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Reducing the stigma: Recognizing Epilepsy Awareness Month

Dr. Tiffany Townsend

PEI Neurologist Dr. Tiffany Townsend diagnoses someone with epilepsy at least once a month. She estimates about 25 per cent of her patients have some form of epilepsy. That percentage is high considering it is one of more than 600 neurological diseases and PEI is the smallest province in Canada. Despite the frequency of diagnoses, Dr. Townsend said epilepsy is still a condition that’s largely misunderstood and stigmatized.  

 “A large portion of society is affected by epilepsy but it’s not a very widely recognized disease in that it doesn’t get as much funding, attention or support as other illnesses,” Dr. Townsend said. “Often people with epilepsy express embarrassment and want to keep the illness private. The public has the impression that it’s always huge, debilitating seizures where the person is on the ground violently shaking, but it can be subtle and involve staring or going blank. An epilepsy diagnosis doesn’t have to mean the end of a person’s independence, and it’s definitely not something to be ashamed of. We need to increase awareness and break down the stigmas, so people feel more supported.” 

 Dr. Townsend was 12 years old when she decided she wanted to help people by becoming a doctor. A natural in sciences with a keen interest in how the brain works, the budding physician earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy alongside her Doctor of Medicine and quickly embraced a neurology residency while studying at McGill University. She had no intention of narrowing her scope further until a three-month rotation in pediatric neurology changed everything. A two-year-old patient presented with a devastating form of epilepsy that didn’t respond to treatment and ultimately claimed the young life. The tragedy had a profound impact on Dr. Townsend. Within the same period, a baby with a malformation in her brain was also diagnosed with epilepsy, but surgeons were able to save her life and make an immense difference in her epilepsy management. The experiences deeply affected the young doctor and cemented her career choice as a neurologist and epileptologist. 

 “It was the first time in my life I was angry at a disease. I decided then and there I would do whatever I could to help. To say I’m passionate about epilepsy is probably an understatement,” Dr. Townsend said. “I have seen what it can do to a person, and I’ve seen the difference successful treatment can have on a person’s life— that’s my motivation.” 

 After a prestigious epilepsy fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Dr. Townsend spent 10 years at the University of British Columbia as a neurologist-epileptologist, serving as co-director of the university’s epilepsy program and a clinical assistant professor. She also volunteered with the BC Epilepsy Society. In 2016, she moved to PEI and, along with other neurological work, has been helping Islanders manage their epilepsy ever since. 

 “The last estimation I saw was more than 300,000 Canadians are living with epilepsy and that’s a statistic I don’t think has been updated since 2014. Most likely, we’re talking about twice the population of PEI in terms of Canadians with epilepsy. Despite that, there’s a shortage of specialists in Canada,” Dr. Townsend said. “In terms of resources, there’s an Epilepsy Association of the Maritimes that has some great supports and is doing some fantastic work, but they have a lot of area to cover, and I’m sure they’d agree there’s a lot more that needs to be done in terms of advocacy and awareness across the country.” 

 March is Epilepsy Awareness Month and Dr. Townsend is speaking out to raise awareness amongst the public. She also wants to reach other medical professionals. She’s hoping family physicians will continue to closely monitor their epileptic patients and refer them to neurology if seizures become unmanageable or if it’s been a while since an assessment for new treatments was completed. 

“Epilepsy is highly treatable. Patients who once weren’t surgical candidates might be now because of advancements made. New medications have been introduced and more people are qualifying for deep brain stimulation therapy or surgery,” Dr. Townsend said. “In the past, if you had a patient with epilepsy or you were diagnosed with it, you just accepted that seizures would be part of life. There are many options now to improve quality of life. I’m here for consultations and referrals if needed. We can explore the options together. There’s so much more hope now than there used to be.” 


To learn more about epilepsy or how to help raise awareness or show support, visit: