Joey Callanan (left) who underwent brain surgery four years ago to help with his epilepsy, is shown with his brother Tim. Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
Sitting in the living room of his home in St. John's, 17-year-old Joey Callanan remembers the toll epileptic seizures took on his education.
His parents, Laus and Cindy, and his brother Tim, 20, are on hand for support.
Joey is now one short year away from finishing high school at Bishops College.
Only four years ago, severe seizures made school work so difficult for Joey that it didn't always seem possible.
The problem started when he was in Grade 3. The seizures would strike when he woke up. By the time he was in Grade 9, he was having three to four seizures a week, each lasting up to 45 minutes.
At one point, Joey was on four anti-seizure medications. Even on days when he didn't have a seizure, he would be tired from the effects of the medication. It wrought havoc with his ability to concentrate.
"I would take my homework home from school and I would try as hard as I could to do it, but I couldn't because I didn't know what to do," he says. "It was brutal."
Laus says Joey was left only with fragments of what had gone on during the course of a day.
"His attention span wasn't very good after having the seizures," Laus says. "His alertness suffered a great deal and then when he'd come home he'd wonder if he'd been in school at all that day, because he couldn't recall what had gone on."
Joey began to lose confidence.
"I just couldn't do it," he says. "It was really hard."
Cindy says Joey's junior high years were his worst.
"He pretty much missed junior high," she says. "If he was there in body, he certainly wasn't there in mind."
Eventually, Joey was given a choice by his doctors. He could either continue the medication regimen, or he could opt for corrective, but dangerous, brain surgery.
Joey decided the risk was worth it.
In fall 2004, Joey and his parents headed to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. Doctors conducted two six-hour surgeries, one to plant a grid on Joey's brain to monitor the effect of the seizures and another to remove part of the affected area of the brain.
"It was scary," Joey recalls.
"Tim gave me some of the biggest support, especially when I had to go away to get my surgery done."
Tim was in high school at the time and had to stay behind. He remembers how difficult it was not being able to see his brother.
"I was here by myself, wondering how they were doing," Tim says.
Soon after the surgery, Tim took some time off school and finally got to go to Toronto.
"I remember going in and seeing the smile on his face," Tim says. "It was definitely important for both of us that we got to see each other shortly after the surgery."
Since the surgery, Joey hasn't had a single seizure. However, the surgery affected his speech. He spent months working with a speech pathologist at the Janeway to restore his ability to talk.
The interruption in his education meant he's had to complete high school in four years, rather than three, but it's a small price to pay for normalcy.
The experience may influence Joey's career choice. Once he finishes high school, Joey says, he's considering studying speech pathology.
These days, when they have free time, Joey and Tim like to kick back and jam in their basement. Joey's a drummer and Tim's a guitarist.
The problems of students like Joey have led several organizations to develop scholarships for students with epilepsy. The international pharmaceutical company UCB Pharma is offering seven $5,000 scholarships to post-secondary students with epilepsy. Epilepsy Newfoundland and Labrador offers two $1,000 scholarships (details are available on its website).
The Callanans understand just how difficult learning can be for someone with epilepsy. They also know Joey wouldn't have been able to make it alone.
Joey's mother says everyone from his friends to the teachers at Bishops College have been an enormous help.
"Everybody's behind him 100 per cent," Cindy said. "And he's needed it, he's had so much catch-up to do."