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Olympic Hockey Goalie Triumphs Over Epilepsy

A healthy lifestyle and effective medicines have led Chanda Gunn to the top of her sport

THURSDAY, Feb. 9, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The rugged, tension-filled sport of ice hockey wouldn't seem a comfortable arena for someone with the potentially debilitating illness epilepsy.

But Chanda Gunn, the 26-year-old starting goalie for the U.S. women's hockey team set to compete in the Winter Olympics starting this week in Torino, Italy, has proven that the disorder need not stop you from achieving your dreams.

Gunn was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was just 9 years old. But a winning combination of good medical care and true grit has enabled her to rise to the top of her sport.

"If you take care of yourself by talking with your doctor, taking your medicines, and living a healthy lifestyle, you can really have a normal life," she said during a recent interview from Cromwell, Conn., where she was practicing with her teammates before departing for Italy.

Epilepsy, a neurological disorder caused by disturbances in the electrical activity in the brain, affects more two million people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The result can be strange sensations, emotions, and behavior or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness.

But, ever-improving medicines to control epilepsy, coupled with more research into the disorder, has significantly boosted the prognosis for people with epilepsy, said Dr. John M. Pellock, a specialist in epilepsy treatment and vice chairman of the department of neurology at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System.

"The old-fashioned idea that if you have seizures, you can't do anything, is wrong," Pellock said. "Seventy-five percent of those [with epilepsy] can live a pretty normal life."

Pellock and Gunn both spoke during a telephone press conference sponsored by Abbott Laboratories, the maker of the epilepsy drug Depakote, which Gunn uses.

When Gunn was diagnosed with epilepsy, she was forced to quit swimming, her sport of choice at the time. She began treatment for her ailment, and then resumed playing athletics. At 13, playing hockey with her brother, Jacob, she discovered a passion for the game.

But there were bumps along the road to Torino. Gunn enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to play hockey. However, she neglected to comply with her schedule for medicine and her epilepsy flared. Gunn was let go from the team and returned home to Huntington Beach, Calif., after just three months at college.

"I was devastated. I loved the school and the staff," she said. "I was really frustrated. Would I be able to play hockey?"

Pellock said stopping medications is very common among young people with any illness during adolescence.

"Sooner or later, there's this feeling among kids, a little tempting of fate," he said. "They think, 'Maybe I don't have to do this.' And they go off their medications."

Doctors then must work with these patients to help them understand their condition and know that for epilepsy to be well controlled, they must take their medicines and take care of themselves, with healthy diets and plenty of rest.

Gunn said that, thanks "to great doctors who really knew me and understood me," she did just that, spending the winter and following spring getting her health back on track.

At the same time, she stayed in touch with hockey coaches from across the country, and in the fall of 2000 enrolled at Northeastern University in Boston. There, she played goalie, was named NCAA Sportswoman of the Year in 2004, and finished her career as the school's all-time leader in saves and save percentage.

Gunn, who's 5-feet, 7-inches tall and weighs 135 pounds, attributes her ability to play hockey at such a high level while managing her illness to diligence about taking her medicines and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, while keeping a slow, steady approach to life.

"I think that I never stopped moving forward. I take everything one step at a time," she said.

More information

To learn more, visit the Epilepsy Foundation.

SOURCES: Chanda Gunn, goalie, U.S. women's Olympic hockey team, Huntington Beach, Calif.; John M. Pellock, M.D., vice chairman, department of neurology, Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, Richmond
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