• Neurology Patient Stories

    ‘Nothing Short of a Miracle’

Read time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

DennisSchmittWebWhen he was 26 years old, Dennis Schmitt had his first seizure.

“At first, they’d happen every six months or so,” says Dennis, of Liberal, Kansas. “Then, they got a little closer each time.” Doctors had no idea why.

“Dennis was healthy,” says his wife, Pat. “He’d been a strong athlete in high school.”

Over the years, the seizures kept coming. Medication didn’t seem to help. Eventually, Dennis was having three or four seizures a week.

“He had all kinds of seizures -- grand mal, petit mal, seizures where he’d just stare and not know what was going on,” says Pat. “The seizures happened with no warning. He could be in the middle of a sentence or walking to the car. Our sons were 1 and 3 when this started happening. It was very difficult, and very stressful. Dennis’ seizures were ongoing for 31 years.”

In 2006, a new neurologist who was caring for Dennis suggested the couple seek another opinion.

“He told us he just could not figure out why Dennis was having seizures,” says Pat. “He suggested we see a neurologist in Wichita. We asked about going to Mayo Clinic, instead, and the doctor’s face lit up.” 

And so, his new neurologist referred Dennis to Mayo, where doctors used a video electroencephalogram, or EEG, to pinpoint the cause and location of seizures.

After reviewing his test results, neurologist Jeffrey Britton, M.D., found what he believed was causing Dennis’ seizures: a small piece of metal lodged in his skull, the remnant of a childhood accident.

“When I was 10, I was watching my brother reload shells in a shotgun, and an ejector clip from the gun hit me in the head and went into my skull,” says Dennis. His parents were given two options for treating the injury: Let surgeons try to remove the metal, or let the wound heal and hope that tissue would grow around it. After being told surgery had a 95 percent mortality rate, Dennis’ parents took him home and hoped for the best.

For many years, the accident seemed like a part of the past. During the three decades that Dennis had seizures, no other doctor thought the accident could be the cause.

But after seeing the fragment on the scan, Dr. Britton did, and recommended Dennis have surgery to remove the metal still lodged in his skull. While Dr. Britton was optimistic that surgery would be a success, he told the couple that it was not without risks. Because the clip was located near the part of the brain responsible for speech and memory, he noted that Dennis could have trouble with both afterward. There was even a chance Dennis might not recognize his family after surgery.

“I tell everybody I know to go to Mayo Clinic. What they did for us is nothing short of a miracle.”

“To think he might wake up and not know who we were was frightening,” says Pat. But after discussing the benefits and the risks, the couple decided that Dennis would have surgery.

“My seizures were getting worse,” says Dennis. “Even if things didn’t go well with surgery, I didn’t think we would lose that much, because before too long I was going to be lost anyway.”

On Dec. 20, 2006, Richard Marsh, M.D., a Mayo neurosurgeon, removed the clip, which had shrunk to half its original size. While the procedure virtually eliminated Dennis’ seizures, there were some side effects.

“After surgery Dr. Britton held out his tie and asked Dennis to tell him what it was, and he couldn’t do it,” says Pat. “He lost the ability to identify objects.”

The couple grieved the loss, but they were determined to do everything they could to reverse it.

“I picked up objects throughout our home and would teach him the names for all of them,” says Pat. She used pictures to teach Dennis the names of things outside of their home, like animals. “I worked with Dennis three times a day for six months to help him relearn the names for things.”

When the Schmitts returned to Mayo for a follow-up appointment, Pat says Dr. Britton couldn’t believe the progress. Now, she likes to joke that she “taught Dennis everything he knows.”

Today, Dennis is enjoying a life he couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago.

“I can relax now,” says Dennis. “I still have seizures once every great while, but I can do things. I can enjoy the world. I feel more joy and happiness now. I feel wonderful.”

He and Pat give much of the credit for that to Mayo Clinic.

“The people who work there are there for a purpose,” says Dennis. “Everyone you meet is concerned and wants you go get over your difficulties and get well again. The janitorial staff were so quiet when they cleaned my room, I sometimes wouldn’t even realize they’d been there. The people who drew my blood could do it without waking me up at night. The folks know how to do their jobs, and they have a very deep desire to do their jobs well.”

Pat, too, is grateful for the care Dennis received.

“We are so grateful to Dr. Britton and Dr. Marsh for their help with Dennis,” says Pat. “Their diagnosis and surgery have given Dennis a normal life to live, which is relaxing and a blessing for Dennis and me and our sons, Bryan and Mark. Every year we see Dr Britton for Dennis' yearly checkups, and he is still as interested in Dennis' health as he was the first time we saw him. I tell everybody I know to go to Mayo Clinic. What they did for us is nothing short of a miracle.”