After years of uncontrollable epilepsy, patient now seizure free with help of USF Health doctors

Roni-Kay Lopez looks forward to celebrating her 10th anniversary of living without seizures or medication

Driving down a busy road, Roni-Kay Lopez knew she had to hurry and pull over.  Frightened, she couldn’t risk her life or the lives of others with what she knew was about to happen, so she drove through traffic to the side of the road. She then braced herself and suffered what she said felt like her millionth seizure.

After it passed and she started to regain her composure – she knew she couldn’t live like this anymore. The 29-year-old put her head on the steering wheel, exhausted. “They never took away my license, because I did feel them coming on and they were controllable.  But I wasn’t confident that would continue,” Lopez said.

Following that close call on the road, Lopez felt like enough was enough so she reached out to neurologist Selim Benbadis, MD, professor and director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at USF Health and Tampa General Hospital. She wanted to find out if she was a candidate for surgery. She went through a thorough evaluation and after several tests, she found out her epilepsy was confined to the left temporal lobe of her brain. A few months later, neurosurgeon Fernando Vale, MD, also with USF Health, performed a left temporal resection on Lopez, removing a small part of the left temporal lobe.

Six weeks later, she begged to go back to work and she’s been going nonstop since.

USF Health neurosurgeon Selim Benbadis, MD, with patient Roni-Kay Lopez, who started the non-profit foundation Seize the Day to benefit people suffering from epilepsy.  Benbadis threw out the first pitch last year at a Rays game, where the foundation hosted a gathering.

Lopez looks forward to celebrating a milestone anniversary this year.  On April 24th, she will be seizure and medication free for 10 years – the same day she went underwent surgery in 2008.

“If somebody would’ve told me as a kid, “You can do this, and you won’t have seizures.” I would’ve said, ‘yeah right, that’s not happening’. But, it’s happened and it’s been great,” Lopez beamed.

“This successful outcome with surgery is quite common with temporal lobe seizures, but unfortunately the delay before being evaluated for surgery is also very common,” Dr. Benbadis said of Lopez’s case.

Looking back, doctors told Lopez’s parents she would be lucky if she lived to be 16. Since infancy, she averaged almost 10 seizures a day. At times, her daily medications included up to eight tablets of Tegetrol (400 mg. each) and four Keppra (500 mg. each).

Lopez recalled a trip to the zoo with the Girl Scouts when she was 7 or 8 years old – she says she had 108 seizures that day. “It was really hot and humid and I guess the heat got to me,” she said. “My parents had to carry me around the zoo, because I refused to go home.”

Growing up with epilepsy was tough on her – many times she felt all alone.  “I got very tired. I would be doing something, have a seizure and lose all focus. I would try to get back to it, but many times I forgot what I was doing,” Lopez said. Besides seizures, another troublesome side effect included painful sores in her mouth.

Lopez, pictured here as a child, struggled with seizures for more than 20 years before her epilepsy evaluation and surgery by USF Health doctors.

In 2008, soon after the surgery, Lopez created Seize the Moment, a local non-profit foundation to help others who suffered from epilepsy. The foundation hosts many get-togethers, including outings at the Rays, Bucs and Lightning home games. “The Rays and the Lightning have been phenomenal in helping our foundation,” she said.

At a Rays game last year, Dr. Benbadis threw out the first pitch – a fitting tribute for someone who has helped so many.

In addition to hosting fun events for epilepsy patients and their families, the foundation also raises money with an annual bowl-a-thon and golf tournament. In February, Seize the Moment donated $10,000 to the Tampa General Foundation for funds raised in 2017.

To date, Seize the Moment has helped 12 patients and has provided aid to those with epilepsy, from ages 8 to 64.  “We want to put a smile on people’s faces — we are looking to make a difference,” Lopez said.  “In raising money, we aim to help with clinical research, patient care, medications and diagnostic testing.”

After going through so much the first 29 years of her life, Lopez needs only one word to describe how it feels to help her community, “Priceless!”

-Story by Michelle Young and videos by Freddie Coleman, USF Health Communications and Marketing.
-Photos courtesy of Roni-Kay Lopez