UM Class of 2011: Epilepsy didn't stop woman from dreams of teaching

2011-05-10T21:45:00Z 2011-05-11T21:47:22Z UM Class of 2011: Epilepsy didn't stop woman from dreams of teachingBy CHELSI MOY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
May 10, 2011 9:45 pm  • 

Editor's note: Today, the Missoulian continues its weeklong tribute to the University of Montana's Class of 2011 with a visit to the school of education.

Obviously, the last thing Katelin Jarvie wants to do is traumatize children.

The 24-year-old aspires to teach, after all.

Yet, that was precisely the issue for some university administrators who were concerned about Jarvie, who is diagnosed with epilepsy, earning a degree in elementary education. They worried about children witnessing their teacher having a seizure.

Then there was the Missoula judge who told her that she might amount to nothing more than someone who folds laundry. And the high school teachers who downplayed her disability.

Today the Florence native is on the brink of graduating from the University of Montana with a degree in elementary education, and she has a message for those disbelievers.

"If anyone doubted me, I want them to see that I did it," she said. "I think we showed them all."

Epilepsy is easily misunderstood. Jarvie learned that quickly when she was diagnosed in high school at age 14. Epilepsy causes migraines, memory loss and seizures. It's challenging to retain information, and Jarvie is easily distracted.

She chooses not to drive and doesn't fully remember the high school trip to Greece or the vacation to Glacier National Park.

Her family makes scrapbooks for Jarvie, and she also keeps a journal.

There was never a question that Jarvie would go to college. She knew that if she wanted to become a teacher, she needed a college diploma.

It's important to note that Jarvie is an identical twin. And as fate would have it, Jarvie, her twin sister Tess, and their older sister Cassidee, all wanted to pursue elementary education.

So, the sisters made a pact: Tess or Cassidee would enroll in every one of Jarvie's classes. That way, they could take notes and Jarvie could listen to the lecture and better absorb what the professor was saying. They would sit in the front of the classroom so that Jarvie could concentrate, but off to the side in case she had a seizure and needed to be escorted into the hallway.

Not that anyone would notice. Jarvie's eyes flutter and she sometimes drools, but there have been times in college where no one even knew when she was having a seizure.

***

Introduction to psychology was Jarvie's Goliath. Her sisters spent hours quizzing her. It took her three times to slay the giant, which was a pre-requisite to apply to the school of education.

"I got past it," Jarvie said happily. "I did it. I got it."

Turning to Tess, she said, "I don't know if I had gotten through college without my right hand man, here."

Like most twin sisters, they are inseparable. And for the most part, they had a pretty normal college experience, cheering at football games, dancing at concerts and attending parties. Jarvie, they joke, was the "designated walker" at the end of the night. For the twins' 21st birthday, Jarvie's doctor signed off on a two-drink limit.

They laugh now at the time Jarvie went to buy a hot dog at a Griz football game and got lost, or the time her sister's boyfriend found Jarvie wandering aimlessly around campus. While it's funny now, it wasn't then. There were times when she was nervous to even walk across the Oval unescorted.

Jarvie struggled to find medications that didn't make her lose weight, lose sleep, become depressed and, worst of all, have more seizures. She had hospital visits in addition to term papers and final exams.

***

Jarvie's family fought five years to get her Social Security disability insurance in anticipation of the day when she would no longer be eligible under her parent's medical insurance. The dispute went to court and the government argued that because she attended college and had a long-term boyfriend that she was too "high-functioning" to qualify.

Yet, it was the remark the judge made about her amounting to nothing more than a laundry folder that stuck with Jarvie.

"I told myself that I was going to do what he said I was unable to do," she said.

And she has.

Jarvie spent the past several months student teaching in a Butte elementary school, and she explained epilepsy to the first graders as the same feeling you get when you get off the Tilt-A-Whirl at the fair.

Doctors installed a stimulator in Jarvie's chest to help with the frequency and severity of her seizures. It goes off every seven minutes for 14 seconds, which slightly alters the sound of Jarvie's voice, making for a sometimes rambunctious story time.

"They love when the stimulator goes off," she laughs. "They think it's the coolest thing."

Jarvie has never had a seizure in a classroom, but that will someday change. While the thought of that makes her slightly nervous, she will have a plan in place. Her class will be prepared, she said.

There have been teachers with epilepsy before her, and Jarvie hopes her story inspires another who comes after her.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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