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Ridgewater College student inspires state legislation on epilepsy

WILLMAR -- When Ruth Schmitz was a little girl, it fell to her to tell her teachers and classmates in Paynesville about her epilepsy. On the first hour of the first day of seventh grade, she had a seizure. When she knocked the books off her desk,...

Erica Dischino / TribuneRuth Schmitz wears a bracelet that reads “Epilepsy Warrior.” Purple is the official color for epilepsy awareness.
Erica Dischino / Tribune Ruth Schmitz wears a bracelet that reads “Epilepsy Warrior.” Purple is the official color for epilepsy awareness.

WILLMAR - When Ruth Schmitz was a little girl, it fell to her to tell her teachers and classmates in Paynesville about her epilepsy.

On the first hour of the first day of seventh grade, she had a seizure. When she knocked the books off her desk, the teacher thought she was misbehaving. Kids who knew her told the teacher what was happening, but he was unprepared.

Throughout her school days, Schmitz had to explain epilepsy. She now acts as an advocate for others with epilepsy and volunteers at a summer camp for children with epilepsy.

Now a 38-year-old Ridgewater College student in Willmar, Schmitz wants to spare other Minnesota kids the burden of teaching their teachers.

What started as a college English class assignment has grown into proposed legislation to encourage development of seizure smart schools across the state.

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The paper was a proposal for educating people in schools, colleges and universities about how to recognize and respond to seizures. An hour-long training could help reduce bullying and help put to rest the many myths about epilepsy, Schmitz wrote.

Seizure Smart Schools is a program of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, inspired by former University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill.

After she completed her assignment, Schmitz sent her proposal to 16 lawmakers and others around the state.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, contacted her about the proposal, and so did state Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia. She also heard from legislators representing other areas of the state.

Baker has worked with the foundation to author HF 1422, introduced Thursday.

Schools would be required to provide study materials for school personnel on seizure disorders and symptoms. The bill does not require training but encourages it, Baker said.

The law would also require schools to designate an employee trained in seizure medications and in recognizing and responding to seizures.

Schmitz's story inspired him, Baker said, and he hopes she can tell it to legislative committees.

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"Ruth does have a compelling story, and we hear that so often from adults looking back on their childhood," said Heather Besonen, human resources and advocacy director for the Epilepsy Foundation. "She's been instrumental in helping us move forward."

Baker hopes the training can help kids with epilepsy by helping their classmates understand it. "I want to be so protective of anybody who's made fun of and bullied," he said.

Wednesday is Epilepsy Foundation Advocacy Day at the Capitol. Besonen said 100 people representing the foundation, including Schmitz, will be at the Capitol with appointments to meet with their legislators.

Baker and the foundation have invited all senators and representatives to a breakfast and training session Wednesday morning. Besonen said one of the foundation's trainers will lead the session.

Baker praised Schmitz and her initiative in sending her proposal to legislators. "She's the kind of person that inspires lawmakers like me to do things like this," he said. "That is what I love about my job."

Schmitz is happy to see her proposal moving in the Legislature because of the good it could do. "There is a stigma that goes with epilepsy," she said. "I hope this will help ease the stigma." More people with the training should help communities, too, she said.

Annual fundraising walks by the foundation would help pay for the cost of the training, so there would be no cost to the schools, Schmitz said.

Schmitz has had epilepsy since birth, when her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck.

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She had seizures until she was 21, when a hospital stay helped her and doctors find triggers for her seizures and a medication that would work for her. She has been free of seizures for longer than 16 years. After two years without seizures, she was able to get a driver's license.

For Schmitz, "I decided if it takes me sharing my story to make things happen, I'm willing to do that."

Schmitz offered some basic directions for helping someone having a seizure:

• Stay calm.

• Time it, that's key, anything over 5 minutes, you have to call 911, because then it's considered status epileptic.

• Find out if there's a rescue medication you need to administer.

• Keep them safe.

• Let them know when they wake up out of the seizure that they're OK and you're there, that everything's going to be OK, and they're not alone.

More detailed information about epilepsy, including training materials and information about responding to seizures, is available at epilepsyfoundationmn.org

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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