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Epilepsy can't stop U.S. Olympic goalie

By Peggy Peck
Managing Editor MedPageToday.com

Editor's note: CNN.com has a business partnership with MedPageToday.com, which provides custom health content. A medical profile from MedPage Today appears each Tuesday.

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Chanda Gunn, an epileptic, took up hockey after her seizures forced her to give up swimming and surfing.

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TORINO, Italy (MedPage Today) -- Chanda Gunn's goal was to be in the goal crease for the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team, and she was not about to let epilepsy shut her out.

And she didn't. Gunn, 25, is the starting goaltender for the hockey squad that is expected to make a run for Olympic gold beginning this weekend.

Gunn was 9 when her epilepsy was diagnosed.

"I was a swimmer," Gunn recalled. That meant early-morning and all-weekend-long workouts at the neighborhood swim club in Huntington Beach, California.

That came to a halt when her coaches and her parents noticed that she was having what she calls spells.

"I would just seem to go into a trance or would have muscle jerks," she said.

Tests and more tests

Her pediatrician immediately called in the neurologists.

"We went right from the pediatrician's office to the hospital," she said.

In the emergency room, her brain waves were measured using an electro-encephalogram, commonly known as an EEG. Then she was whisked off for blood tests and more brain scans.

At the end of the day, the neurologist announced that Chanda had juvenile absence epilepsy, a relatively common form of childhood epilepsy in which the child has only a few seizures a day. These seizures normally can be controlled with medications.

'I'll be good'

Gunn said she didn't really understand what was going on, but "my parents and all the people around me were very upset," she said.

Like most kids, Gunn didn't like getting blood tests, and she had been crying and whining throughout the long day of tests.

"When I saw that everyone was upset, I thought it was because I was crying," she recalled. "I told them 'I'll be good. I won't cry. It doesn't matter if I have to get lots of needles.' "

But the full impact of the diagnosis hit Gunn when the doctor and her parents told her she would not be able to swim anymore.

"When they took that away from me, then it really hit me," Gunn said. And that wasn't all that was taken away. "I loved to surf, and I couldn't surf anymore, either."

Finding a new passion

Gunn was treated with the seizure medicine Depakote (valproic acid), which she said got her seizures "under control pretty quickly."

So, almost immediately, she signed up for other activities.

Soccer was the first sport that interested her. But at just around the same time her brother Jacob started playing street hockey with the neighborhood kids.

In short order, Gunn became fascinated with street hockey, a game that loosely follows the rules of ice hockey but the players wear inline skates and compete on pavement.

"I loved it, and I wanted to play all the time," Gunn recalled. "So I started doing my homework during school recess and lunch hours so that I could be out playing with the gang as soon as school was over."

And right from the beginning, "goalie was my position."

Hitting the ice

For her 13th birthday Gunn asked her parents for goalie equipment.

"My birthday is in the middle of January, so the ice hockey season was already under way," she said. "But I was able to skate at the ice rink on Sundays and Mondays, when they had hockey clinics."

When the hockey season started in September she was able to play with her brother's teams -- he now was playing both ice hockey and street hockey -- and for her it has been ice hockey ever since.

But most of her early hockey experience was on boys teams, because at the time the only girls hockey teams were special tournament teams that would play on holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, she said.

Cracks in the ice

Gunn's road to the net at the rink in Torino hasn't been completely smooth skating.

In a "dream come true" scenario, the University of Wisconsin awarded her an athletic scholarship to play hockey in Madison. But early in her freshman season, Gunn suffered a series of uncontrolled grand mal seizures.

"I had to drop out of school and head back home for treatment," she said.

She spent the better part of a year undergoing tests, until neurologists finally decided that what she really needed was a higher dose of Depakote. Her seizures were again under control. But back at Wisconsin the program had moved on.

"I don't blame them," Gunn said. "I couldn't expect the team to wait for me."

Proving herself

So, Gunn headed to Northeastern University, in Boston, this time as a walk-on with no scholarship.

"I had to prove myself, because most coaches aren't really interested in goalies who have spent a year in the hospital for epilepsy," she said.

That first year she didn't get into a game.

"But by my sophomore year I started every single game, and I've played ever since," she said.

At the end of that sophomore season she made the women's national team. That was in 1998, and hockey players have to try out for the national team again every three months.

"I've never been cut since I made the team in 1998," she said.

Last year the national team upset Canada to win the world championship in a shoot-out. Gunn predicted that the U.S. will be facing Canada in the Olympics gold medal game.

Meanwhile, she said that the buildup to the Olympics has been wonderful.

"We've been to Finland and Sweden and to Torino on a pre-Olympic tour, she said. "The whole thing has been sort of surreal."

Teamwork

Even with the excitement, Gunn said her teammates continue to be supportive.

"They all know about epilepsy and try to help me," she said.

Flashing lights sometimes can trigger a seizure, which became an issue in the locker room during one of the final team practices before boarding the plane for Italy.

"One of the lights in the shower room was flickering, so everybody started yelling, 'Turn off the lights, Chanda's going to have a seizure.' "

The team also knows that Gunn can't drink alcohol, "And they are very careful to make sure no one gives me something with alcohol in it."

Between practice in the Olympic ice hockey rink and games, Olympians spend time cheering on other U.S. athletes. Gunn said she plans to be in the stands when the U.S. men's hockey team takes to the ice, but she also wants to see figure skater Michelle Kwan in competition.

When Gunn is on the ice, she'll have her own cheering section in the stands: her parents, her sister Amanda and her boyfriend, and her brother Jacob, "who plays center for UCLA and is, I think, the best collegiate hockey player today."

Asked whether her sister is also a hockey player, Gunn shook her head. "Amanda is the girl in the family. She studied dance and was a cheerleader."

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