Managing Epilepsy Surgery with a Michigan State of Mind

If there’s something worth laughing about, Kathryn Hopcian will find it. The 27-year-old has been laughing through the pain for as long as she can remember. Even now, recovering from epilepsy surgery, she’s laughing.

“It takes a lot to get me down,” she says. “This experience has shown me that even when I’m faced with challenges, there’s a lot I can do.”

We first learned of Hopcian through her sister, Emily, who wrote a beautiful piece about living with epilepsy for REI. The story features Kathryn Hopcian and Jared Muscat, Patagonia’s social media content producer, as they pursue their passions with epilepsy.

Hopcian admits she’s “intensely into sports.” She grew up in northern Michigan, where life on the water seeps into the everyday like a dream. In the summer, she splashed in the icy waters near Crystal Lake, swimming, wakeboarding, diving.

Hopcian in action wakeboarding

She competed in swimming and soccer, snowboarded and made the outdoors her playground. So it comes as no surprise that Hopcian plans to return to snowboarding this winter, nearly two years after epilepsy surgery.

“My doctors have cleared me,” she says, the anticipation rising in her voice. It’s the only hint of how grueling the wait has been.

The Beginning of an Epilepsy Journey

Hopcian’s first seizure struck at 18, a tonic-clonic seizure in the heart of summer. She was home with her friend Kelly when strangeness stopped her mid-sentence. She rubbed her hands together, felt an odd melting sensation. It was an aura, a warning that a seizure was coming.

When the seizure ended, the clock started ticking. Hopcian’s sophomore year at Michigan State University was fast approaching; the pressure was on for a diagnosis.

Hopcian spent much of sophomore year shuttling between classes and diagnostic tests. There were EEGs and ambulatory EEGs to check for signs of epilepsy. And an MRI to rule out structural damage to the brain. The revolving door of uncertainty spun for a year, until 2012, when a video EEG finally proved Hopcian had epilepsy.

Managing Epilepsy While at School

Hopcian and her friend Kelly snowboarding in Colorado in 2012. Hopcian never has let seizures stop her from pursuing her passions.

Adjusting to life with epilepsy as a college student wasn’t easy. Anticonvulsant side effects, such as fatigue, memory problems and insomnia, complicated matters. And Hopcian’s seizures continued despite epilepsy medication.

But she wasn’t about to let seizures and side effects get her down. For four years, she served as an officer for the Spartan Ski Club, leading snowboarding trips out West. It was good for the soul.

“Something about being on the mountain energizes me,” Hopcian says. “Snowboarding is freedom. Being in the fresh air with my friends makes me happy. Snowboarding helped me to live in the moment at a time when I really needed it.”

Uncontrolled Seizures Lead to Epilepsy Surgery

On the mountain, fun was had. But the seizures kept coming. Trying one anticonvulsant after the other wasn’t working. Hopcian was having tonic-clonic seizures every other month, triggered by stress and lack of sleep. Partial seizures that interrupted her awareness were happening even more frequently.

By graduation, Hopcian was having multiple seizures a day. Her family had hoped graduation would bring relief. It didn’t. When Hopcian learned she was a candidate for epilepsy surgery, she went for it. She would have a temporal lobectomy to remove the part of the brain where most seizures occur.

In April 2018, the surgery took place at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, Hopcian has had tonic-clonic seizures just twice a year. The partial seizures and auras have vanished completely. And while Hopcian still takes anticonvulsants, “I don’t even worry about seizures anymore,” she says.

Hopcian, back row, second from left, with the Spartan Ski Club

After Epilepsy Surgery, Rebirth and Renewal

Over the past two years, Hopcian has fought to return to form. After surgery, she battled lightheadedness, orthostatic intolerance and fainting spells that made it difficult to get out of bed. With appropriate treatment, those issues have improved.

Hopcian on a family trip through the Grand Canyon three years before surgery

“Epilepsy has made me resilient,” Hopcian says. “Those days when I was fainting, I was feeling down. But I committed to never stay down. And that has made all the difference.”

It’s easier for Hopcian to look ahead now, to dream of something great. In July, she returned to work at Manitou Restaurant and Stormcloud Brewing Company, where people have seen her seizures, felt her pain and loved her all the same. For Hopcian, it felt like going home.

“I have so many people who are really there for me,” she says. “Having the support of family, friends and coworkers has helped my recovery.”

Northern Michigan, with all its beauty, has contributed, too. The snow’s falling again, two feet just this week. In it, Hopcian sees something she hasn’t seen in a while: Opportunity.

“One of my favorite songs is ‘Stronger’ by Britney Spears,” she says. “Because I’m getting stronger every day.”

Where will Kathryn Hopcian go from here? Follow her on Instagram to find out!

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All photos courtesy of Kathryn Hopcian