Minnesota Coach is Role Model for Employees with Epilepsy, UC Health Neurologist Says

David Ficker, MD, in the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at the UC Medical Center.
Photo by Cindy Starr / Mayfield Clinic.

After University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill suffered his fourth game-day seizure in two years, a handful of sports columnists called for his resignation, the university proclaimed its support, and Dr. David Ficker pounced on a teachable moment as eagerly as a lineman on a loose football.

“The pundits who called for Coach Kill to step down really fumbled this one,” says Dr. Ficker, Associate Director of the Epilepsy Center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute, one of four institutes of the UC College of Medicine and UC Health. “Coach Kill absolutely should continue to do his job as the Gophers’ head coach.”

Dr. Ficker acknowledges that he does not know the details of Coach Kill’s medical history or the frequency of his seizures away from public games. “But the likelihood of his having a seizure at a game is in fact small,” Dr. Ficker says. “In addition, he’s working in a safe environment. He’s coaching on the sidelines. He is not driving a truck, repairing a roof, or operating heavy machinery. He is not putting himself or anyone else at risk by performing his job. The sportswriters who were calling for his resignation because he couldn’t do his job were uninformed.”

The topic provides Dr. Ficker with a point of discussion for the Oct. 19 patient symposium, “Strategies for Managing Epilepsy: Ask the Experts,” a free event for patients and families at UC Health West Chester Hospital. Dr. Ficker is the symposium’s Program Director. Topics will include treatments, living well, coping with stress, and driving with epilepsy.

“Coach Kill’s situation is really closely linked with the topics that we will be talking about at our symposium,” Dr. Ficker says. “This gentleman is a very public individual, but these are the same types of work-related issues that we deal with in our patients every day.”

Dr. Ficker, an associate professor of neurology who is also a sports fan, was scrolling through his Twitter feed at the airport when he saw the news about Coach Kill, who suffered a seizure during halftime of Minnesota’s Sept. 14 game against Western Illinois. It was his fourth on the day of a game since his hiring as Minnesota’s head coach in 2011.

As the sports writers circled above, Minnesota’s athletic family circled the wagons. “Jerry is our coach, and we are 100 percent behind him,” Athletic director Norwood Teague told the Associated Press.

Addressing the impact that Coach Kill’s seizures might have on potential recruits, Mr. Teague said: “He’s an epileptic. Three million people have epilepsy throughout the country. It’s not his fault. The way he operates his program, the way the program runs, the level of distraction is just not there for me and the way that I see it.”

Dr. Ficker goes further, describing some of the stories and comments about Coach Kill as discriminatory.

He believes that Coach Kill, by continuing to coach with his epilepsy, sets an important example for others who face the uncertainty of seizures and the stigma that some people will inevitably impose.

“I think he is a great model for individuals with epilepsy who want to continue working, and who should try to continue working,” Dr. Ficker says. “One of the biggest lessons is that it doesn’t really matter what the public thinks: it’s what the individual thinks and his employer thinks. And I know that Coach Kill’s employer, the University of Minnesota, has been supportive of him in public statements.”

If you work with someone who has epilepsy, it is important to know what to do if a seizure occurs. The prime objective is to protect the person having the seizure by cushioning the head, moving any objects or furniture that might cause harm, and turning the person on his or her side.

News reports indicated that Coach Kill was taken to a hospital, where he had his blood levels checked following his seizure. Dr. Ficker notes that most patients do not need to be evaluated at a hospital following a seizure. Bystanders or loved ones should call 911 if a seizure lasts longer than five minutes, if the individual has more than one seizure without returning to normal, or if an injury occurs as a result of the seizure.

— Cindy Starr

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