When I walked into the small, sterile closet-like room I had a bad feeling it was going to be a rough hour-and-a-half. I was right.

The setup for an EEG (electroencephalogram) is never easy. It’s a painstaking process, uncomfortable, at times hurtful, irritating and perhaps even scary for a five-year-old kid who doesn’t understand what is happening to him.

The first order of business is to part Calvin’s hair into sections, rubber-banding it if his locks are too long, then precisely measuring distances on his scalp. Twenty-eight sites are marked with a grease pencil, abrasively if the technician doesn’t wet the tip to soften the hard waxy lead. This time the tech was a beefy woman who embodied the stereotypical image of a burly Swedish masseuse. For the purposes of this blog I’ll call her Helga. Helga came complete with a large bosom, an ample middle and a stern expression, thin hair pinched back tightly into a bun. Her thick ankles sunk into squishy white orthopedic shoes that wheezed under each heavy step. Helga strong-armed Calvin’s head with Popeye forearms, pulling him into her heaving breast to restrain him while she marked. He had no recourse but to comply with her will.

After Calvin’s scalp was marked with the red crosshairs, one by one Helga filled tiny copper cups—leads—with conducting paste. She set them carefully at each site, covered them with a small piece of square gauze, painted it with collodion adhesive and dried each with a frigid hissing stream of compressed air. Somewhere in the process, either in the gluing or the drying, ether was employed filling the dismal florescent room with a sickening odor. Helga wrestled with Calvin for over an hour as he whined and cried and struggled to break free from her grasp. Though the underdog, weighing in at just over thirty pounds, he was a formidable opponent and I found myself rooting for my boy at every round.

When all the leads were secured Helga bundled them together into a long ponytail and wrapped the rope of colored wires with a tube of stretchy, white netting. The finishing touch was crowning him with a large, white turban. Like a mummy, yards of gauze were wrapped snugly around his head to protect the leads from being yanked off. The cotton helmet came complete with chinstrap and holes cut out for his ears. Calvin looked like he’d been wounded in action or perhaps had just come out of neurosurgery. Regarding him made me sad and I wondered, dreadfully, if his little brain would ever have to go under the knife.

For the next three days Calvin remained in a hospital room fettered to the wall with a mere fifteen feet of leeway. His bed was positioned under a camera fixed in the middle of the ceiling for purposes of recording any seizure activity. I stayed by his side, made his special meals, fed him and slept with him. Calvin’s neurologist instructed me to push the red button on the recorder any time I saw suspicious behavior that could be construed as a seizure.

During this particular EEG no seizures were captured, which was both a relief and a frustration. Without that information it's impossible to determine where in Calvin’s brain his seizures might be originating and therefore whether or not he is a candidate for neurosurgery.

Though Calvin has been having fewer tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures of late, we have begun to see some behavior that resembles absence seizures (petit mal) though we can't be sure. As a result, Calvin will be facing yet another EEG in the coming weeks. I just hope that Helga is on a long holiday visiting her motherland.

Please share this story to help bring us one step closer to a cure for epilepsy.

photo by Michael Kolster


  1. It is sad that Calvin should have to suffer such indignities and discomfort from the people who are supposed to be helping him. There have to be better ways to perform the needed tests.

    Somehow I thought Calvin was older than 5.

    RR Julia

  2. dear julia,
    he is eight. this was just recounting a past event.