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How One Woman Overcame Epilepsy Challenges Through Martial Arts

Jessie Lentz recently celebrated two years seizure-free and reflects on how martial arts has helped her overcome the challenges of living with epilepsy.

Jessie Lentz is one of more than three million people nationwide living with epilepsy, a chronic neurological condition that causes recurring seizures. Lentz, an emergency department technician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, was first diagnosed in 2005 and has experienced many highs and lows on her journey.

“My condition was manageable at first, especially with the treatment and medication, but after a few years things began to take a turn,” says Lentz.

In 2011, Lentz experienced an epileptic seizure lasting more than five minutes, known as a status epilepticus. While in the hospital, neurologist Dr. Michael Sperling, director of the Jefferson Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, recommended evaluation for surgery, as medication had failed to provide control for her seizures. Testing showed she was a good candidate, and soon after, Lentz underwent surgery with neurosurgeon Dr. Ashwini Sharan.

“During the initial operation, we went in to remove part of the temporal lobe of the brain,” says Dr. Sharan. “Jessie’s surgery resulted in a significant decrease in seizures.”

Following her surgery, Lentz’s seizures were under control. She began to regain a sense of normalcy and was inspired to challenge herself to try something new. In 2013, she began training in Tang Soo Do, a Korean style of martial arts. Her instructors were aware of her health history but worked with her every step of the way.

Jessie Lentz in the air kicking an opponent in her martial arts class

Jessie Lentz training in her martial arts class.

“I started martial arts training for a few reasons. I wanted to learn how to defend myself, get in better shape and challenge myself to try something I always wanted to do,” says Lentz.

Over the next few years, Lentz’s seizures remained under control and her quality of life improved. She also continued to excel in Tang Soo Do—so much so that she hoped to test for her first-degree black belt. However, in 2016,  she experienced a setback once again.

“One morning, I was working my shift in the ER when I experienced a grand mal seizure but thanks to the quick thinking of my coworker, I was carried to a team of doctors and nurses who essentially saved my life,” says Lentz.

A grand mal seizure, also known as a tonic-clonic seizure, occurs in two phases. During the tonic phase, the muscles in the body become stiff and a loss of consciousness occurs. During the clonic phase, intense muscle spasms occur.

An MRI revealed that Lentz also suffered a massive stroke. Among many things, the stroke left her weak on her left side and she walked with a limp. The experience also meant that she was forced to put her goal of testing for her black belt on hold.

Lentz was discharged after a week in the hospital. She spent time recovering at home while continuing to receive follow-up care. Fortunately, thanks to her martial arts training, her recovery progressed well and she did not need physical therapy.

“After having the stroke, my doctor told me that my martial arts training actually helped a lot with my recovery—especially due to hand-eye coordination,” says Lentz.

Lentz was able to resume her training and in 2017, she successfully earned her first-degree black belt. She continued to persevere, but the following year Lentz was faced with yet another challenge.

“I was at home, it was a very hot day and I was going to take my dog for a walk. One of the last things I can remember is being outside with my dog,” says Lentz.

Lentz doesn’t remember much about what happened next but later learned that she suffered a seizure while outside. As she lay on the ground unconscious, her dog stayed by her side frantically barking.

“My dog isn’t trained to be a service dog but he must have known that mommy was sick so he kept barking,” Lentz explains. “A passerby heard my dog, saw me laying on the ground, and called 911.”

Lentz was hospitalized for a few days. Over the course of the next year, she continued to experience many highs and lows along the way.

“I had another seizure at work and had to stay in the hospital around Thanksgiving,” she recalls. “I went seizure-free for six months and was able to start driving again. I even tested for my second-degree black belt but then a month later I started having seizures again.”

After suffering another serious seizure, Dr. Sperling advised her to have an additional surgery. In October 2019, Lentz underwent mapping for her seizures, which involves having electrodes placed in the brain. Doctors were able to identify the source of her seizures and she had another resection surgery that December.

“When seizures recur, we have to put wires in the brain to figure out which circuit has gone bad,” explains Dr. Sharan. “Sometimes it happens to be an area of the brain that is difficult to operate on—as it was in Jessie’s case. When we do epilepsy surgery, there are a team of doctors involved to ensure we are making the best surgical decision.”

Lentz’s second resection surgery involved removing an additional portion of her temporal lobe. She experienced a few complications during her recovery, but she gradually regained her strength and was able to resume her everyday activities, including returning to work.

“I ended up coming back to work right before the pandemic really hit,” says Lentz. “It was definitely different but I’ve learned how to adapt to change. I also have really amazing coworkers and a great support system.”

Among those supporters are her neurologist Dr. Sperling and her surgeon Dr. Sharan.

“I’ve been a part of many of Jessie’s surgeries over the years and she is such a fighter,” Dr. Sharan shares. “Her spirit is so strong. It’s one of the things that is so remarkable about her and everything that she has been through.”

Close up of Jessie Lentz's tattoo on her forearm

Close up of Jessie Lentz’s tattoo on her arm.

After almost a year off, Lentz was able to return to martial arts training—one of the things that has kept her going despite all of the challenges she has faced due to epilepsy.

“I was so happy to get back to doing what I love the most,” she says. “To be able to get my first and second-degree black belts was amazing. So many people quit after reaching that goal but I want to see how far I can go.” Lentz plans to test for her third-degree black belt in June 2022.

Lentz already has another major milestone under her belt—recently celebrating more than two years without experiencing seizures. While epilepsy has been a major part of her life, Lentz is determined not to let it define her.

“I have a tattoo on my arm that says, ‘I was only given this life because I am strong enough to live it,’ and they are the words that I live by,” says Lentz. “Yes I may have epilepsy but it doesn’t have me.”

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