One man’s journey of redemption
Its finals week, you’ve studied and prepared as much as humanly possible. You’ve accepted failure for some classes and triumph in others. But, what if you were never given a study guide, never learned the material, never prepared? Chris Maxwell knows this scenario all too well; he was given a test for which he had never thought he would need to prepare for.
In March 1996, Chris Maxwell faced his test, head on, and without any warning. He began to faint and had a relentless sense of fatigue; this was uncharacteristic of Chris, he had was always been healthy. After days of this recurring problem, Chris and his family finally took action and went to the hospital. He was diagnosed with encephalitis, which is an onset inflammation of the brain. He couldn’t speak, eat, or remember anything. Chris couldn’t even remember the name of his three sons: Taylor, Aaron, and Graham. The doctors told Chris and his family that he would most likely live with brain damage and would never be able to communicate again. Unfortunately for Chris, he acquired the worst reaction and came out of the sickness with severe short-term memory loss and was diagnosed with epilepsy.
Encephalitis can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection with varying systems. In Chris’ case he had symptoms of fever, confusion, and fatigue. Chris had limbic encephalitis, which means the limbic system inside of his brain had become inflamed, causing him to pass out repeatedly. The limbic system is in charge of emotions and memory, which explains why Chris had memory loss after recovery. Depending on the treatment received encephalitis can become fatal, however Chris was given proper treatment and able to recover far better than his doctors ever thought he would. Chris may have recovered very well, but having to relearn everything was going to be a never ending hurdle.
After hearing the doctors predicted outcome, Chris and his family had gone into disbelief, this couldn’t be reality, how could he never speak again? At the time of diagnosis Chris had been a preacher in Orlando, Florida for 19 years; and now he would never be able to say the name of his wife, his sons, let alone preach the word of God to his congregation. It was Chris, the man that made everything right and helped those who needed healing. His congregation looked up to him, he never got sick, he was an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. “I felt shattered” he said, he’d lost everything he had worked for, everything he had become. He felt isolated and misunderstood, Chris couldn’t understand why “God had forsaken him”. He had to go to speech therapy to be taught how to learn, to write, to speak, to remember. It was his worst embarrassment, for here was a man that before could preach to his congregation for hours and remember anyone’s name right after meeting them and now had no basic thinking concepts.
“I can remember after my sickness my family and I would go to church; my sons would say the names of each person before they walked up to me and would repeat it twice, because I could not remember and I would forget as soon as they told me”, he said. However ashamed Chris had become of his new self he managed to turn his inferior thoughts into something productive. Slowly he began to start speaking again, to remember the names of each of his sons, to see the world as someone that is different. Before diagnosis Chris never completely grasped how difficult it was for someone that had a disability to go through everyday life and appear to society as normal. His biggest learning experience after having been diagnosed was learning how to accept himself for who he was and to stop comparing himself from the man he had once been to the man he is now.
Today, Chris travels around the world to speak about the prominence of epilepsy and that you are not alone if you have been diagnosed. It is his dream that the general public will be able to understand an epileptics situation and that they are not so different from everyone else. From churches to medical conventions, Chris preaches the importance of slowing down, of seizing the day. It is easy to rush through each day, just to get to the goal you have in sight. Whether that be graduating college, getting your first job, getting married, etc. Seizing everyday is a need for each person, even more so for epileptics, for they never know when they themselves are going to be seized.
In an interview post-sickness, Chris’ wife, Debbie, said “I have a second husband”. Chris pre-sickness could remember anything and everything. He provided advice and answers to those who were sick, but he never had to give himself advice. Now Chris didn’t even know how to do something as simple as eating, he had no recollection of what foods he liked or what foods he hated. It was comparable to being reborn again — he was a completely different man from the one Debbie had married. Chris had to accept this new man he was, he couldn’t change how he had become no matter how hard he tried, it just wasn’t possible. “I needed to change my life to where I would seize the situation instead of being the one that was seized.” Debbie wasn’t the only person widely effected by Chris’ diagnosis; Taylor, Aaron, and Graham all had to grow up with a new father — a man they had never known before. At the time of Chris’ diagnosis all of his sons were under the age of 10 years old, they had only grown up with pre-diagnosis Chris. They understood that man and knew what to expect of him everyday and now the new Chris they were supposed to call “Dad”, was completely different. Chris wasn’t the same father that he had been before he was diagnosed and he could never return to that same man no matter how much his sons might have wished he could.
“I want to seize the day”, Chris said in an interview for Epilepsy Advocate. He refuses to be defined by the label of epilepsy, by someone that has seizures and is different. At the University of Georgia (UGA), two students came to the same realization and way of thinking. Sean Corley and Taylor Bradish (both epileptic) with the help of their parents created the foundation for a new type of club, an epilepsy support group, Seize the Day. Today Sean and Taylor are juniors at UGA and have successfully made Seize the Day a reality for the past year and a half. Currently there are 15 members of Seize the Day, however it is not required to have epilepsy to be a part of the club.
Seize the Day was introduced to myself at freshmen orientation for UGA in August 2016. The club sparked my interest, because it is very common for epileptics to hide their disease, to keep it quiet. I know this first hand — seven years ago I was diagnosed with epilepsy. My seizures occurred during sleep so my brain wasn’t able to store information causing short term memory loss. Every night my mother would have to help me relearn all of the work I had been taught that day in school, because I could not remember how to do it. I cannot describe the frustration of looking at a math problem, knowing that I could solve it easily five hours ago, and now had no idea of where to even start. It took months to find the right dose of medication to control my seizures. While the epilepsy was transient and resolved after two and a half years on medication, it took over four years for my brain to rebuild the connections that had been lost and for me to be able to consistently remember information. Everything in my life was set back since the diagnosis; I couldn’t get my permit or license on time, I had to live in fear that every time I was around anyone I might have a seizure, I was falling behind in all of my classes, and I never had someone to speak to about how I felt about having been diagnosed.
Living through this experience taught me an invaluable lesson about the importance of perseverance and having a strong work ethic. The neurologist had told my parents that I might struggle to even graduate from high school, and now I am proud to say that I graduated in the top 10% of my high-school class and am able to attend the greatest university, UGA. I know now that with faith, hard work, and endurance, I can achieve any goal I pursue. Seize the Day preaches these values, the club hopes that epileptics will seize the day and will be able to open up about their issues. I’m grateful that Sean and Taylor were able to accomplish their goal of creating a group of people that are open about having epilepsy and how it has affected their lives. Ever since I met them, Sean and Taylor have spoke out about the prominence of epilepsy and that you are not alone if you have been diagnosed. Chris Maxwell has been preaching this methodology to every single person he can get into contact with since his fight with encephalitis. I’m proud to have met all of these wonderful people, to be a part of something so personal, and to hope that this is just the beginning of epilepsy awareness.
Today Chris Maxwell spends his time traveling across the world preaching and speaking about the prominence of epileptics and how they are not so different from everyone else. Chris has also written seven books since his recovery from encephalitis. Three books are part of a series he has created called Pause; Pause emphasizes the importance of living each day to the fullest. Chris is a living example to never give up; to make the best of your situation no matter the obstacles that are thrown in your way. Despite never being given a warning in the beginning it can be definitively seen that Chris is no longer unprepared.