Megan Strobel has had five serious seizures in the past year. One of the most frightening episodes happened last November. She was standing in a hospital lobby with her one-year-old daughter, who was fortunately sitting in a stroller, waiting for her mother-in-law to get coffee before a medical appointment.

“A nursing assistant saw me shaking,” says Strobel, who lost consciousness and has no recollection of the seizure. “She laid me on the ground and they called code blue.” The next thing she remembers is waking up to find doctors and nurses working furiously on her in the ER to find out what was wrong.

The Langley, B.C., teaching assistant is one of the nearly one in 100 Canadians affected by epilepsy, and she is well-acquainted with seizures, having been diagnosed at the age of nine. However, while she used to have what are called generalized absence (formerly known as petit mal) seizures, in which she stared into space and lost awareness for a short time, the tonic-clonic (formerly called grand mal) seizures she now experiences involve convulsing, losing consciousness, falling to the ground, jerking and twitching. She is on medication for the problem and is hopeful that she’ll soon be able to get her symptoms back in check.

If Strobel wasn’t in a hospital that day and you were standing next to her, would you have known what to do?

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a symptom of a neurological disorder in which nerve cell activity is disrupted, leading to seizures. According to Epilepsy Canada, just under 1% of the population has some form of the disorder, and though most people think of tonic-clonic seizures when they think of epilepsy, only 20% of people with epilepsy have that type of seizure. The rest have other types, including complex partial, simple partial, absence and unclassified.

However, as tonic-clonic seizures are the most serious — and can lead to serious injury — if you see someone having a seizure of any kind, take action.

What should you do when someone is having a seizure?

  1. Remain calm. “As in any medical emergency, a person helping someone having a seizure needs to stay calm,” says Elvira Balakshin, program and communications coordinator with the B.C. Epilepsy Society.

  2. Be gentle. Seizures almost always end naturally and last less than five minutes. “If the person is lying on the floor, protect their head by putting something soft or your hand underneath it. Move things out of their way and as soon as possible, gently roll the person onto their side — this helps keep their airway clear,” says Balakshin.

  3. Don’t put anything in the person’s mouth. This can lead to choking or tooth damage.

  4. Be very reassuring and comforting when the person regains consciousness after the seizure. “They often will be very confused because they will not remember where they are or what happened,” says Balakshin.

  5. Call for medical help. If you don’t know if the person has a history of seizures or if the individual has become injured during the seizure, get emergency medical help.

If you or someone in your family has epilepsy:

  • Make sure family, friends, teachers or coworkers know seizure first aid.
  • Wearing a medical identification bracelet or necklace will make others aware of the condition.
  • Avoid things that trigger seizures, don’t skip medication and get lots of sleep.