A runner's resolve outdistances epilepsy

Epilepsy no match for Hingham runner's resolve

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kathleen McKenna
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2008

For many people, running a marathon is an odyssey of sorts. For Karen Donahue of Hingham, the 26.2-mile race that she's already completed four times, and will run again on Monday, represents an odyssey she egan 23 years ago.

She was a new student at St. Michael's College in Vermont, excited about racing on the school's ski team. But five days into the fall semester, she collapsed while walking on campus. She awoke in the hospital and was told she had epilepsy.

The neurological condition produces brief disturbances in the normal electrical functions of the brain, or seizures. More than 3 million Americans have some form of epilepsy, but more than half are able to control their seizures with medication.

Donahue, who had what's referred to as "uncontrolled" epilepsy, was not so fortunate. Doctors told her she could no longer ski, bike, swim, or drive a car. "When you have epilepsy, the first thing you lose is your independence," she said.

She returned to Vermont to finish the school year, but everything had changed. She had frequent seizures, and she missed skiing and other sports.

Her college experience, she says, "was more about survival."

At the end of the year, she moved home to upstate New York, but living with her parents made her feel "coddled" in a way she could not abide. So she moved to Boston, in part because city life was easier for someone who couldn't drive.

She found an apartment, graduated from Northeastern, and married Paul Donahue at age 26. While pregnancy and parenthood pose unique challenges for epileptics, they were determined to start a family. Daughter Justine was born in 1995.

Soon after, Donahue's seizures grew worse. She was terrified that she would collapse while holding the baby. Although she had hoped to have more children, she accepted that Justine would be her only one. Then, around the time that Justine turned 1, she learned that she was pregnant again. Justine got a brother, John.

Life as an epileptic mother wasn't easy. Donahue relied on her husband to buy groceries and pick up coffee. (She was afraid to keep a coffee machine in the house, lest she knock it over during a seizure.) She hired people to drive her and the kids to appointments.

And she worried constantly that her condition might put her children in danger. "I've never given either of my children a bath," she said.

It was against Donahue's nature to have so little control over her own life. Then the longtime athlete found a way to get some of that control back, by running.

"I ran because I needed a way to get out into the world," said Donahue, who sometimes ran with friends or neighbors. "I needed the fresh air. I needed the sense of community."

She recalled how Paul would strap the kids in the car and follow her on runs, in case she had a seizure. She often did, but she kept on running. And she kept hoping she'd find a way to rid herself of seizures forever.

When her son was nearly a year old, Donahue underwent risky brain surgery. The doctors were initially optimistic, but a week later, the seizures returned.

In 2003 Donahue, who'd always dreamed of running a marathon, decided to do something positive for others with epilepsy. She got a number in the Boston Marathon and raised $25,000 for Camp Wee-Kan-Tu, a weeklong sleepover camp in Duxbury for kids with epilepsy. She finished the marathon, without a seizure, and was hired as the camp's director.

Later that year, she decided to run the New York City Marathon "just for myself," she said. This time she did have a seizure; she collapsed about 400 yards from the finish line. Someone - she never learned who - took her hand and helped her cross the finish line. When she awoke in the medical tent, she learned that even with the seizure she had finished the race in 3 hours and 45 minutes, which qualified her for the Boston race.

That accomplishment, she said, made her feel like "a real runner, not just a runner with epilepsy."

In 2004, an MRI revealed a structural abnormality near the cerebral cortex of her brain. Removing it could cure her of seizures, doctors said, but there was a chance she'd be left with a severe speech impediment.

The following year she opted for surgery, and doctors were able to remove 95 percent of the abnormality. After a long recovery, including therapy to address various motor issues, she was healed. Since then she hasn't had a seizure.

Last year, Donahue ran her first "epilepsy-free" marathon in Boston, and finished in an impressive 3 hours and 27 minutes. The very next day, she got her driver's license.

She spent the summer driving her kids, now 13 and 11, "everywhere she'd ever wanted to take them." She said she especially relishes the little things, such as ferrying the kids to friends' houses and dentist appointments.

On Monday, she aims to finish the race in 3 hours and 20 minutes.

"I've become," she says, "a very firm believer in positive thinking."

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at

Karen Donahue of Hingham is now able to run free of seizures. Karen Donahue of Hingham is now able to run free of seizures. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

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