, NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 21 – A Nigerian movie plays on the 14-inch television set above the reception desk. A June 2011 copy of International Epilepsy News lies on the seat next to me. Its cover reads ‘Celebrating 50 years of fighting Epilepsy,’ with fireworks behind it.
A phone rings shattering the lull the hum of the television had created. “Doctor Kioy’s office,” a receptionist says pleasantly into the phone, “I’m sorry. I cannot interrupt him when he’s with a patient.”
Other than a middle-aged lady who repeatedly blows her nose on her handkerchief, you wouldn’t believe any of us waiting to be called into the doctor’s office would be unwell.
I keep stealing glances at a young lady sitting adjacent to me. Of the lot of us, she seems the most likely to be a pageant queen given her trim figure and fair complexion.
Fingers painted in hot pink push hair back from her ear as she answers her phone and walks out the door. The summon finally comes and the receptionist ushers me to the doctor.
“She’s taking a call.”
Bernice Mugambi, 21, is the reigning Miss University of Nairobi but as she enters Neurologist Paul Kioy’s office she does so as one of one million people in Kenya living with epilepsy.
The title doesn’t stay at the door however; Bernice puts it to good use enlightening the society on epilepsy. And what better time than now, the epilepsy awareness month!
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to model again but my friends insisted I sign up for the pageant.”
That was in March after being diagnosed as an epileptic in February.
Bernice’s fears, as it turned out, were not completely unfounded. She had an attack during the finals for the Miss University of Nairobi pageant, which was held in March, barely a few days after her diagnosis.
“I’d just done the final round which was evening wear when I lost consciousness back stage. I think it was the flashing lights that triggered it.”
Ten minutes later she was back on stage for the question-and-answer session and finally to accept her crown.
The last four years in Bernice’s life have been a constant battle between epileptic episodes and normal life.
“I was first diagnosed as having depression and put on anti-depressants. They didn’t work, they only made me sluggish. When the seizures didn’t abate, I sought a second opinion and was told I was suffering from brain flares,” she recounts.
“Epilepsy is perhaps the most common chronic neurological disorder I have to deal with second only to headaches. That being the case, it is also misdiagnosed in majority of the cases,” Kioy says sitting across Bernice and I in a white lab coat, his examination bed behind him.
“A third of hard-to-treat epilepsy (symptoms) are not epilepsy and a good number of epilepsy cases are treated as something else entirely.”