Outrunning the demon

Outrunning the demon

For our first Brovember cover, Joyee Chan speaks to Alex Mortensen, who loves sports and won't let a little thing like epilepsy get in the way of living a full life

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Alex Mortensen_L
Photo: Michael Perini
Sport is a major part of many boys' lives. It's no different for Alex Mortensen even though he suffers from epilepsy.

Alex is a Form Six student at Kellett School in Kowloon Bay. He plays many sports, including tennis, running and netball. He was twice named the most valuable player in inter-school basketball games, and has held school records in sprinting events.

"It's not the case at all that people with epilepsy have no life," says Alex, 15, who was diagnosed with it when he was eight. "As long as you get the medication right and you know what precautions you need to take, [epilepsy] is very easily managed."

He also says the popular belief about forcing a spoon into a person's mouth during a seizure to prevent them from swallowing their tongue actually does more harm than good.

Bad information like that causes people to get the wrong idea about what epilepsy is, says Alex.

"[It is not] true that an epileptic will die from swallowing their tongue," he says.

"Some think it's more a psychological disorder than a physical condition. People don't know what it is and refuse to find out more."

One in 100 Hongkongers suffers from epilepsy - a condition of the nervous system that leads to seizures. But Alex wanted people to know more, so he started an awareness campaign at school. He spoke at morning assemblies, held a panel discussion with teachers and recently created a four-minute YouTube video. The nurses on campus helped by teaching students the best way to help an epileptic during a seizure.

Alex had his first seizure in the summer of 2009. He remembered that he remained conscious during the attack when his entire body was shaking and his mouth produced a lot of saliva. He couldn't speak, but he had no trouble breathing. "I could hear and feel everything," he says.

From 2009 to 2011, his condition was unstable, with up to four seizures a day. Only when doctors prescribed the right medication and dosage did the seizures stop for two years. This year he has had at least four attacks.

He's more likely to have seizures if he doesn't get enough sleep. That's why he has a curfew. He has agreed with his parents to be home by 10.30pm and head straight to bed. "I can play basketball, tennis and run like everyone else," he says. "As long as I have enough rest at night, I'm fine."

Ever since his seizures began, Alex has avoided swimming and extreme sports, such as skiing and hang-gliding. When his doctors think it's safe for him to go for a dip, he has to wear a life vest in the sea or have an adult watch him by the pool.

"There is a hazard," says his mum, Louise Schumacher. "If you have a seizure when you're on a high plateau or moving at high speeds, you might get badly injured."

Alex's friends and classmates felt uneasy at first, but once they learned how to react to an epileptic attack during a basic first aid lesson, they were no longer nervous.

"Seizures are dramatic to witness and can cause injuries while the person is [having an attack]," says Sarah Chillington, the school's student well-being officer. "It is important for our students to know how to help and protect the patient while staying calm until [an adult] arrives."

And they can forget about the spoons, too.

 

You might also like:

- A youngster once had four epileptic fits in a day. Now he lives life to the fullest.

- Squash star Ho Ka-po made history this summer when she became the first Hong Kong player to top the world women's junior rankings.

- Lack of kindergarten studies among many ethnic-minority children quickly puts them at disadvantage in Hong Kong

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