seizure, but she remembers none of it. She awoke at her local hospital and, after a series of tests there and over the next few weeks, learned the cause of the frightening episode: epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a neurological disease characterized by abnormal surges in the brain’s electrical activity. These surges can cause more than a dozen different types of seizures with a range of effects, including loss of consciousness, involuntary movements or a combination. In the months after her diagnosis, Amber experienced more seizures, including one that prompted Bear to break the bedroom door. Some of her seizures involved loss of consciousness; during others she was aware of her surroundings but unable to respond.

“It’s scary,” she said. “You go into this completely different place. It takes a while to snap out of it.”

Amber began seeing a neurologist with the Yale Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Yale New Haven Hospital. The Center recently celebrated 50 years, during which it has become an international leader in epilepsy diagnosis, treatment and research. Amber’s neurologist tried anti-seizure medications, but when the seizures continued, recommended surgery.

“At first I said, ‘no,’” Amber said. “Brain surgery sounded so weird. But my doctor said I needed it.”

She was referred to Epilepsy Center Co-director Dennis Spencer, MD, chief of epilepsy surgery, YNHH, and chair, Department of Neurosurgery, Yale School of Medicine. “He is awesome,” Amber said. Before surgery, she underwent testing at the Epilepsy Center at YNHH, which uses a variety of diagnostic procedures. A functional MRI (fMRI) showed doctors which areas of Amber’s brain were involved in certain activities, such as looking at pictures and solving problems. The Center also offers intensive audiovisual and electroencephalography (EEG) monitoring, with electrodes placed on the patient’s scalp to show their brainwaves.

Dr. Spencer and his colleagues have developed a number of epilepsy procedures now widely used, including implanting electrodes in the brain to precisely pinpoint where seizures originate and removing those areas. In Amber’s case, he removed three problem areas from her left temporal lobe last May. Other advanced procedures offered at the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center include implanting a responsive neuro-stimulator in the brain to control electrical impulses, and minimally invasive laser ablation to destroy problem cells.

Since her surgery, Amber has had a few seizures, but they’re less severe. At some point, she’d like to start working and driving again, but is currently focusing on her recovery. She has confidence in her team of specialists at YNHH and plenty of support from loved ones – including Jason and her mom, Diane DellaMonica. “Even with all I’ve been through,” Amber said, “I’m still a happy person.”

The Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Yale New Haven Hospital recently celebrated 50 years of providing advanced diagnosis, treatment and research. Staff, patients and families joined Center physicians at a celebration, including (l-r): Robert Duckrow, MD; Lawrence Hirsch, MD, Center co-director; Richard Mattson, MD; Dennis Spencer, MD, Center co-director and chief of epilepsy surgery, YNHH; Susan Levy, MD; and Hal Blumfeld, MD, PhD.