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Karen Kurtz: Epilepsy

Karen wears a blue printed collared shirt that has butterfly details. Her hair is cropped short and is brown. She is smiling enthusiastically.

For years, people suffering from epilepsy depended on anti-seizure medications, with surgery considered a last resort. While many patients benefit from medications, about 30% do not, and they continue to suffer from debilitating seizures and a reduced quality of life. That’s changing with recent advances in epilepsy surgery that make it more precise and less invasive.

Today, many of these people can benefit from highly specialized brain surgery that incorporates robotic 3D brain mapping technology called ROSA™, which stands for Robotic Stereotactic Assistance.

"Life has been great since I had the surgery,” — Karen

Several years ago, physicians from the UPMC Epilepsy and Movement Disorders Program brought a procedure to Pittsburgh called stereo-electroencephalography, or SEEG, which is used to map where seizures originate.

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More recently, the ROSA device was introduced, which allows surgeons to more precisely place SEEG electrodes in half the time, for optimal brain mapping. Once surgeons place the electrodes, they monitor the brain’s electrical activity in 3D. ROSA helps determine precisely what area of the brain to target for stopping a patient’s seizures. In other words, it’s like GPS for the brain.

The Challenge: Seizures Interrupt Normal Life

The medical team at UPMC had already used ROSA for several patients when Karen Kurtz sought their expert opinion. Now in her 30s, Karen was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 17. She suffered from complex partial seizures, which begin in the area of the brain that affects awareness. The seizures often left Karen dazed and she appeared to be staring off into space. She also experienced involuntary movements called automatisms, which can include involuntary chewing, swallowing, or hand clapping.

Prior to visiting UPMC, Karen took a multitude of prescriptions. She tried to lead a normal life, but was never sure when her next seizure would strike.

“I was getting by okay,” she remembers. “I was still having seizures, and I could tell that the medication wasn’t going to help me forever.”

The Solution: Epilepsy Surgery and the ROSA™ Robotic System

Thankfully, surgeons at the UPMC Epilepsy and Movement Disorders Program were able to offer Karen the option of minimally invasive diagnostic testing using ROSA to locate the precise area of Karen’s brain that was causing her seizures.

The medical team performed the SEEG procedure using ROSA’s robotic arm as a guide to place tiny recording electrodes into Karen’s brain. The electrodes identified abnormal activity deep within her brain that revealed the exact area where her seizures started.

Using SEEG and the ROSA technology, the epilepsy team was able to pinpoint the area of seizure onset with very high precision. Karen’s seizure focus was close to brain areas important for language function, but the team used the SEEG and ROSA data again to create a plan for safe surgical treatment.

The Results: Seizure Free

One week after Karen’s first surgery, doctors removed the electrodes. Then, using a minimally invasive approach, they removed the part of Karen’s brain causing the seizures. After surgery, Karen was quickly discharged without any significant speech problems and returned to work only a month later. She has been seizure-free since the operation.

"Life has been great since I had the surgery,” she says. “I don’t have any real restrictions. And I’m able to do all of this because of my faith in God and having a great doctor."

Our patient stories profile a number of patients who have had minimally invasive brain surgery at UPMC. Although everyone's care experience is unique, we hope that sharing these stories will help other prospective patients and their families better understand these procedures and their potential benefits.

Karen’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.

Read More Movement Disorders and Epilepsy Stories