I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to Jerry Kill’s office on June 27 to interview him for a story about his epilepsy. I knew Kill had opened up about it at times, but I also knew it wasn’t his favorite subject. There I was, a new Gophers beat writer, coming off my first spring practice. We’d had some good conversations about football, but I wouldn’t have blamed him for holding back more on questions about his health.
Instead, he poured out his heart. The interview lasted one hour, and he did most of the talking, taking me through his journey with epilepsy. He talked about the low points, especially last fall’s Michigan State game, when he couldn’t make it back for the second half after suffering a seizure in the locker room. He mentioned how encouraged he’s been working with a new doctor, and how the bowl game against Texas Tech was the most important game he’d ever coached.
His wife, Rebecca, was another tremendous help in putting together this story, which is running on the front page of our Sunday editions. I also owe a great deal of thanks to Vicki Kopplin, the executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, Dr. Ilo Leppik, Kill’s new epielptologist, and Paul Rovnak, the Gophers associate director of athletic communications.
I’ve learned a lot about epilepsy over the past six weeks, and one thing that stands out is how difficult it is for most people to talk about. I spoke with Dr. Thomas Sutula, who chairs the Department of Neurology at the University of Wisconsin and is a past president of the American Epilepsy Society. He said he knows practicing doctors with epilepsy who won’t talk about it, because of the stigma that’s attached.
“It’s really a significant aspect of epilepsy, relative to other chronic disorders.” Sutula said. “It’s an age-old kind of problem. In other parts of the world, people who have this are put in the house and never see the light of day. And it’s cross-cultural.
“It’s remarkable how many people still have a hard time acknowledging that they have it, and how scary it remains for people that run into it with their co-workers.”
Epilepsy is a neurological condition that affects nearly 3 million Americans, yet it’s amazing how little the general public really knows about it. Sutula said he’s been working for 35 years, trying to do something about this. I told Sutula that Kill has begun to talk more openly about his condition in hopes of raising awareness.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “I think it does tremendous good for people that have it to spread the word in the public spotlight. They can say, ‘Hey, I’m living with this and I’m getting by and things are working.’”
At this point, even a Badgers fan, such as Sutula, is pulling for him.