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Finding Purpose in the Midst of Medical Challenges

How an epilepsy diagnosis influences Skyler Russell’s educational journey at BYU.

Sometimes, the most profound challenges become the most important catalysts for change and growth. Epilepsy permanently altered the trajectory of Skyler Russell’s (English ’24) college experience, but the adversity she faces has motivated her newfound passion for disability advocacy and humanities-focused medical research.

As a child, Russell experienced brief periods of “blanking out” and bouts of muscle spasms, but at the time, she didn’t know that those occurrences were small-scale seizures. She experienced her first tonic-clonic seizure—the most well-known type of seizure, characterized by unconsciousness and convulsions—in January of 2022, which led to an ER visit. When the tonic-clonic seizures kept coming, she eventually received an epilepsy diagnosis.

Skyler Russell stands with four other lab members at the Park City Epilepsy Meeting.
Skyler Russell (right) and other lab members at the Park City Epilepsy Meeting.
Photo by Skyler Russell

Exhaustion, physical soreness, and medication-induced cognitive impairment accompanied the difficult diagnosis. Trying to balance the demands of higher education with chronic illness, Russell struggled to keep up with her classes and maintain a hopeful outlook. Then, in November of 2022, she endured a medical emergency called status epilepticus, which qualifies as five or more consecutive minutes of seizure activity. In Russell’s case, the seizure lasted about two hours.

Since status epilepticus can be fatal, Russell considers the event a turning point in her journey. She says, “That experience really opened my eyes and helped orient me . . . I understand that there's a distinction between life and death. I've seen and come close to it. And I really need to not let opportunities fall to the side.”

Emboldened by a fresh regard for life, Russell found her footing at BYU. Using skills from both her English major and biology classes that she took earlier in college, she currently works in an epilepsy research lab on campus under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Ryley Parrish from the College of Life Sciences. In the lab, she and other researchers work to develop new models for studying status epilepticus. The data gathered from the Parrish lab will hopefully aid in the understanding of how different regions of the brain are affected during status epilepticus, as well as how medical professionals can better treat the life-threatening condition.

Russell values the union of science and the humanities. She notes that the humanities help build a sense of empathy that bridges the gap between research and the application of that research, focusing on the impact science has on real people like herself. Russell has aspirations to build a future career in disability advocacy, saying, “I hadn't really ever thought about disabled students or the struggles they would have in pursuing an education until I became disabled with my epilepsy.” She intends to use her English degree and writing skills to spread awareness, and she hopes that her advocacy can help open people’s eyes and fund more research about conditions like hers.

Through her own efforts, and with inspiration from various classes and professors on campus, Russell developed a sense of purpose and resolved to utilize her talents to serve others in a field that is personally meaningful to her. Today, she continues to undergo treatment for her epilepsy, and despite facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge, she focuses on the silver linings in her situation. Russell says, “I can't imagine a better, more reactive university than BYU . . . the level of care that staff, administration, and my fellow peers have is just incredible. And I'm very, very grateful for all of them.”

November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month.

Learn more about epilepsy research conducted in the Parrish lab on campus.