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Feature Story

For Karl MacPhee, an epilepsy diagnosis wasn't the end of the road, but an obstacle to overcome. In the process, he found out how to turn a healthier lifestyle into a way of life.

“Oh hold on.” Karl stop our phone interview momentarily. “We've got some
blood.” One of his five-year-old twin girls can be heard calling for “Daddy” in the background. She's bumped herself and Karl quickly attends to the small cut with a bandage. Now that Karl has his seizures well under control, these types of everyday issues are more the norm. In fact, Karl's life seems to be filled with the kind of blissful, domestic chaos typical of any parent of young children. Today, Karl has life 'figured out'. He's a husband, a father, not to mention a proud owner of apersonal training business, Ripple Effect Strength and Conditioning, which consequently allows him to be a stay-at-home dad during the day. He's also been seizure-free for over four years, for which he largely has himself to thank. After all, it's his self-discipline and dedication to a healthy lifestyle that have helped him manage his epilepsy. Karl's life may seem effortless these days. However, the battle to get here has been anything but. In 1996 at just 21 years of age, Karl was part of the Canadian Light Infantry on a peace-keeping mission in war-torn Bosnia.

He was living in the attic of what's called a “platoon house” along with 12 other soldiers, maintaining the sort of schedule even a superhero would find exhausting. They worked in three-days-on, one-day-off shifts, rotating through vehicle patrol, foot patrol, or gate duty. On days when they were on gate duty, they worked in 4-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.

Even on their 'days off', they'd still be cleaning, doing repairs, and practicing their skills. On top of the gruelling schedule, Karl and his platoon had just relocated their camp from the city of Bihać to Ćoralići. All of this left Karl exhausted, sick, and suffering from constant headaches. Karl's physical stress finally culminated one night in a tonic-clonic seizure that landed him in the local field hospital. Says, Karl, “I'm certain that the schedule I kept in the military sort of brought me to my trigger point.” When he awoke, he was given the devastating news that he'd suffered a seizure, and that he likely had epilepsy. One seizure is not necessarily grounds for a diagnosis of epilepsy. However, Karl's sister has suffered from the condition since childhood. Given that epilepsy was 'in the family', the odds were good that Karl was affected by it too.

The aftermath of diagnosis

When asked what he felt like after being diagnosed, Karl says, “I think anger and denial were the first emotions. I dropped a few F-bombs, that's for sure.” He also began thinking about all of the doors he thought epilepsy would close on him.“I knew that was it for me in the military, and I knew that it was going to cause some significant changes. So I started to think of all the things that I wasn't going to be able to do.” The next five years
were a dark period in Karl's life. He was angry. He struggled with accepting
his epilepsy. He treated himself poorly by keeping an erratic schedule and drinking
in excess, which consequently led him to have frequent seizures.
He also felt that he just couldn't open up to others for fear of being judged.

“It's not like there was nobody in my life I could talk to. But I just wasn't able to get to that point where I was able to accept it.” Then, serendipity stepped in, and Karl's life slowly began to steer in a new direction. For one thing, he met his future wife. In her, Karl finally felt like he had a confidante, someone he could talk to openly about his epilepsy without fear of being judged. Karl also found a silver lining to having epilepsy: “Because I wasn't allowed to drive, I started rollerblading, mountain biking and running to work. So I quickly became an endurance athlete just by default.” Karl eventually threw swimming into the mix, and before he knew it, he was competing along side his wife in local triathlons.

Upping the ante

To train for the triathlons, Karl would swim twice a week, bike twice a week, and run twice a week, with one day off. But eventually, he realized this was only making him good at swimming, biking and running. So, he decided to up the ante and do strength training as well. “I started lifting weights and learning Olympic-style weightlifting, and I switched most of my swimming, biking and running to strength and conditioning at the gym.”

Karl's change in training strategy paid off. In 2006, he qualified for the ITU Elite and Age Group Triathlon World Championship in Lausanne, Switzerland. The triathlon was Olympic distance:
a stamina-testing 1500 m swim, a 42 km bike ride, and a 10 km run. Karl ended up finishing 98th out of 140 in his age group, with a time of 2 hours 31 minutes — an astonishing
achievement for someone who was once concerned about all the things epilepsy
wouldn't allow him to do.

From regiment to regimen

Although it's been a few years since Karl has competed in a triathlon, Karl's self-discipline and love of an active lifestyle endure. In fact, along with adhering to treatment, it's these characteristics that have played an enormous role in his being seizure-free for over four years. Karl is adamant about getting enough rest. He's in bed by 10:00 every night, without fail. He also eats at set, regular intervals, doing his best to only consume what he calls “real food”, with the odd treat here and there.

But the realization of just how much lifestyle plays a role in epilepsy didn't happen overnight. Says Karl, “It's very difficult when you're struggling to overcome something like epilepsy. Things like diet and nutrition and lifestyle are the last things you want to think about, when actually they should be the first.”

Clearly, Karl's astonishing self-discipline stems largely from a desire to keep his epilepsy under control. But he also admits that, as a personal trainer, he feels he has a responsibility to “lead by example.” “If I'm asking somebody to do something, I should darn well be doing it myself as well.”.

The bigger picture of epilepsy

Epilepsy has undoubtedly caused a lot of turmoil in Karl's life. But despite its sometimes-traumatizing impact, Karl sees epilepsy as a gift: “Prior to me having epilepsy, I was — I wouldn't say selfish, but I thought about myself a lot. And since I've been living with epilepsy, I've learned not only to take care of myself, but to appreciate the fact that everybody has their own story. It's taught me to think before I judge,and to be more compassionate.”

As far as feeling oppressed by his condition, Karl says, “I'm not held down by my epilepsy anymore compared to how I used to be.” For this super-fit personal trainer/entrepreneur/former triathlete/stay-at-home dad, it certainly seems so.